The Airlines with the Best (and Worst) Records for Handling Wheelchairs

New data shows that most airlines could be doing a much better job serving travelers with disabilities.

Traveling with a disability can be challenging and, at times, airlines contribute to making it even worse. The way a specific carrier handles wheelchairs, for example, is telling—as is the customer service and assistance provided in the event that a wheelchair or mobility device is either lost or damaged.

Unfortunately, the numbers aren't that great. According to the US Department of Transportation's February 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report, 11,389 wheelchairs were mishandled by US airlines in 2022 alone. That means that those chairs were either delayed, missing, or broken, resulting in not only a fair amount of stress and a huge inconvenience for their users, but also in potential delays as well as the issue of property damage.

So far, this year hasn't been better than the last and, if anything, the situation seems to be getting worse. A quick Google search is enough to make you realize how common this problem is. In April, a disabled woman recounted her experience on a JetBlue flight where her chair got destroyed and the airline's response fell short of expectations. A May 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report will prove the point: Between January and March of this year, US airlines mishandled a total of 2,547 wheelchairs and scooters, while the same period last year counted 2,028 similar incidents.

Airlines are being especially careless with wheelchairs. A new report by the nonprofit USAFacts, which analyzed US Department of Transportation data since 2019, found that, when looking at mishandled checked bags and wheelchairs, wheelchairs are mishandled twice as often. To give you a quick idea, in March, one in 175 checked bags were reported as mishandled, while the ratio for wheelchairs was one in 65.

The easiest solution would be to solve the problem at its root, and allow owners to load their wheelchair or mobility aid onto the cabin instead of checking it like a bag. While Delta is currently developing a new seat that would allow such a feature, the prototype still needs to be certified and tested, and it will be still a while before it is available on planes.

For now, one thing wheelchair and mobility aid users can do to try and avoid potentially mishandled wheelchairs is to look at how well airlines are performing in that field according to data. Luckily, the USAFacts report looked specifically at that as well, and came up with a ranking of the worst and best airlines depending on the percentage of wheelchairs mishandled as of March 2023.

Of all the major US airlines, Spirit was found to be by far the worst one, mishandling roughly one out of 16 mobility aids. The number is quite high, especially when compared to the rate at which Spirit mishandled checked bags. According to the data, the number of wheelchairs Spirit mishandled was 12 times higher than the number of checked bags it mishandled.

On the flip side, Delta was the best major US airline when it comes to handling wheelchair and mobility aids. According to the report, the airline only mishandled 0.7% of them as of March.

Here's the complete USAFacts ranking, listed by the percentage of wheelchairs mishandled (worst to best):

  • Spirit - 6.3%
  • JetBlue - 4.6%
  • PSA - 2.4%
  • Hawaiian - 2.1%
  • Frontier - 1.9%
  • Alaska - 1.7%
  • Envoy - 1.6%
  • American - 1.6%
  • Southwest - 1.5%
  • Skywest - 1.2%
  • United - 1.1%
  • Endeavor - 0.9%
  • Delta - 0.7%

In order to solve the persisting problem, members of the executive and legislative sectors have recently proposed further regulations. In March of last year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that the department is working to implement new rules that would fine airlines who damage or delay their customers' wheelchairs. Additionally, Buttigieg said that the new regulations would also consist in better training for airline employees who handle wheelchairs.

The good news is that the government has reportedly been working on the issue in the more recent past, starting from more detailed reporting and accountability on the airlines' part. In May 2023, Senators Tammy Duckworth and John Thune and Representatives Steve Cohen and Pete Stauber introduced bipartisan legislation that would require airlines to report both on how often mobility aids are damaged and the severity of the damage itself.

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Serena Tara is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.