WASHINGTON — Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth was rolling up the airport ramp in her wheelchair after arriving in Chicago. She made it just a few feet, and then the chair collapsed underneath her.

Sometime between boarding the plane in Washington and leaving the aircraft hours later, the airline staff had managed to snap a 1-inch titanium rod on her customized wheelchair clean in half.

Then things got worse.

“They kind of lugged me up the ramp and I sat in the waiting room area,” said Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Eventually, someone brought her a large, ungainly airport wheelchair that required someone else to push it.

All that happened in 2015. Next year, Duckworth was elected to the U.S. Senate.

She found that no one had any idea how often these wheelchair problems happened. So this fall, she got a law passed requiring airlines to report to the Department of Transportation how many wheelchairs or motorized scooters they lose, mishandle or break. The reporting began this month, and disability advocates expect the reports to reveal a huge problem.

Airlines and disability groups are working together to “reduce the number of wheelchairs damaged in air travel” by examining airlines’ handling and storage guidelines, training staff to handle wheelchairs and encouraging manufacturers to build wheelchairs suitable for airplane travel, said Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group Airlines for America.

Airline personnel have damaged Duckworth’s wheelchairs three times since 2013, including this month, when they jammed the wheel of her $5,000 chair.

The senator travels with a congressional staffer who knows what to do in such situations. But when airlines break the average disabled traveler’s wheelchair – a problem that Duckworth and other disability advocates contend happens far too often – they’re stuck.

“You sit there, and you are now immobilized,” Duckworth said. “They’ve basically taken away your legs.”

The mishandled-wheelchair numbers, broken down by airline, will be publicly available online as part of the Transportation Department’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports.


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