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The Street
The Street
Daniel Kline

JetBlue and Spirit Airlines Have a Dangerous Problem

When an airline loses your luggage, it's inconvenient. Exactly how inconvenient depends upon your reason for traveling.

If, for example, you're the bride in a destination wedding and the bag with your dress gets lost, well that's not easily replaced. In many cases, however, lost luggage is frustrating and inconvenient, but it doesn't place you in any danger.

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You might not feel great walking around tourist sites wearing an outfit you bought in the hotel gift shop and you may have to explain at a business meeting why you're wearing sweat or yoga pants, but those are hassles, not real dangers. That's not the case when an airline loses or damages your wheelchair -- something that happens way more often than you might expect.

Department of Transportation (DOT) data show that in the four years the federal agency has made the airlines report how many wheelchairs they have lost or were stolen, the numbers have not improved. In 2022, the 10 largest U.S. airlines saw 11,389 wheelchairs or scooters mishandled. That's 1.54% of all wheelchairs and scooters they carried, more than double the rate of mishandled checked bags (0.64%).

Spirit Airlines (SAVE) and JetBlue (JBLU) both mishandled more than 5% of the wheelchairs and scooters they carried, according to the report.

Spirit has been one of the biggest offenders when it comes to damaged wheelchairs. 

Image source: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Buttigieg Puts the Airlines In His Crosshairs

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has made fixing this one of his main priorities. He spoke about the issue in a YouTube video posted on the DOT site.  

"Earlier this year I met Charles Brown, the president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. He shared the story of how poorly-trained airline employees once dropped him onto a jetbridge while removing him from his wheelchair during boarding, breaking his tailbone and causing an infection the he barely survived," Buttigieg shared in the video.

The DOT Secretary made it clear this this wasn't an isolated incident saying that "practically everyone who uses a wheelchair has a story like this."

Buttigieg pointed out that airlines are unique in separating passengers from their wheelchairs, something that does not happen on busses or trains. He made it clear that his agency would be working on plans to allow airline passengers to stay in their wheelchairs once onboard.

For now, the DOT has worked with advocates and industry sources to create the ""Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights," a document detailing the rights of disabled flyers.

Why Airlines Need to Do Better

While the Spirt and JetBlue numbers are especially disheartening, this is an area where the correct amount of problems is zero. That's because the consequences of a damaged or lost wheelchair can be so severe.

"When an airline damages, loses or delays a passenger's wheelchair, it is a significant and serious problem that endangers their health and limits their mobility and independence," Heather Ansley, associate executive director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America, said in testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee in late March Travel Weekly reported. "In the worst cases, it can mean the end of the trip as the individual is forced to stay in a hotel bed while they wait for the repair of their wheelchair."

Both Spirit and JetBlue Airlines issued statements promising to make improvements and address the issue. 



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