On April 18, a court order ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mask mandate for public transportation facilities. News media and social media users reported that some airlines lifted their mask mandates mid-flight in response to the news.
Critics of the response pointed out that such decisions impacted immunocompromised people, who boarded their flights with the knowledge that masks would be required on them. One person made a comparison to wheelchair handling in a tweet liked more than 40,000 times, that claimed airlines break 28 wheelchairs per day.
Do airlines break 28 wheelchairs per day?
Spokesperson for Delta Airlines
The claim that U.S. airlines break 28 wheelchairs per day needs context. The number matches 2019 Department of Transportation (DOT) data on mishandled wheelchairs, which refers to both damaged and delayed wheelchairs. The DOT has since published more recent data that found airlines mishandled about 20 wheelchairs a day in 2021.
WHAT WE FOUND
The claim that airlines break 28 wheelchairs a day appears to come from the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s February 2020 Air Travel Consumer Report. That report found that U.S. air carriers mishandled 10,302 wheelchairs and scooters in 2019, or just over 28 per day on average.
In the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report for 2021, DOT found U.S. operating carriers mishandled 7,148 wheelchairs — just under 20 a day.
The data from 2019 came in the last full year before the pandemic and pandemic-control measures reduced air travel across the U.S. In 2019, U.S. airlines handled 670,025 wheelchairs — just under 1,836 a day. In 2021, airlines handled 520,987 wheelchairs, or just over 1,427 a day. DOT reported U.S. airlines mishandled 1.54% of wheelchairs and scooters on planes in 2019, and mishandled 1.37% of wheelchairs in 2021.
But a “mishandled” wheelchair isn’t necessarily a damaged or broken wheelchair. It can also mean the wheelchair’s arrival from the flight was delayed, landing sometime after the customer has already arrived at their destination.
DOT’s rule on reporting requirements for mishandled baggage and wheelchairs requires airlines to “collect information regarding damage, delay or loss of wheelchairs and scooters transported in the aircraft cargo compartment.”
A Delta spokesperson confirmed DOT’s definition in an email to VERIFY. “It’s important to note that ‘mishandled’ does not necessarily mean damaged,” the spokesperson said. “In these reports, ‘mishandled’ includes both delayed and damaged.”
DOT says airlines must return a passenger’s wheelchair or other assistive device in the same condition in which the airline accepted it if the airline must disassemble it to stow it away on the plane. Airlines are liable for the original purchase price of a wheelchair if they damage or destroy it on a domestic flight, and they must make the necessary repairs for the wheelchair if it’s damaged.
John Morris, who runs a wheelchair travel blog, says a passenger whose wheelchair is damaged by an airline should report that damage immediately, no matter how minor. United says damage must be reported — with documentary proof of the loss or damage — within 24 hours of domestic flight arrivals and within seven calendar days of international flights.
The speed of the repairs varies from person to person. Morris said an airline replaced his $25,000 rehab power wheelchair within two and a half weeks of destroying it. GG deFiebre, a quadrapalegic person who wrote about her experience for a Siegel Rare Neuroimmune Association blog, said it took an airline 11 weeks to repair the damage to her power wheelchair custom-built for her frame.
VERIFY reached out to Delta, American, United, Spirit, Southwest, Frontier, Allegiant, Hawaiian, Alaska and JetBlue. American and Southwest referred VERIFY to DOT data. The other airlines did not respond at the time of publishing.