Jon Pielaet describes himself as “cynical” about air travel.
“I feel like every other time I fly my equipment is damaged,” he said. “I feel like there is a lot of under-reporting going on and the statistics don’t reflect the reality.”
Pielaet has cerebral palsy and relies on a manual wheelchair to get around. He traveled from his home in Portland, Oregon, to visit his mother in Missoula, Montana, on June 2 and connected in Salt Lake City. When he arrived in Utah, he could tell something was wrong with his wheelchair.
“I felt like something was off but I had to focus on making my connection,” he said. “The damage wasn’t immediately noticeable because I didn’t have time to fully inspect the chair in the terminal. It’s not something I can do in the chair.”
It turns out the frame of his wheelchair had been bent in transit.
“The front wheels weren’t making contact with the ground, it needed my body weight to make contact with the ground,” Pielaet said. In addition, the pushrims were scratched and some wheel spokes were broken.
Because Pielaet has difficulty accessing the bathroom on airplanes, he said he usually dehydrates himself before a trip, which means he’s rarely in the clearest frame of mind when he flies.
“I didn’t fully understand the damage until a few days later when I had rested and recovered from my trip,” he said. “It’s very difficult to fully document at the time when it happens.”
Although he said he explained the situation to a Delta agent when he returned to Portland, the airline said it never received a formal complaint. During an interview with USA TODAY on Aug. 17, Pielaet said he hadn’t heard from Delta at all since the incident, but the airline said it has since reached out.
“We believe travel is for everyone, and it’s our priority to deliver the best service and ensure accessibility for all Delta customers,” the airline said in a statement. “While the majority of wheelchairs and scooters enplaned by Delta are handled with thoughtful care, we understand the frustration that comes when we fall short. Our care team has initiated contact with the customer to learn more about his experience and make things right.”
A Delta spokesperson further explained that customers should request to speak to a complaint resolution official or visit the baggage service office if they have a mobility device-related issue. Pielaet said he’s unsure if he spoke to someone in the appropriate department, which may have held up his resolution process.
“I don’t think it was a complaint official or someone in baggage. Unfortunately, I was exhausted, and it was late at night,” he said in an email. “The lesson I learned is to always get a claim tracking number when reporting damage, regardless of who you speak with.”
In the meantime, Pielaet said he’s had to pursue repairs independently and isn’t sure how quickly the issue can be resolved.
“In my experience, it just takes a very long time to get durable medical equipment repaired or replaced,” he said.
And while he can still use his wheelchair, the fact that it’s not functioning totally correctly takes a major toll on his routine.
“These issues might seem insignificant compared to catastrophic damage that has happened to others or myself in the past, but even this minor damage impacts my daily quality of life,” he said. “When you damage my wheelchair, you’re damaging my body and my ability to function.”
Pielaet said airlines need to give baggage handlers more robust training on mobility devices, and to consider implementing tie-down standards so they’re not unsecured in the cargo hold.
“Flying can feel dehumanizing to a wheelchair user on a good day,” he said. “It’s easy for them to give me a travel allowance or airline miles or a written apology, but if I don’t have a working wheelchair, I’m not going to be able to use those airline miles anyway.”
Read more stories:Mobility device lost or damaged by an airline? USA TODAY wants to hear about it.
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 email@example.com