For Latinx community organizer and historian, Lilac Maldonado, the holidays are a time to visit her chosen family in Portland, Oregon. After booking her flight back in December, she spent nearly two hours on the phone with Delta Airlines attempting to secure accommodation for her disability needs. According to Maldonado, ‘traveling while trans is hard enough— planning ahead only makes the process more seamless.’ The average traveler may occasionally experience slight worry at the thought of missing their flight. For transgender and disabled people, their stress and anxiety center on the humiliation, dehumanization, and abuse they endure while navigating a system that flags their bodies as an anomaly.
Despite her due diligence, when Maldonado checked in for her flight, there were no accommodations made. “I had to squeeze into a standard seat even though I had a knee injury and my pelvis was broken in four places,” she shared in an interview with For(bes) The Culture. What’s more, her return flight was canceled and after being switched to another airline, Delta failed to arrange assistance— yet again.
The alternate flight would not arrive for another several hours, and Maldonado was left by herself in what she describes ‘a painfully uncomfortable metal wheelchair’ with no self-propulsion function. “There was no one to help me get food, go to the restroom, and I missed a few doses of my medication. When I finally made it back to LAX I was stranded because I rely on prearranged ride services. The entire order placed me in distress.”
Grievances like Maldonado’s have been lodged against Delta Airlines and it’s competitors for years, but consumer demands for accountability have escalated. For(bes) The Culture contacted Delta Airlines for comment regarding innumerable complaints similar to—and including— Maldonado’s. A spokesperson for the airline provided this statement:
“We believe travel is for everyone, and it is our priority to deliver the best service and ensure accessibility for all Delta customers. To deliver on that belief, Delta takes all complaints and reports seriously – and we apologize to customers who have experienced mishandling in any way. We actively work with our Advisory Board on Disability and our operations teams to learn from our customers to improve the travel experience.”
Delta’s renewed pledge to better accommodate disabled travelers comes on the heels of several failed attempts. In 2012, non-profit head and former philosophy professor Baraka Kanaan made national headlines after alleging that Delta denied him accommodation; violating the Airline Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The partially paralyzed man called in advance to arrange assistance for an upcoming flight. He was assured his request for a wheelchair would be met. Upon arrival he discovered there were no arrangements made. According to Kanaan, Delta offered him a slab of cardboard as not to ruin his clothes when he was forced to crawl down the aisle of the aircraft and across the tarmac to his wheelchair, while crew members watched. Two years after he filed suit, the carrier settled.
Congress eventually passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018 requiring all airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to improve the travel experiences of people with disabilities. According to a report from the CDC, 1 in 4 adults in the US—roughly 61 million Americans—have a disability that majorly impacts their daily activities. Mobility remains the most common disability, affecting 1 out of 7 American adults. The same data suggests the experiences of disabled women and people of color are disproportionate to other groups within the demographic.
Airline carriers have yet to present tangible solutions that mitigate disparity among travelers, and disability related grievances have seen an uptick. As recently as February of 2021, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) enforced a civil penalty against Delta in the amount of $2 million for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities. If disabled travelers being subjected to such painful and humiliating treatment isn’t alarming enough, the destruction of their personal property should be. The loss and damage of wheelchairs and other mobility aids is yet another affront to their rights, dignity and sense of safety.
The FAA Reauthorization Act now requires all US airlines to report the number of wheelchairs, scooters, and mobility aids damaged, lost, stolen, or delayed while in their possession. According to DOT, over 15,425 wheelchairs and scooters have been lost or destroyed by airlines since reporting was required at the end of 2018. The first full annual report was generated in 2019 and accounted for 10,548 mobility aids that were lost or damaged, which adds up to about 29 a day. Seldom do airlines reimburse disabled travelers for these damages and their complaints often go ignored. The recent death of disability rights activist, Engracia Figueroa poignantly underscores the dangers of such negligence.
On a flight back home to Los Angeles from DC, United Airlines reportedly destroyed Figueroa’s $30,000 motorized wheelchair. It was alleged that the carrier refused to replace the wheelchair, but offered to repair the one it mangled. The damages were so extensive, concerns were raised that an attempt to repair the wheelchair would present a major fire hazard. After learning her mobility aid was destroyed, Figueroa was placed in a broken manual wheelchair for roughly five hours. The loaner United Airlines provided wasn’t suitable for a leg amputee with a spinal injury and exacerbated Figueroa’s injuries. As she struggled to keep herself balanced over the span of several hours, she developed a pressure sore that became infected and led to hospitalization. Fellow disability advocates and friends of Figueroa’s say the sore caused severe edema, muscle spasms, loss of appetite, and subsequent hospitalizations. The infection eventually spread to her hipbone and after an unsuccessful emergency surgery to remove infected bone and tissue, she died.
Wheelchairs and scooters should be treated as an extension of a disabled person’s body; and with the same careful consideration. They are customized to fit the individual’s specific needs, which makes rapid replacement difficult once damaged— especially for disabled people experiencing economic insecurity. The longer a disabled person goes without their mobility aid, the more vulnerable they become to greater injury. In Figueroa’s case, delayed access to her wheelchair led to death. Until carriers become better at streamlining their policies and best practices on how to assist disabled passengers, their services will remain inaccessible.
It is imperative that TSA agents and airline employees be thoroughly educated and trained on how to best accommodate disabled travelers without damaging their mobility aids. The medical, emotional, and financial consequences of mishandled equipment further marginalizes a community that deserves the utmost dignity, respect, access, and protection.
Learn more about Delta Airlines’ Advisory Board on Disability hereand follow the innovative work of All Wheels Up and their advocacy for a safe and equitable flying experience for all. To report file a consumer complaint with the US Department of Transportation, click here†