Help! Airline broke my wheelchair and ruined Hawaii vacation

The road to Hana in Maui. / Photo by Ying Hai - Flickr
It was supposed to be a vacation of a lifetime for Jane Gray — a trip from Southwest England, where she lives, to Maui.

But it ended in disaster when Alaska Airlines damaged her wheelchair on a connecting flight between California and Hawaii. And even though Alaska repaired her wheelchair and offered a flight voucher and eventually, cash compensation, it’s not enough. She wants my help.

Before I get to her disagreement with Alaska, here’s a little background: Gray has secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis and depends on a customized wheelchair to get around. Before flying to Hawaii, she asked her travel agent for information about how to travel with her wheelchair, and was told the necessary arrangements could be made.

That didn’t happen.

“Unfortunately, the chair was not correctly stored in the hold as the ground crew were desperate to meet the flight deadline,” she says. “They had laid my chair on its side as I subsequently found out on my arrival in Maui when it came out of the hold in bits. I was actually able to witness this as my seat was directly over the hold.”

Needless to say, the trip didn’t go as planned.

As a result of the damage to my wheelchair, the brake had been broken and could not be disengaged to enable my carer to take control of the chair. In addition the specially added feature of ‘carer controls’, were also damaged, leaving it impossible for her to take control of the chair as is necessary after a few hours of use by myself, due to the limitations of my illness.

In addition to this, the headrest attachment had been broken.

I could only venture out for approximately one hour at a time and was unable to go further than the hotel restaurant for dinner, for the entire holiday. I missed out on all the activities I had planned, causing great misery knowing the entire trip had become pointless.

An Alaska representative assured Gray that the airline took incidents like this “very seriously” and would do everything it could to make things right. But when Gray returned to the U.K., Alaska only offered to repair her wheelchair and offer her a $400 voucher.

Appeals to management were partially successful. Alaska upped its compensation offer from a credit to $500 cash.

But Gray was still unhappy. She’d paid nearly £6,000 for her vacation, and had been unable to enjoy it as a direct result of what she says was Alaska’s negligence. What’s more, the airline didn’t do what it had promised, which was to do everything it could to make things right.

But Alaska says it’s done enough. Here’s what a supervisor wrote to her after she appealed her case.

While I certainly apologize for any disappointment you experienced, we must respectfully deny your request to have your vacation reimbursed and for additional consideration in this matter.

Our offer of $500 USD still stands if you wish to accept this offer in lieu of the Discount Code you were previously issued.

Also, if you have additional receipts for repairs to your wheelchair stemming from your travels with us, please feel free to submit them for consideration.

Alaska is technically correct. Its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between Gray and the airline, and international law — specifically the Montreal Convention, which deals with lost and damaged luggage — suggests the airline did everything it was required to. It fixed her wheelchair and delivered her to her destination. In fact, it went beyond that by offering her cash compensation.

Gray believes she’s entitled to more.

“Who will compensate me for the distress and misery caused by the damage to my chair and the serious consequences of this, both emotional and physical?” she asks.

Should I get involved in this case? I sympathize with Gray. Clearly, her vacation was ruined by her damaged wheelchair.

On the other hand, she has no case that I can see, legally. If Alaska coughs up £6,000, then it will set a precedent, and anyone who loses a day of work because of a flight delay or has their golf vacation ruined because the airline lost their clubs, will be able to make a similar claim.

Update (6/12/12): Gray offers the following clarification in response to the comments.

I would love to clear up some details. Can I tell you though that the travel agent checked with all the airlines that the dimensions and weight of my chair were suitable for the cargo holds – I even flew on a 717 between the islands.

At each airport they were shown how to fold my chair but on this occasion they were not interested because they were being instructed to get the flight away on time as it was running late.

A member of the ground crew came on to the plane to tell me that it would have to be laid on its side and I said ‘no way’, but obviously that is what happened as we were told when we arrived in Maui.

I waited with several members of the Maui engineers and CEO of Maui Airport Authority for 4 hours in the lounge, whilst they tried to just put the chair back together.

One engineer was clever enough to see the problem and cable tie the gears which enabled the chair to function basically.

As the chair had been laid on its side the whole body had been shunted out of place, the back is customized to suit my shape in order to support me in my chair, as I cannot sit unaided upright as I have no upper body support.

The airline immediatly took responsibility. There were no electric wheelchairs available from Gammie. The airline flew in two wheelchairs from Seattle but the representative in Maui could immediatly see that they were not suitable for me.

A special part was needed from the manufacturers but this could not be acquired until I returned to the UK.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Lindabator

    Excellent point.  What she should have done is rent a more specialized chair from Gammie, and had Alaska Air foot the bill for the rental.  It would have at least allowed her some enjoyment of the island.

  • Lindabator

    Perhaps she didn’t want that – who knows at this point.  Gammie in Hawaii has a nice selcection of rentals, even some more “personalized” ones for various limitations – do not know why this was not an option.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    That was my thought, too.  There had to be any number of medical supply locations in and around Hawaii that would have been able to meet her needs.  And had she let the airline know, on Day 1, she had located a suitable short-term replacement, they would probably have said, “Go ahead and we’ll reimburse you”.  Get it in an e-mail and her vacation problems were solved.

  • Lindabator

    But she doesn’t state WHY she waited until her return to England to get it fixed.  Perhaps she chose that method, in which case, what could they really be expected to do?  I really wish I had been her travel agent – I would have contacted Gammie immediately,  gotten a more specialized rental chair for her, and submitted the bill to Alaska to pay.  OF COURSE< I would have suggested a better way to ship her wheelchair in the first place, making this a moot point (but I like having back-up options available!)

  • Lindabator

    They could have rented her another – Gammie is a specialist in that area, and probably could have made the recommendation to either fix or ship it back as well.  Just wish she would tell us more about this point – what was offered, why another rental wasn’t taken, etc.

  • Lindabator

    ??? Not TALKING about the replacement chair, but the ORIGINAL one – I have had to book a client’s special chair as such for them, and contact the airlines’ medical desk to ensure they were aware of her extreme needs for the connecting flights.

  • Lindabator

    But I’m wondering how hard she looked.  There is a wonderful company called Gammie in Hawaii, and they have a few more “personalized” chairs for rental – I always keep them in mind as a backup for my clients.  It may not have been quite as nice as her own, but would have given her a bit more mobility, and then she could have gone to Alaska air to foot the bill.  (Its what I would have done!)

  • Lindabator

    Thanks!  (AND yes, sometimes that meant a longer layover, or a slightly higher fare, but my clients couldn’t complain – they had their mobility).  I do feel very sorry for this client, but Alaska did repair her chair, AND gave her $500 (which was probably the cost of the entire airline ticket).  Perhaps if she HAD rented another chair during her stay, they would go further and reimburse her, but to ask them to cover an entire vacation is too much.  I know this is one of those “special circumstances” but those are the reasons FOR the limitations in the Montreal Convention in the first place.

  • Michael__K

    It has to fit through the cargo door or else be taken apart (which defeats the purpose).   

    [And the passenger must have  the capability  to store it and transport it to the airport.]

    As TonyA pointed out, Haseltine’s own website says that “737’s  have difficulty loading them.”

  • Lindabator

    Which, I think they did, with the $500 cash and repair costs.  I , too, don not understand why a local rental was NOT used.  Was it the OPs decision?  If so, why on earth should she expect her vacation REFUNDED?

  • Sally Allen

    Actually that’s pretty middle of the road for Maine…

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, think about what you just said or ask. If UPS wants $1K to move that thing, then why are we asking the airline to move it for FREE. That’s exactly what the law is asking them to do. Since we all know moving big stuff is not compatible with moving people, then the airline is put into a DISADVANTAGE when being forced to deal with these heavy and bulky stuff. It’s a no win for the passenger airlines so you won’t find an easy solution.

  • Michael__K

    Tony, it’s a moral judgement that’s been codified in the ADA.  That (for example) the 1 in 2,000 or so people among us who rely on motorized wheelchairs deserve the same level of access to facilities as the rest of us.  And sometimes this means that 1,999 out of 2,000 of us pay slightly more to cover some extra costs to accomplish that.

    Don’t forget BTW that you suggested that the passenger invest $1K+ to protect the wheelchair in a 55 lb. container which would add considerable bulk and difficulties to the airline’s and baggage handlers’ task ;)

  • TonyA_says

    So do my nice suitcases that protect my clothes and gear. I must have a few $K invested in luggage. No one forced me to buy them. I just want clean clothes and working electronics when I get to my destination.

    I think you miss my point. The (passenger) airlines have no incentive to create an effective system to move 450lb scooters if they don’t get paid for it. So you live with the system they have now. You get what you pay for.

  • Michael__K

    Their incentive is the law (which perhaps needs more teeth).  And I would expect them to pass the costs on to consumers.

  • TonyA_says

    The law? Good luck. They have the best law money can buy :-)

  • Joe Farrell

     and therein lies the claim for consequential damages arising from the lack of any limitation on liability. 

  • Joe Farrell

     every been to Hawaii?  Not the biggest selection of anything –

    that said . . ..  they DO run an airline and could have gotten her a rental replacement in about 48 hours . . .

  • bodega3

    When she told AS about her problem still hasn’t been said.  Did she notify AS at the OGG airport?  If so, yes, AS should have obtained a rental chair for her right away.  I just can’t get a handle on when she filed her complaint.

  • bodega3

    The interesting thing is that she doesn’t mention that the chair was fine upon arrival in CA, since she has to go through customs in the first arrival point and would have used the chair to do this.  I realize this makes the most sense, but this detail nags at me.

  • Michael__K

    Can you clarify for us non-lawyers: are you saying that even without demonstrating negligence, this puts Alaska Air on the hook to compensate the OP for the consequences to her vacation stemming from not having a fully functional wheelchair?   How would that be calculated?

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    I meant that there are some attorneys who take any case regardless of the merits simply to collect money for themselves.  Being low rent is a state of mind.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    You and I have no idea what each other are talking about.  My post is in response to  Andrew Bells’ suggestion that that one of the things the OP could have done to proactively salvage the vacation is to have a replacement, customized chair at home.  I suggested that makes no sense for the reasons already articulated. 

    I have no idea what part of my post you’re are replying to.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    They’re not moving it for free.  Its part of the ticket that the OP purchased.  And as Michael_K states, its part of the law and I expect them to follow it.  Accomodating handicapped folks is always expensive, and probably rarely worth it on a business level, but its part of the moral judgment that we, as Americans, have made, and as Michael_K further correctly states, the cost is passed along to other customers.

    I for one am happy to pay for those costs. 

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    Not necessarily.  She stated that she requires a certain custom wheelchair to operate more than an hour.  Since its her life, I can’t see myself second guessing her unless I had some expertise in wheel chair dynamics.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    The OP stated clearly the reason why she didn’t rent a local wheelchair.  The question is whether or not we believe her.  I do.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    I disagree with Joe that the airline is legally on the hook for consequential damages. 

    However, with respect to your question, negligence is merely one of many means of assessing liability.  Consider the car rental example.   You drive your rental car perfectly and someone rears ends you.  You are 100% in the right, no negligence.  You still owe the rental company for the damages to the car.  Of course, the other car driver should reimburse you.  However, if he is penniless, you’re still on the hook for the damages even though you weren’t negligent or at fault in any way.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    If someone broke his arm or legs because of the negligence of the airline, he’d get alot more than just his medical bills.  Alot more. $$$$$$$$$$$$$

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    We cannot hold the traveling public to your specialize FeDEX and Travel agent knowledge.

  • TonyA_says

     A typical pax will pay $25/$35 for the first and second (max 50 lbs) luggage. So they do pay an ave. of $60 for the first 100 lbs of check in luggage. A handicapped person can check-in a 450 lb. mobility device for FREE. As far as I know their tickets cost the same. So they essentially got free CARGO. A 450 lb. object is definitely cargo regardless of what you want to call it.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, I suppose you are addressing this to me.
    Well any heavyweight object is CARGO. Who the hell brings a 450 lb object with them to Maui (or internationally)? How many travel agents do you know are trained to handle cargo. In fact the logistics of a power wheelchair is more complicated than ordinary cargo because it is fragile, has batteries, must be driven from check-in to the ramp, and must have super priority handling. Unfortunately bulk loading the belly of a 737 or smaller airplane with large and heavy objects is not necessarily efficient. But you and the general public expect it to be. The door (aft) of a 737 is still 33 x 48 inches regardless of what the Air Carrier Access Act says. Good luck to those who think you can have your oversized power wheelchair easily fit those doors.

  • mythsayer

     My mom is in an electric scooter.  She cannot get around without it.  I live in Japan.  She has visited me in Japan.  Should she NOT visit me because she can’t walk?  No, she should visit, because the law (which applies to US carries) says she gets accessible accommodations.  Her scooter IS NOT LUGGAGE.  It is essentially PART of her now.  Luggage is OPTIONAL on a flight.  No one is forcing anyone to bring ANYTHING with them on a plane.  So yes, wheelchairs and the like SHOULD be transported at no additional cost.  Like others have said, we have made a moral decision to provide as good a quality of life to disabled people as possible.  That includes allowing them to do things like travel!  And they shouldn’t have to pay an additional fee for something that is essentially an extension of their body.  Other people have stood up for the OP and I have to say, it’s absolutely true, no one has any idea what it’s like to be disabled until you are or until you’ve closely dealt with someone who is (and I’m not picking on you, Tony, for this point, even if it seems like I am).

  • mythsayer

    The traveler shouldn’t be responsible for knowing that.  She is covered by certain ADA laws.  They accepted her money and had an obligation to get her wheelchair there BY LAW.  If they couldn’t do it properly on that plane, they needed to get it there some other way instead of doing it improperly and damaging it. 

  • TonyA_says

    Shannon, please understand, I have nothing against handicapped people. I stated earlier that my sister-in-law has MS, too. My aunt is severely autistic. Also, several older relatives have Alzheimer’s and are in wheelchairs and are wheeled around by private nurses.

    My comments come from my own observations, having worked with the passenger and the cargo side of airlines. In my opinion words are cheap. I do not think the Air Carrier Access Act adequately addresses the issues involved with traveling with heavy and bulky powered wheelchairs. I don’t think highly of decrees or dogma. I am more concerned about where the rubber meets the road – real situations. Broken Wheelchairs. If you want to resolve this issue then you need better engineering and processes. I am pointing out that the law does not dangle a carrot but just a stick. That might work in the USSR but not in the USA.

  • $16635417

    I was not comparing the lost of a wedding dress to the loss of a wheelchair. What I WAS comparing was the preparation of CONTINGENCY PLANS in case the wedding dress were lost or damaged. If one can make plans for something relatively minor as a wedding dress, can they be made for something as vital as a wheelchair?

    I was later told by someone that anyone using a custom wheelchair can ONLY use that wheelchair and rentals are NOT an option. 

  • wiseword

    The salient  point here seems to be that they DIDN’T fix the chair, if “fixing” means that they would have made it usable in the way it was meant to be used.

  • TonyA_says

    I think you need to understand how the ACAA law is practiced by the airlines with regards to CHECKED POWER CHAIRS. If your wheelchair cannot fit the  cargo door, they will dismantle it and reassemble it for you at the final destination. So for as long as you give them INSTRUCTIONS about your unit, then they “can” do it accordingly.

    The OP’s wheelchair was transported according to law. But the law cannot prevent it from getting broken. My comments should be interpreted as — the airlines are ill equipped to handle very heavy and huge wheelchairs; therefore they get broken. So expect more wheelchairs to break, regardless of the law.

  • frostysnowman

    I try so hard to be sympathetic in cases like this, but then they get to the “compensate me for my misery and emotional turmoil” and they lose me.  Alaska Airlines offered the OP what was fair. Don’t mediate.

  • Tempo Holidays

    We already have a great technology so that we can find anything easily.

  • Stacey

    The ramp staff were told how to handle the chair, and they were told it could NOT be stored on its side. They came back and informed the passenger that it would be stored on its side, in defiance of her instructions. They were negligent, perhaps even malicious.  Even if they had to remove other passengers’ bags or cargo, they are legally obligated to transport the wheelchair in a responsible manner.

    I think the customer should have done everything she needed to do to
    enjoy her vacation to the same degree that she would have if her chair
    had not been broken. 

    That means
    1) Renting the best chair possible
    2) Performing any modifications that could be performed on the wheelchair at the shop to improve the useability of the chair
    3) Hiring extra attendant(s) to do the extra work of pushing her around in substandard equipment
    4) A therapeutic massage every night to get rid of aches and pains of a ill-fitting chair
    5) Room and board for the extra caretaker(s)

    Alaska would be fully obligated to pay for all of those expenses, just
    as they would need to buy me clothes if my luggage was delayed for
    several days. 

    I think the customer could have easily gotten more than $10k in expenses from the airline.  Alaska should not pay any “pain and suffering”, but I do not think that replacement cost of the vacation (or at least a significant portion of it) is out of line. 

  • kanehi

    The bottom line is it’s all about the contract of carriage and compensation.  I would understand if she stayed in her hotel room for the rest of her trip but she didn’t.  She stated she can only tolerate the wheelchair for one hour at a time so essentially it was partly functional. 

  • Brodieisla

    There is a reason for a custom-built wheelchair. I have
    three pressure sores on my back, and because the   chair was
    so severely damaged it impacted on my comfort thus limiting the amount of time.
    I was able to spend in the chair. No other replacement would have been
    suitable. As I need care, while I am away. I also hired   a nursing
    agency who took my blood pressure on arrival at the hotel and this is what they
     said ‘was found to be very high,
    194/104, also heart rate was high, 101. We attributed this to the recent
    arrival from air port ( with a broken wheel chair), and possibly being
    dehydrated.’they considered sending me to hospital but  due to the circumstances rest was the best

    had no contact from Alaskan airlines  until the Tuesday after we landed on  Saturday, the inappropriate wheelchairs were
    flown in on Thursday, we flew out  of
    Maui on Saturday. I was  to ld that an  in wheelchair repair was arranged for later
    that day, but he was unable to do a repair until Tuesday, and he apologised,
    saying that he could only jerry rig the repair as he did not have the right
    part .

    holiday was ruined. I am not whining, but I feel that I am entitled to what was

  • hoLi-dAYs

    If the airline breaks a passenger’s possessions,are you entitled to compensation? did she get to the hotel on time.I wouldnt want my trip to be ruined like that.

  • Ben

    it was no accident. The airline intentionally mishandled it after being instructed not to handle it that way.