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Airlines damage or lose an average of 26 wheelchairs a day, report finds

Airlines damage or lose an average of 26 wheelchairs a day, report finds
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, pushed for legislation to require airlines to report mishandled wheelchairs. She said airlines lost two of her wheelchairs and lost parts for other chairs. (Al Drago / Getty Images)

The largest U.S. airlines damaged or lost a daily average of 26 wheelchairs and scooters used by disabled passengers in December, according to a report championed by a lawmaker who lost both legs while serving in Iraq.

From Dec. 4 to Dec. 31, the 12 largest carriers damaged or lost 701 passengers’ wheelchairs and scooters, according to the first report of its kind from the U.S. Transportation Department.

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U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who sustained massive injuries in a Blackhawk helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2004, wrote language into last year’s Federal Aviation Administration funding bill requiring airlines to report the wheelchair information.

The report issued this month by the agency represents the first month that airlines were required to report the information.

Duckworth said she was inspired to write the requirement after airlines broke two of her wheelchairs and lost numerous parts for other wheelchairs.

“I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience — it's a complete loss of mobility and independence. It was the equivalent of taking my legs away from me again,” she said in a statement. “No air traveler should be left in the lurch, immobile on a plane.”

A law that requires airlines to report lost or damaged wheelchairs was first proposed by the Obama administration but was put on hold by the Trump administration in 2017, as part of a larger effort to reduce government regulations.

The report said that the 12 largest airlines handled more than 32,000 wheelchairs and scooters in the 27-day period and lost or damaged 701 of them — or more than 2%.

Envoy Air, a regional carrier for American Airlines, had the highest rate of lost or damaged wheelchairs — 14.7% — followed by American Airlines with 7.2%, according to the report.

“We’ve taken a number of steps to meet the new reporting requirements and continue to improve our processes to ensure our team members have the tools they need to properly handle and track wheelchairs and assistive devices,” said American Airlines spokesman Curtis Blessing, adding that the carrier is still working to perfect its system for counting wheelchairs.

The airlines are not required to report the total number of bags they carry on a monthly basis, so it’s difficult to compare the rate of lost or damaged wheelchairs to the rate of lost or damaged luggage.

Instead, the largest airlines are required by federal law to report the total number of bags reported lost or damaged per 1,000 passengers. In 2018, the airlines reported a rate of 2.8 lost or damaged bags per 1,000 passengers, according to the Transportation Department.

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