Disability rights activist says United Airlines damaged her $30,000 wheelchair

A disability rights activist is asking United Airlines to cover the cost of replacing her power wheelchair after discovering damage to her chair when she landed in Los Angeles.

On July 14, Engracia Figueroa boarded a United Airlines flight and returned with a fully “contorted” wheelchair. After her flight back home from D.C., where she attended a disability rights march, Figueroa said she was unable to sit or turn on her chair, claiming the airline had damaged her wheelchair beyond the point of repair.

“It was like my worst nightmare came true,” said Figueroa, president of Communities Actively Living and Free, an independent living center in downtown Los Angeles, in a press release. “My wheelchair is custom made for me and my spinal cord injury. It’s a $30,000 machine that is not easy to replace, and without it, I am now stuck at home.”

Figueroa said the airline company should publicly apologize for its treatment of her. “All airlines need to do better by hiring disabled people on their staff, training their staff to know how to respectfully interface with disabled customers, and to handle their critical equipment.”

In a statement to USA TODAY, United Airlines said they contacted Figueroa to offer their apologies and hope to welcome her back on board in the future.

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“Our top priority is to provide a safe and comfortable journey for all of our customers, particularly those who require additional assistance or the use of a wheelchair. Immediately after Ms. Figueroa alerted our team in Los Angeles, we made arrangements to provide her with a loaner wheelchair and refreshments while she waited for the repair company to provide it,” United Airlines told USA TODAY. “We are actively working with the repair company to reach a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible.”

Once she noticed her chair was damaged, Figueroa said she spent more than four hours at the Los Angeles International Airport filing a damage report and waiting for a usable loaner power wheelchair.

Figueroa said she sat in a loaner wheelchair with a broken armrest and a seat “too small to fit the cushion she requires to support her body,” which caused her “excruciating” pain.

Airlines do not allow wheelchair users to board their flights with their own chairs. Instead, they must be placed into an aisle chair. Passengers’ wheelchairs are stored with other cargo and suitcases.

On July 8, the International Air Transport Association announced the launch of a global Mobility Aids Action Group with the goal of improving the care of wheelchairs during transport. In a press release, IATA’s general director Willie Walsh said although thousands of wheelchairs are transported by each day, damage is still commonly occurring.

Walsh said wheelchairs are extensions of passengers’ bodies and aims to bring awareness and solutions to the care of wheelchairs on flights.

“Nobody should have to live in fear that they will lose their independence due to an airplane ride,” Figueroa said in the release. “But for people with disabilities that’s exactly what we have to go through every time we step on a plane.”

Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda

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