People with disabilities praise new US airline reporting rules on lost, damaged wheelchairs

Maria McClellan depends on her dog, Shadow, and a custom-built motorized wheelchair.
Maria McClellan depends on her dog, Shadow, and a custom-built motorized wheelchair.(Hawaii News Now)
Published: Jun. 9, 2021 at 5:09 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 5:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The country’s largest airlines have lost or damaged more than 15,000 wheelchairs or scooters since the end of 2018.

That’s when companies were required to start reporting the numbers ― and those with disabilities say access to the new information is a major milestone.

US Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee from Hawaii who represents Illinois, pushed to make the information available to the public.

And one Honolulu resident whose wheelchair was damaged on a flight calls the new transparency a good thing for people with disabilities.

Maria McClellan, 30, of Honolulu was born with dwarfism and a spinal condition. She depends on her dog and a custom wheelchair with a lift.

“It’s an extension of my legs, my arms, my body,” said McClellan.

In 2018, McClellan flew from Honolulu to Kahului on Hawaiian Airlines and that’s when she says her motorized wheelchair was damaged in cargo.

“I don’t think they were able to properly tie it down and during the flight it tumbled,” she said.

Back then, Hawaiian issued an apology, refunded her tickets, offered travel credits and put the family in touch with a repair vendor.

“To this day, I still have parts that I’m trying to realign from that damage,” she said.

According to the Air Travel Consumer Report in 2019, of the airlines that service Hawaii, Alaska Airlines had the lowest percentage of mishandled wheelchairs at .8%.

American Airlines had the highest percentage at 2.7%. Hawaiian Airlines had 1.6%.

In 2020, the numbers of mishandled wheelchairs plummeted among all airlines as people traveled less.

From January to March 2021, Hawaiian Airlines was ranked number 2 among 17 US carriers with three or .5% mishandled wheelchairs and scooters.

McClellan says the reporting is important.

“I think that’s huge. I wish they started this from the get-go,” she said.

McClellan sued the airline and a year later settled for an undisclosed amount. “I won a small sum. I can’t tell how much, but it was not enough to fully repair and purchase a chair,” she said.

Airline trade groups say they they are working to improve the experience for travelers with wheelchairs.

“It’s going to help relieve some of the anxiety,” said McClellan.

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