As soon as Nic and Rachel Cole touched down in Minneapolis, she received an alert that one of their two bags wasn't arriving. At first, the couple was confused. They had only checked one bag. But soon Rachel realized what happened — and it was worse than missing clothes and toiletries. The airline forgot Nic’s wheelchair.
“I heard one of the flight attendants say, ‘They didn’t load his wheelchair?!’ YES, you read that correctly, THEY DIDN’T LOAD HIS WHEELCHAIR,” Rachel, 26, a speech pathologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 3,000 times. “Without his chair, Nic has ZERO mobility, ZERO independence, he has to be completely humiliated being pushed all around much like a child in a stroller in an airport full of people strapped to this ‘transport chair’ because of his immobility.”
The couple said that while Nic’s chair is often damaged on flights, this situation was a first. Nic normally takes his wheelchair to the plane door, where he transfers to the airline's transport wheelchair, designed to navigate the narrow aisles. That means he checks his chair at the gate.
“We just kind of stared at each other,” Rachel told TODAY. “We drive five hours to Dallas to avoid any kind of (layover). The less time (in the airplane) the less damage can happen ... We try to do all the steps possible to avoid a situation like that. And yet, it didn’t even get on the plane.”
Nic has been paralyzed from his chest down since an accident in 2017. His wheelchair has a special seat that helps tilt his body to avoid pressure sores and a joystick that allows him to steer. It also has braces at the knees and along the sides to keep Nic upright. Sitting in the transport chair provided by the airline is challenging for him: It doesn't even have a seat belt to prevent him from slumping out.
“His chair is set up to keep him one, safe, and two, independent,” Rachel explained. “The chair they put him in at the airport doesn’t have wheels that he could push.”
The staff at American Airlines eventually tracked down the chair, which went from Texas to Ohio, back to Texas, then to Iowa, and eventually made it to Minneapolis, its initial destination. The couple spent an entire day in a hotel room with Nic flat on his back and they missed a fitting for a modified van for Nic so he can drive and return to work. Being without his chair was dehumanizing and disappointing.
If Nic experienced a muscle spasm, he could fall on the floor and he couldn't move in or out of bed, or to the bathroom.
“I think it was 13 hours I was in bed,” Nic told TODAY. “It wasn’t just a bummer, it was a safety issue as well.”
With her Facebook post, Rachel hopes to raise awareness of what it’s like to travel with a disability. Sadly, people with disabilities often face problems when flying and frequently find that their wheelchairs or motorized scooters are broken. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) airlines damage at least 25 wheelchairs and scooters a day.
“It is probably an under count,” Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth told TODAY. “I think a lot of people probably have had their wheelchairs damaged and not realized it until they got home and it was too hard to report.”
Duckworth, a combat veteran and double amputee who uses a wheelchair, spearheaded legislation that requires airlines to report damaged wheelchairs and scooters to the DOT. A DOT spokesperson said that people should report travel problems to them. Since the first report came out earlier this year, Duckworth hasn’t noticed a change.
“On the day the rule went into effect (an airline) broke my wheelchair,” she said. “I have not seen an improvement in how my wheelchair has been handled.”
Duckworth said she advocated for the legislation because she understands how integral a working wheelchair is to people's well being.
“Wheelchairs and motorized scooters are essentially a part of their users’ bodies. Without them we are no longer mobile,” she said.
In a statement, the DOT said:
"Although this is a new requirement, the Department believes that the requirement to report mishandled wheelchair and scooter data provides further incentive to airlines to provide the training necessary to their personnel and contractors to result in as few wheelchairs and scooters mishandled as possible."
They urge travelers to visit this website for updated data on how airlines handle wheelchairs and scooters.
Nic and Rachel hope that their experience will help airline staff and others understand what it is like for people who use wheelchairs.
“This is his lifeline. He can do nothing without that chair. Until you realize that and have empathy, it is not going to be important,” Rachel said.
This story was updated on July 26 to include a statement from the U.S. Department of Transportation.