Travel

Airline accused of wrecking passenger's R658,000 wheelchair – then damaging replacement 3 weeks later

Business Insider US
John Morris
John Morris
John Morris
  • American Airlines destroyed a man's wheelchair and then severely damaged his replacement.
  • The total value of John Morris's wheelchairs is about $75,000 (around R1.2 million).  
  • The airline has apologised but Morris said "apologies don't solve the problem."
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

An American Airlines passenger said the carrier had destroyed his wheelchair and severely damaged his replacement chair less than three weeks later. 

On 9 July, John Morris's electric wheelchair was dropped by American Airlines staff while being loaded onto a flight from his home airport of Gainesville, Florida, to Charlotte, NC, he told Insider.

Its frame, which had already sustained damage on a previous American flight, was bent, the wheel was broken, and it was no longer turning on. 

Morris, an accessible travel consultant and founder of travel blog WheelchairTravel.org, accepted that the damage to his $40,000 (around R658,000) wheelchair was accidental. He was forced to delay his trip while he found a replacement chair. 

John Morris' wheelchair, with a bent frame and a wheel that had come off
John Morris

The airline supplied Morris with two loan chairs. One Morris described as "not designed for a full-time wheelchair user." The other was "probably a decade old and lacking any of the features that I require to prevent issues related to pressure on my body."

As a result, Morris bought a new one costing about $35,000 (around R576,000) and had to fly to southern Florida to purchase it.

But after flying back to Gainesville with his new chair on 26 July, again on American Airlines, he realised the new chair had also been damaged. 

"The damage is quite significant. It's bent in a lot of places, the joystick is loose and won't stay in place, there are rips and tears all over the upholstery," he explained. 

Morris, 32, said he now struggled to control the chair and had injured himself.

He hoped the airline would cover the cost of the destroyed chair and the repairs needed for the replacement. 

In a statement to Insider, American Airlines said: "We extend our sincerest apologies to Mr. Morris for the damage caused to his wheelchair while travelling with us, and our team is working to ensure a better experience for his future travels. A member of our team has reached out to address his concerns and apologise."

An American Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Nicolas Economou/Getty Image

An immeasurable burden

Morris said that it was "heartbreaking" when a wheelchair was damaged. "I understood immediately what the next few months were going to look like, that I was not going to have the device that grants me mobility and the opportunity to participate in society and go about everything in life that I do," he said.

"The burden placed on the disabled person with the destruction of their chair can last for months or longer – it is truly immeasurable."

Morris expected to spend up to 80 hours resolving this ordeal.

In an email to Insider, Senator Tammy Duckworth said, "We would never accept airlines breaking the legs of 1 in 65 passengers, and yet, that is essentially what is happening when 1 out of 65 wheelchairs are being damaged by airlines.

I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it's more than a simple inconvenience—it's a complete loss of mobility and independence. We cannot rest until every airline finally treats our wheelchairs as what they are: complex medical devices, not just suitcases to be tossed around."

Reacting to the airline's apology, Morris told Insider that "apologies don't solve the problem" and calls for new policies and a "sustainable solution" to the frequent mishaps that disabled people repeatedly suffer when flying.

"I'm the top tier of frequent flier in American's loyalty program, I'm an Executive Platinum member, but I have not had a substantive conversation with anyone with any power at American Airlines," said Morris, who writes about his travels. He wanted a "seat at the table" for himself and other disabled people.

Department of Transportation data shows an average of 35.8 wheelchairs are broken or damaged on US flights daily. 

In November 2021, disability activist and wheelchair user Engracia Figueroa died after United destroyed her wheelchair. She sustained body sores from the replacement chairs, which became infected and led to her death. 

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