Like many other consumer horror stories that end in a corporate apology, it took the work of incensed social media users for JetBlue to publicly acknowledge that it shouldn't have given a passenger’s custom wheelchair away to the wrong person.
“The customer did not have the experience we want to provide to our customers who use wheelchairs and we’ve apologized to her for the stress and inconvenience this situation caused,” JetBlue’s press team tells ConsumerAffairs in a prepared statement.
The nightmare for the passenger and writer who goes by the pseudonym “Coffee Spoonie” on Twitter began on November 7, when she told her 19,000 followers that she was stranded on a JetBlue airplane because staff couldn’t find her custom-built wheelchair after they mistakenly gave it to someone else.
Then they found the chair and returned it to her -- with damages that made it impossible to use. On their official corporate Twitter account, JetBlue publicly responded that she should file a claim for a repair through their “business partner,” a third-party contractor. But the contractor demanded payment from Spoonie’s health insurer for the repair, she later said online.
The social media outrage from her followers and others who testified to similar experiences was swift, and the following day, Spoonie posted that JetBlue had changed course, with a promise to have the wheelchair repaired through a different contractor and a heartfelt-sounding apology over the phone.
“In investigating the incident, we learned that another customer on the same flight mistakenly identified the wheelchair as their own and was escorted in it to the baggage claim by one of our business partners,” JetBlue says of the incident in a statement to ConsumerAffairs.
The statement does not specify how the wheelchair became damaged or answer whether it is typical for JetBlue’s business partners to demand payment from health insurers before fixing broken wheelchairs.
“We have addressed any concerns regarding insurance with our business partners and the chair is being repaired,” JetBlue’s statement concludes.
The ordeal sparked numerous other people to share their own stories of broken or lost wheelchairs. But starting next month, the flying public won’t be limited to viral social media posts to discover how often incidents like this happen.
Flying while disabled
When it comes to air travel complaints, it’s the rare people trying to board with an emotional support peacock or squirrel who tend to grab the most headlines and vows from airlines to crack down.
Meanwhile, a far more common flying nightmare has gone ignored by airlines for years; customers with disabilities say that they are regularly mistreated during air travel, with one of the more common problems being airline staff that lose or break their personal wheelchairs -- leaving passengers who can’t walk completely stranded and without a medical device worth thousands of dollars.
Evidence that airline staff treat wheelchairs no more delicately -- or potentially worse -- than the suitcases they are checked with has only been available anecdotally. Unlike lost or mishandled luggage, wheelchair damage doesn’t come with its own reporting requirements under federal law.
Outspoken travelers and wheelchair users like Senator Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat and former lieutenant colonel who lost her legs in the Iraq war in 2004, have traditionally been the public’s only window into the issue.
"On a recent trip, I retrieved my wheelchair at the end of the jet bridge, but a titanium rod had been damaged during the flight and my chair literally broke apart while I was sitting in it," Duckworth wrote last year in a letter to Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao, asking that the agency do more to monitor airlines’ treatment of disabled passengers.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office, the independent federal watchdog agency, finally looked into the issue. It found that disability-related complaints related to air travel doubled from 2005 to 2015, reaching over 30,000 complaints for the most recent year that data was available.
Advocates say that the problem can be traced to shrinking seats, crowded or overbooked planes, and other side effects of an industry that has become increasingly consolidated and unfriendly to consumers.
Transparency through litigation
In late 2016, the Obama administration finally promised some reprieve to fliers traveling with wheelchairs in the form of transparency. The outgoing administration said that by 2018, all United States airlines would be required “to report on how often they mishandle wheelchairs so air travelers with disabilities can easily compare carriers and make informed travel decisions.”
But after agreeing to the changes, the airline industry predictably asked that the new rules be put on hold under the Trump administration.
“Industry is facing some real challenges with both parts of this regulation and will need more time to implement it,” a lobbyist with Airlines for America, the group that represents most major airlines, reportedly said in an email to the Department of Transportation (DOT) under the new administration in March 2017.
The following day, the DOT announced that it would delay the wheelchair rule until January 2019 -- without giving the advocacy groups and other stakeholders who had worked on the issue for five years a public hearing or chance to comment.
The advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) promptly sued and is now celebrating a recent announcement from the DOT that all airlines will be expected to publicly disclose their wheelchair mishandling complaints by December 4.
“We applaud the DOT for finally implementing the new rule,” Carl Blake, executive director of PVA, said in a October 29 announcement. They say that the DOT’s decision came after appeals court judges took the agency to task for delaying the wheelchair rule without so much as a hearing
Advocacy group Democracy Forward, which represented the PVA in the lawsuit, says that the new rule will fill what has otherwise been a “data desert” when it comes to flying with a wheelchair.
“Until the rule goes into effect December 4 of this year, there really was no way to actually track how often airlines were damaging or losing wheelchairs,” Democracy Forward spokesman Charisma Troiano tell ConsumerAffairs.
Troiano expects airlines to comply, though the DOT rules allow airlines the chance to delay if they can submit a detailed explanation about why that’s necessary.
ConsumerAffairs questioned five major airlines -- United, Delta, Southwest, American, and JetBlue -- about their plans in regards to the wheelchair rule. The press teams for all of the airlines except JetBlue said they plan to comply and publicly report wheelchair mishandling complaints by the December 4 deadline.
While JetBlue’s press team did not answer repeated questions about the wheelchair rule, Airlines for America spokesman Alison McAfee says via email that the industry group’s members “are committed to being compliant with the Wheelchair Rule by the deadline.”
More changes need for overall accountability
Though the PVA and Democracy Forward applauded the measure, their advocacy work indicates that more systemic changes are still needed. In a separate lawsuit, PVA is calling for better access for disabled passengers to use the restroom on flights, an issue that travelers like John Morris of WheelTravel.org has described as an “accessibility nightmare.”
And while airlines are already required to publicly disclose other issues like lost luggage or injured or killed pets, that hasn’t stopped such stories from regularly repeating themselves.
When it comes to pet deaths, airlines typically deny culpability in their government-mandated public reports.
“I have not seen an instance in which the airline determined that they did something wrong,” an Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney said in an interview last year about United Airlines’ own troubling history with pet deaths.
What’s more, federal laws have long protected airlines from getting sued by passengers with civil rights complaints. As the air travel guide Points Guy recently noted in an article about flying while disabled, courts have repeatedly ruled that consumers have to file such complaints with the DOT instead.
Previously, the DOT’s fines levied on airlines have been few and far between -- and the money doesn’t always go back to the affected passengers.
“You cannot sue an airline for any of this,” Kelly Buckland, a wheelchair user executive director of the National Council for Independent Living, told The Points Guy. “You’re entirely dependent on the Department of Transportation. We need to be able to hold them accountable.”