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'Left high and dry': Wheelchair users hit out at damage caused while flying

‘What’s not understood by airlines and baggage handlers is that the wheelchair is basically somebody’s legs.’

Image: Shutterstock/Chutima Chaochaiya

A DISABILITY ADVOCATE was left without her wheelchair last week after it was broken on a flight from Dublin to Amsterdam, and was told by the airline that they would deal with her complaint in seven days.

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird moved to the Dutch city to study a Master’s degree but found that the wires of her motorised wheelchair had been heavily damaged after it was placed in the cargo hold on a Ryanair flight.

“I had to submit a form on the airline’s website under the section for complaints about lost or damaged baggage, but a wheelchair is not baggage. It’s my mobility, I rely on it continuously. I can’t do anything here in Amsterdam without it.”

Ryanair’s helpdesk in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport had been closed when Ní Hoireabhaird’s flight landed last Wednesday night, she said, and because she couldn’t report her problem there she was left struggling to leave the airport and frustrated by the online complaints system.

Asked about the situation, Ryanair provided this statement to The Journal:

Ryanair passenger baggage is handled by a third-party provider at Schiphol Airport – not by Ryanair. We regret that this passenger’s wheelchair was damaged during her travels from Dublin to Amsterdam.

“A member of our Special Assistance Team has been in contact with this passenger to assist with her complaint, which has now been resolved.”

The airline added that “where a passenger encounters damage to their wheelchair, they are required to report it upon arrival at the airport, which this passenger did not”.

When it was clear no solution or alternative was available at the airport Ní Hoireabhaird had to be helped into a taxi home.

Her situation isn’t rare for wheelchair users, in fact the same airline had damaged her wheelchair a year before but less seriously that time.

“I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user about this and he’s a Paralympian who told me that he had been in a similar scenario and had to really fight a company and email every day just to get them to replace the wheelchair even though it was their fault.”

Several days after arriving in Amsterdam, Ryanair promised Ní Hoireabhaird that it would pay her up to €1,500 of compensation, but she’s unsure if this will cover the cost of the rented wheelchair she’s currently using, the new motor needed for the old chair and a repairman to install it.

Advocacy manager of the Irish Wheelchair Association, Joan Carthy, told The Journal that taking a wheelchair through an airport is like hoping for the best because of how unpredictable the situation could become.

“We hear from our membership quite frequently that their wheelchairs are getting damaged or lost. Sometimes maybe just delayed so that they don’t arrive at the same time as the person who relies on it,” she said.

“It’s become a major problem because I think what’s not understood by airlines and baggage handlers is that the wheelchair is basically somebody’s legs. So when they get off the other end of a journey and there’s no wheelchair or there’s a broken wheelchair, what are they supposed to do?”

Far-reaching effects

Any situation in which a wheelchair user is without their chair can leave them inconvenienced – even if they haven’t just arrived in another country where they have no connections or supports.

When a person can be compensated for their wheelchair by an airline, it doesn’t undo the discomfort and time they endured stranded in an airport, Carthy continued.

“I use a motorised wheelchair. And a couple of years ago, I was flying out to the Canaries. My wheelchair was smashed when we went to collect it, the frame was so badly twisted that it wouldn’t work. I was left sitting in an airport with no connections, no resources. They wouldn’t let me take their temporary wheelchair out of the airport.”

She then managed to find a local company that brought a wheelchair to the airport and let her use it for a week, which prevented her holiday from being entirely ruined.

Airline staff aren’t aware of the stress and longer term implications caused to a wheelchair user when this happens, she says.

An airline eventually gave her money to buy a new wheelchair but she had been left “high and dry for five hours”.

“They had literally treated it as baggage. And when I came back here it took six weeks to order a new chair and I had to hire a chair in the meantime that wasn’t suitable for me.”

Carthy owns a van that is modified to allow her to drive in a wheelchair but this didn’t work with the temporary hired chair and she had to rely on friends to drive her to work for months because of the carelessness of baggage handlers.

“When you don’t know much about disability or it’s just your job to get an airplane packed up and ready to go you don’t think about the implications if something gets damaged. It has a massive impact in taking away whatever independence someone has.”

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