For those people on a wheelchair, taking a plane can become a nightmare. Cory Lee, the travel blogger curating the website “Curb Free with Cory Lee,” explains why air travel is still particularly complicated for people forced on a wheelchair. At the age of 2, Cory was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. Two years later, he began using a power wheelchair.
My wheelchair means total independence […] My entire well-being is dependent upon the wheelchair.Cory Lee
Despite its disability, Cory has traveled to 37 countries and across the seven continents. However, every time he has to take a plane, he faces many difficulties. Because of the reduced space on airplanes, Cory must give up his wheelchair every time he boards a plane. “Without it, I can’t really do anything,” he explains.
He reveals that he starts cutting back food and beverage 48 to 72 hours before he arrives at the airport to avoid using airplane lavatories, which never meet accessibility standards for wheelchair users. “I’ve actually never used the bathroom on a flight. I flew from Atlanta to Johannesburg, which was 17 hours nonstop, and I didn’t eat anything for about three days or drink for about 24 hours before the flight,” he says.
Once he goes through the security checks (that most of the times are a horrible experience), he proceeds to the gate, where he gets separated from his wheelchair and forced to an aise chair. Then, Cory gets transferred into his plane seat. “In the past, I’ve been dropped by the crew,” he says.
Once he arrives at the destination, there might still be bad news. “Once I arrive at the destination, I’m anxiously waiting to see my wheelchair and make sure that it’s going to work and in good condition,” explains Cory. Last June, after a flight, Cory received back his wheelchair with several damages on the joystick and armrest, which took nine days to repair. The airline paid around $500 to repair the damage and Cory received a $500 future flight voucher, as well as a flight refund.
Accidents like this one are very common. According to a report released in 2018 by the US Secretary of Transportation, passengers filed 36,930 disability-related complaints with airlines flying within and outside the US. That same year, the US government began collecting data on wheelchair mismanagement by airlines, and since then, over 15,000 wheelchairs or scooters have been lost or damaged. Moreover, a 2020 report from the US Department of Transportation revealed that airlines damage about 29 disabled travelers’ wheelchairs daily. But wheelchair customers’ concerns go beyond US borders. According to a survey conducted by AbleMove and Flying Disabled and focusing on the US, the UK, Europe, Asia and Africa, 43% of wheelchair users said they are no longer choosing to fly. The biggest concerns included wheelchairs being lost or damaged, using the toilet at the airport and on the aircraft, and transferring on and off the aircraft, among others.
According to Cory, all existing airplanes must be redesigned to accommodate a wheelchair, and new airplanes must incorporate accessibility into their design. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me — why there’s funding for space travel, but there can’t be funding to make an accessible spot on an airplane,” points out Cory.