Addie Loerzel’s first trip with her power wheelchair did not go as planned. When she arrived in Portland, Maine, her chair was broken and would not turn on.
Loerzel, 17, has spina bifida and received her first power wheelchair about six months ago. She was traveling from her home in Moorhead, Minnesota, to Portland to participate in a pageant, which is why she and her mother, Marisa Bengston-Loerzel, said taking the chair was a necessity.
“I was shocked, you know? What happened?” Loerzel said.
Bengston-Loerzel added that when the pair arrived in Portland, a Delta Air Lines representative approached them at baggage claim to let them know about the damage.
“My initial shock was the cosmetic damage,” Bengston-Loerzel said. “It was a very emotional, overwhelming thing to see.”
But the damage was more than just cosmetic.
Bengston-Loerzel said the panel underneath the chair with the power switch was seemingly sheared off, the frame appeared bent and other pieces were out of place. She said, fortunately, a friendly fellow passenger with a background in electrical engineering helped her do some impromptu repairs.
“This guy helped me to pull and bend some pieces and get it to where she could function in the chair,” Loerzel said. “Luckily, this one kept going while we were (in Portland).”
Delta and the company it contracts with for wheelchair repair, Scootaround, were unable to find a loaner for Loerzel during her trip, and she’s still using her broken chair.
“It’s still going,” Loerzel said.
Delta acknowledged the incident in a statement to USA TODAY.
“Delta has been in direct contact with this customer to sincerely apologize for their experience and is working with the customer’s preferred vendor for repairs to help make things right. We consider a wheelchair an extension of a person and understand that any mishandling of a mobility device directly impacts their daily living,” the statement said.
Bengston-Loerzel said the wheelchair was further damaged on the return trip, including more scratches and bent parts. She added that there’s still no official timeline for the repairs to be carried out, and Loerzel said she’s worried about traveling again with a broken chair.
“I do want to fly again, just not with this chair,” she said.
Bengston-Loerzel said Delta approved a claim to replace Loerzel’s wheelchair, and she expects it to be delivered in a month or two.
Both women said they hope airlines can do better for their disabled passengers.
Maybe they could have a list … for how to take them up into the plane and secure them down into the plane,” Loerzel said. “Some wheelchairs, they have hooks and they could just hook it in, and that’s how they keep it safe.”
A similar system is already used on other forms of public transit and Delta Flight Products demonstrated a concept for in-cabin wheelchair securement at the Aircraft Cabin Interiors Expo in Hamburg this spring.
In the meantime, Bengston-Loerzel said, wheelchairs and other mobility devices should get extra attention during loading and unloading.
“The captain or the loadmaster or whoever it is needs to double check a power chair is secure under the airplane,” she said.
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How common is mobility equipment damage in air travel?
According to the Department of Transportation, airlines “mishandle” on average about 1.5% of the mobility equipment they transport. In 2022, that translated to 11,389 incidents reported by U.S. airlines, up from 7,239 in 2021.
This year, USA TODAY wants to highlight what those figures mean for travelers with disabilities. We’re looking to track these incidents throughout 2023 with the goal of bringing light to an all-too-common problem.
If your own mobility equipment was damaged or lost by an airline this year, please share your story with us using the form below:
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org