'Traveling by flight is not a great idea for me' with wheelchair damage risk, flyer says

Lindsey Wells said even relatively minor damage to her power wheelchair can make for a less-than-ideal vacation. Sure enough, she found herself in that position.

Wells flew Southwest Airlines from Sacramento, California, to Los Angeles on July 19. And when she arrived at LAX, she immediately saw that her chair had been damaged.

“I noticed that my knee pad was no longer where it was holding my knee, it was on the other side, forced the other way, and then I noticed the joystick was turned to the left instead of centered,” Wells told USA TODAY. “I spent my whole week there with my chair, it wasn’t broken but it was not right. It was damaged to an extent where it was uncomfortable to sit with my knee where it was placed.”

Wells, 41, has cerebral palsy and relies on her wheelchair to get around.

“It was just not a comfortable experience the whole time. My knees were in pain, my foot was in pain because of things that happened,” she said.

The chair was further damaged on the return trip on July 23, according to Wells.

“The right side was missing the hip pad, bolts were missing out of it and something that clamps down to hold my feet in place was gone,” she said. “I said ‘I think there are still pieces of my wheelchair on the plane that should be attached.’ ”

Lindsey Wells

Southwest Airlines acknowledged the incident in a statement to USA TODAY.

“Our Baggage Services Department has been in touch with the customer and was able to assist with getting the device repaired,” the statement said. “We apologize the customer had a less-than-positive experience with us and hope to make it up to them on a future trip.”

Wells said a third-party technician provided through an airline contractor repaired her wheelchair the day after she arrived home, but she’s still disappointed it needed repair at all.

“I was told I was very fortunate to get that fast of a turnaround. I think that should have been fixed on my vacation,” she said.

Wells wants airlines to be more upfront about the risks of flying for wheelchair users and hopes that they’ll work harder to train their staff in the proper way to handle mobility devices.

“They need to make a disclaimer that this could happen on a flight so that people who have never flown before aren’t surprised, shocked when they don’t have a wheelchair to use. I would say, just be honest and upfront when you’re getting on and off the plane that this might happen,” she said. “I want to see action. I want to see this not happen again to me or another person. That would make me feel good about the whole experience again, if there was action taken and not just ‘I’m sorry.’ And they should have repair people at the actual airport to make repairs on-site if that does happen. I spent my whole vacation uncomfortable, and that wasn’t right.”

In the meantime, Wells said she may think twice about flying again.

“The overall experience for me, traveling by flight is not a great idea for me,” she said.

Cruising Altitude: Data doesn't show how 'catastrophic' airline wheelchair damage can be

How common is mobility equipment damage in air travel?

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines "mishandle" on average about 1.5% of the mobility equipment they transport. In 2022, that translated to 11,389 incidents reported by U.S. airlines, up from 7,239 in 2021.

This year, USA TODAY wants to highlight what those figures mean for travelers with disabilities. We're looking to track these incidents throughout 2023 with the goal of bringing light to an all-too-common problem.

If your own mobility equipment was damaged or lost by an airline this year, please share your story with us using the form below:

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'That wasn't right': Flyer describes frustration at wheelchair damage