Airline Damaged Wheelchairs — It’s Now a Life or Death Situation

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Ask any wheelchair-user about the problems with accessible travel, and most likely the issue of the airlines damaging or losing wheelchairs will come up. I’ve been covering accessible travel for over 25 years and writing about lost and damaged wheelchairs for at least that long. It’s a huge issue.

Unfortunately now the subject has taken on a deadly twist. A woman has lost her life because United Airlines nearly destroyed her customized power wheelchair.

It all started last July when Engracia Figueroa was returning to Los Angeles from Washington DC. Ironically Figueroa was a disability rights advocate who was coming back from an event where she spoke about the importance of raising wages for home-care workers, so people could receive quality in-home care. That’s also a huge issue in the disability community.

In any case, Figueroa’s flight home was uneventful, but when she arrived at LAX she had to sit in an airport wheelchair for five hours, only to find out out that her own wheelchair had been destroyed by the airlines. Now you folks unfamiliar with the need for customized wheelchair seating will probably say, “So what’s the big deal — I’ve had to wait for lost luggage at an airport before too.”

First off, a wheelchair is far more than just cargo — it’s an extension of the wheelchair-users body. Figueroa, who had a spinal cord injury and was a left leg amputee required customized seating to avoid getting a pressure sore. And that dilapidated airport wheelchair lacked that seating and the upper torso support that she required.

Figueroa had to be hospitalized because of the pressure sore she developed as a result of sitting in that airport wheelchair for an extended period of time. That’s why the Air Carrier Access Act mandates that airlines must provide for the “timely return” of passengers’ wheelchairs after they disembark. And I don’t know about you but I don’t consider 5 hours timely.

But Figueroa’s troubles weren’t over. Instead of replacing her $30,000 wheelchair United wanted to repair it. This was unacceptable as the chair was badly damaged and most likely would never operate reliably if it was just repaired.

It was a long fight, but United eventually agreed to replace the chair. Unfortunately this fight took several months, and since Figueroa didn’t have the customized seating she required during this time, her conditioned worsened. Her pressure sore became infected and surgeons had to remove part of her hip bone. Unfortunately the infection couldn’t be stopped.

Engracia Figueroa died on October 31, 2021. And her death was the direct result of United’s negligence.

Of course this story is about one woman, but the problem is much deeper than that. It’s not just United that damages wheelchairs — all the airlines do it.

This really has to stop. We have regulations, but until those regulations have some stiff monetary penalties for EVERY damaged wheelchair, the airlines will continue with business as usual.

And that can be deadly to wheelchair-users. Just ask Engracia Figueroa’s family.

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