WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was rolling up the airport ramp in her wheelchair after arriving in Chicago. She made it just a few feet, and then the chair collapsed underneath her.

Sometime between boarding the plane in Washington and leaving the aircraft hours later, the airline staff had managed to snap a 1-inch titanium rod on her customized wheelchair clean in half.

Then things got worse.

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“They kind of lugged me up the ramp and I sat in the waiting room area,” said Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Eventually, someone brought her a large, ungainly airport wheelchair that required someone else to push it.

All that happened in 2015. The next year, Duckworth was elected to the U.S. Senate.

She found that no one had any idea how often these wheelchair problems happened. So last fall, she got a law passed requiring airlines to report to the Department of Transportation how many wheelchairs or motorized scooters they lose, mishandle or break. The reporting began last month, and disability advocates expect the reports to reveal a huge problem.

But Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a lobbying group, said airlines “provide safe and comfortable air transportation to hundreds of passengers with disabilities daily” and are “committed to offering a high level of customer service.”

Airlines and disability groups are working together to “reduce the number of wheelchairs damaged in air travel” by examining airlines’ handling and storage guidelines, training staff to handle wheelchairs and encouraging manufacturers to build wheelchairs suitable for airplane travel, McAfee said.

Meetings between those coalitions, which are facilitated by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, are ongoing.

Airline personnel have damaged Duckworth’s wheelchairs three times since 2013, including last month, when they jammed the wheel of her $5,000 chair.

The senator travels with a congressional staffer who knows what to do in such situations. But when airlines break the average traveler’s wheelchair — a problem that Duckworth and other disability advocates contend happens far too often — they’re stuck.

“You sit there, and you are now immobilized,” Duckworth said. “They’ve basically taken away your legs.”

The mishandled-wheelchair numbers, broken down by airline, will be publicly available online as part of the Transportation Department’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports. Proponents say the increased transparency will give consumers another measure to compare airlines, the same way flyers can view the number of flight delays or consumer complaints.

The numbers will “show how pervasive this problem is,” said Stanley Brown, a quadriplegic Army veteran who was paralyzed in a car accident while on duty in 1996.

Brown, president of the St. Louis chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said he has had four or five frustrating experiences where airline personnel damaged his wheelchair or failed to strap him into a chair used to transport to the plane seat, causing him to fall onto the tarmac. At one point, he was forced to duct-tape his wheelchair together while waiting a week for a replacement.

Brown said many people with disabilities will drive for days to get to their destinations because they refuse to fly. Others have been bedridden for days after being hurt by rough handling or uncomfortable airport wheelchairs, he said. McAfee declined to comment on those problems.

In 2016, the Obama administration ruled that airlines had to start reporting statistics by Jan. 1, 2018. But in 2017, the Trump administration agreed to lobbyists’ requests for a delay, which lasted until Duckworth’s provision took effect last month.

Delta Air Lines and Airlines for America asked for the delay because the airline industry was “facing challenges with parts of this regulation and needs more time to implement it,” according to the Transportation Department. McAfee said airlines used the extra time “to resolve several technical challenges,” but would not say specifically what they were.

Duckworth has a different interpretation for the requested delay.

“They don’t want people to know how bad they are,” she said. She hopes the new law will incentivize airlines to avoid damaging wheelchairs and better train staff on how to handle them, because “consumers will vote with their dollars.”

Duckworth also expressed some cautious optimism based on her conversations with Suzanne Boda, a senior vice president at American Airlines.

“She has said she’s committed to making sure that they set the whole (disability) training program, not just for their employees but for their contractors as well,” Duckworth said.

Boda said American has begun emphasizing better training and “very high-standard audits” over the last few months to ensure the company is meeting the expectations of customers with disabilities.

“Hopefully, we just continue to get better in this area,” Boda said. “Our goal is to ensure equality for all customers.”

© 2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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