A safe passage

Mandy Latimore
By Mandy Latimore
8 Min Read

People with mobility impairments are often nervous when travelling with expensive mobility aids in case those aids get damaged. These tips should give you some peace of mind.

Many people with mobility impairments are nervous to travel with expensive mobility aids as they worry about damage to these vital pieces of equipment that ensure their independence.

Airlines and staff classify our wheelchair or assistive device as baggage, while we look at it as an extension of our bodies.

Despite numerous calls to the local airlines, I was unable to get anyone to commit to their policy with regards to procedure when a mobility device is damaged, so here are the general rules and a few dos and don’ts.

Knowing what to do when your wheelchair is damaged by the airline or has gone missing before you travel will reduce stress and give you some peace of mind when travelling.

Step one: Know your rights

While all International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines should comply with IATA resolution 700 (acceptance and carriage of incapacitated passengers), European and non-European air carriers are subject to different regulations depending on the flight’s final destination.

When choosing an airline, read through its policies regarding lost or damaged baggage. A request through a travel agent or directly to the airline’s customer service centre should produce its specific policy and limit of payment for damage, replacement of parts, and temporary replacements while your wheelchair is being repaired.

It is also advisable to have your own insurance for your equipment should it exceed the airline payment limits.

Step two:  Know your equipment and prepare it properly

It is essential to know how your mobility device folds, whether it can fold at all, and how to remove parts that could get damaged. Remove all parts that could be damaged or lost and take these into the cabin, including seat cushions, cup holders, side guards, tray tables and bags. Always keep your cushion in sight.

Take photos before and after the trip for evidence. Have protection for your power controller. Attach instructions to your equipment on how to handle and operate power wheelchairs – baggage handlers are not power-wheelchair mechanics. Particularly important are details of how to power the chair on and off, and how to set it in free-wheel mode and lift it.

Instructions attached to the wheelchair can be helpful when it’s loaded and unloaded at the destination. If you need to disassemble it to make it fit the baggage hold, bring along the necessary tools or try to have mechanisms such as pull pins or wing nuts fitted that allow seat backs or headrests to be easily folded away.

At the end of the day, the wheelchair is classified as baggage by the airlines and instructions on its care must come from you – the traveller. Most damage to wheelchairs at airports and on airplanes is accidental, but damage can also be the result of negligence. If your equipment is damaged, follow these steps:

Don’t panic

As any customer service agent knows, when customers get angry or hysterical, it gets in the way of solving the problem. The more pleasant you are, the more pleasant your experience with the airline’s representatives will be.

This means that even if you’re tired, upset, and angry – which you probably will be after a long flight on which your wheelchair got damaged – it’s best to stay firm yet cool, calm and collected. The situation is only as stressful as you make it, so convince yourself that everything will be all right after a short chat with the airline, because chances are, it will be.

Document the evidence

It’s important to take a picture of the damaged parts of your wheelchair or mobility device as soon as you can. If the damage is not visible and for some reason the wheelchair suffered internal damage, use your phone to take a video to prove that your equipment isn’t working correctly.

If possible, make sure that the photo has a date and timestamp, so that the airline knows you took it right after your flight. Alternatively, you can find a spot in the airport to take the photo where the airline will be able to tell, via dates on screens, when it was taken. Include the documentation in the reports you’ll file.

File a report

Find a representative at your airline’s desk before you leave the airport. Since exact procedures may differ for each airline, it’s best to ask about airline-specific rules. If the individual you find at first is unable to help you, ask to speak to the duty manager or someone higher up the chain.

You want the person who is required to know the legislation with regards to the baggage and airline policy. If it’s a small, quick fix that can be completed right then and there in the airport by airline staff, many airlines will make the fix immediately.

If you feel that their fix was inadequate and they still didn’t compensate you fairly, you’ll need to file official reports and claim in order to take the matter further. If you’re happy with the fix, then the matter is resolved!

Most airlines have a policy that allows you to file a report and claim within seven days of travel for international flights. It is always advisable to file a formal report so that the airlines are aware that damage was caused, even it is resolved at the airport. These forms are available at their lost baggage counters.

If the damage occurs at the beginning of a holiday, you may miss the deadline if you leave the reporting process till your return. Stay on top of the issue; if you have no resolution within 45 days, send a detailed account of the incident to the Department of Transport.

Amanda Gibberd has offered to assist any person with disabilities who have unresolved issues with regards to flights both domestic and international that originate or terminate in South Africa. In this social media world, an airline’s failure to promptly repair a wheelchair or mobility device or compensate fairly could “go viral” in an instant.

Yes, it can take a while for matters like this to be resolved. However, because of the set processes and various pieces of international legislature, it’s reasonably simple and straightforward if you know your rights and you remember the steps above. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: the quicker you act, the quicker you’ll see a resolution.

Happy Travels!


Mandy Latimore is a consultant in the disability sector in the fields of travel and access. email: mandy@noveltravel.co.za

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Mandy Latimore
By Mandy Latimore Consultant
Mandy Latimore is a consultant in the disability sector in the fields of travel and access. email: mandy@noveltravel.co.za.
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