Kim Harrison is fed up with airlines damaging her wheelchair.
“It’s gotten to the point now when I just don’t want to travel,” she told USA TODAY. “It’s very discouraging.”
She was traveling on Southwest Airlines from her home in St. Augustine, Florida, to Washington, D.C., for the United Spinal Association’s Roll on Capitol Hill advocacy event in June. Harrison said when she and her husband were changing planes in Atlanta, he captured a video of her chair being handled roughly as it was being loaded onto the second flight.
Harrison, 64, has Transverse Myelitis and said when she arrived at Dulles International Airport, the frame of her manual wheelchair was bent. But that was just the beginning of her saga.
“The flight attendant – when we’re looking at the chair when we landed – she said, ‘well it’s to be expected,’ and I’m looking at her like, ‘you’re part of the problem.’ ” she said. “The airlines are more worried about on time arrivals and departures than they are about the equipment. They figure insurance will pay for that but they have to get out of those gates on time.”
In Washington, a customer service agent filled out the wrong form to document Harrison’s wheelchair damage – the damaged luggage form, rather than the one for durable medical equipment. As a result, Harrison said, Southwest only offered her a $100 voucher and quickly closed the case.
“It’s not a suitcase, it’s how I get to work, it’s how I go to the store, it’s how I get around in my house, it’s how I function in public,” she said. “A $100 voucher, what’s that going to do for me when I dread flying?”
On the return trip, Harrison said she explained the situation to another Southwest agent what had happened. The agent realized what was wrong, filled out the correct form and reopened the case.
Southwest Airlines said it is working with Harrison on resolving the damage in a statement to USA TODAY.
“Our teams have been in touch with the customer to assist them with their individual situation,” the airline said.
Harrison acknowledged that she’s been in touch with Southwest’s contractors to get her wheelchair replaced, but she’s frustrated by what she sees as the airline’s lack of empathy.
“It’s not a sincere response when it’s a copy and paste, ‘sorry about your chair, sorry about your chair.’ You’ll see that response repeatedly when airlines are called out for this type of damage,” she said. “They just continue to damage them.”
While Harrison said her chair is still useable, she quickly noted that it’s not working as well as it should, and although a technician has come to evaluate the damage, she expects it to take months before her equipment is replaced.
“If I push more than two or three times the wheels start wobbling,” she said. “It’s like you want to run and all you can do is walk fast.”
Harrison added that this is the third time since 2019 that an airline has had to replace her wheelchair, and she’s just getting more and more hesitant to fly with each incident.
“My big brother is also a wheelchair user but he has a power chair and he won’t come to visit us…He knows if he flies and they damage his chair he has no way to get around at all,” she said. “It’s sad that we can’t see each other because we’re both in wheelchairs.”
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