American Airlines reviewing video showing baggage handler releasing wheelchair down jet bridge chute

BySteve Almasy, Carlos Suarez and Denise Royal, CNNWire
Wednesday, November 22, 2023
American Airlines reviewing 'deeply concerning' wheelchair video
American Airlines said it is reviewing a video posted on TikTok that shows a baggage handler releasing a passenger's wheelchair to slide down a jet bridge chute, where it crashed into a metal barrier, flipped over and tumbled onto an airport tarmac.

MIAMI -- American Airlines said it is reviewing a video posted on TikTok that shows a baggage handler releasing a passenger's wheelchair to slide down a jet bridge chute, where it crashed into a metal barrier, flipped over and tumbled onto an airport tarmac.

The post, which has millions of views, has brought renewed attention to the traveling plight of millions of disabled Americans. According to the Paralyzed Veterans of America nonprofit, more than 31 wheelchairs were damaged, delayed or lost each day by airline workers between 2019 and 2022.

The user who posted the TikTok video, Haeley Dyrdahl, said she recorded the incident Sunday at Miami International Airport "after I saw them do this and laugh with the first two wheelchairs." She told CNN she also saw a suitcase get the same treatment.

In the video, as the first man lets the wheelchair go, a second baggage handler, who is on the ground at the other end of the chute and wearing an American Airlines vest, steps back. The wheelchair slides down, strikes the barrier and flips over. The handler then loads the wheelchair onto a baggage cart. It's unclear if the wheelchair was damaged.

For those who use wheelchairs, arriving at an airport only to learn an essential tool for mobility has been damaged can be a real nightmare.

Dyrdahl told CNN she often works with wheelchair users through her job and has had many families "express concerns with how their wheelchair would be handled during travel."

"After seeing this happen firsthand a couple times in a row, I was very sad to learn just how valid their concerns are," she said.

American Airlines said in a statement, "We recognize how important it is to support the independence of customers with disabilities by ensuring the proper care of mobility devices throughout their journey with us. This visual is deeply concerning and we are gathering more details so that we can address them with our team. We will continue to work hard to improve our handling of assistive devices across our network."

The airline said it is working to improve training for employees handling mobility devices and installing wheelchair movers and lifts at airports with high mobility device traffic, which will help lower the risk of damage. It did not provide a timeline.

In a post on X, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the incident was "totally unacceptable" and the department, which has published a bill of rights for disabled passengers, would investigate.

In August 2023, American Airlines mishandled 226 wheelchairs and scooters - a rate of 2.24 per 100 they handled on planes, according to the most recent available data released by the Department of Transportation. Among 15 major US carriers, it ranked 13th, according to the data.

The data is trending in the wrong direction for the airline. In 2022, American Airlines' rate of damaging, delaying or losing wheelchairs and scooters was 2.00 per 100, DOT statistics show.

In September, the DOT announced United Airlines would "roll out a flight filter on its booking engine to make it easier for passengers who use wheelchairs to find flights where their wheelchairs can fit and be safely transported" as part of an agreement with the department.

The DOT also said it was laying the groundwork for a potential policy that would give passengers the ability to stay in their wheelchairs on flights.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who uses a wheelchair, called the video "shocking, but not surprising based on my own travel experiences or those of anyone who relies on a mobility device to live their lives fully."

"Since I passed a law requiring public disclosure of how often airlines damage mobility devices, data shows that far too many wheelchair users land at their destinations only to find their wheelchairs broken, often irreparably," Duckworth said in a statement. "It's completely unacceptable to treat critical medical devices like this."

In 2018, Duckworth authored the bill that requires the DOT to issue monthly reports on damage to wheelchairs and scooters, and she is continuing to work on federal legislation to improve travel for disabled passengers.

In September, Duckworth and Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, introduced the Mobility Aids on Board Improve Lives and Empower All (MOBILE) Act to address challenges faced by passengers who use mobility aids.

"Though DOT is currently required to report the number of wheelchairs damaged each month, it does not evaluate data on the frequency or types of damage to manual wheelchairs, power wheelchairs or scooters," the statement from Duckworth and Thune -- both members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee -- said.

The legislation would require the Secretary of Transportation to notify air carriers of proposed rulemaking that would require them to publish dimensions of cargo holds. It also calls on the agency to study whether it is possible for passengers to use wheelchairs in the main cabin.

It also says, "If in-flight, in-wheelchair seating is determined to be technically feasible, (the secretary should) assess the economic and financial feasibility of accommodating passengers with their wheelchairs in the main cabin during flight."

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, and Rep. Pete Stauber, a Minnesota Republican, introduced a similar bill in the House.

CNN's David Williams, Ross Levitt and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.

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