Help! Airline broke my wheelchair and ruined Hawaii vacation

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Christopher Elliott

The road to Hana in Maui. / Photo by Ying Hai - Flickr
It was supposed to be a vacation of a lifetime for Jane Gray — a trip from Southwest England, where she lives, to Maui.

But it ended in disaster when Alaska Airlines damaged her wheelchair on a connecting flight between California and Hawaii. And even though Alaska repaired her wheelchair and offered a flight voucher and eventually, cash compensation, it’s not enough. She wants my help.

Before I get to her disagreement with Alaska, here’s a little background: Gray has secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis and depends on a customized wheelchair to get around. Before flying to Hawaii, she asked her travel agent for information about how to travel with her wheelchair, and was told the necessary arrangements could be made.

That didn’t happen.

“Unfortunately, the chair was not correctly stored in the hold as the ground crew were desperate to meet the flight deadline,” she says. “They had laid my chair on its side as I subsequently found out on my arrival in Maui when it came out of the hold in bits. I was actually able to witness this as my seat was directly over the hold.”

Needless to say, the trip didn’t go as planned.

As a result of the damage to my wheelchair, the brake had been broken and could not be disengaged to enable my carer to take control of the chair. In addition the specially added feature of ‘carer controls’, were also damaged, leaving it impossible for her to take control of the chair as is necessary after a few hours of use by myself, due to the limitations of my illness.

In addition to this, the headrest attachment had been broken.

I could only venture out for approximately one hour at a time and was unable to go further than the hotel restaurant for dinner, for the entire holiday. I missed out on all the activities I had planned, causing great misery knowing the entire trip had become pointless.

Flying Angels provide medical transport anywhere in the world on commercial airlines with a Flight Nurse or Doctor. A Flight Coordinator handles the logistics. The client receives care during the entire transport—bedside to bedside. Visit or call 877-265-1085 to speak with a flight coordinator.

An Alaska representative assured Gray that the airline took incidents like this “very seriously” and would do everything it could to make things right. But when Gray returned to the U.K., Alaska only offered to repair her wheelchair and offer her a $400 voucher.

Appeals to management were partially successful. Alaska upped its compensation offer from a credit to $500 cash.

But Gray was still unhappy. She’d paid nearly £6,000 for her vacation, and had been unable to enjoy it as a direct result of what she says was Alaska’s negligence. What’s more, the airline didn’t do what it had promised, which was to do everything it could to make things right.

But Alaska says it’s done enough. Here’s what a supervisor wrote to her after she appealed her case.

While I certainly apologize for any disappointment you experienced, we must respectfully deny your request to have your vacation reimbursed and for additional consideration in this matter.

Our offer of $500 USD still stands if you wish to accept this offer in lieu of the Discount Code you were previously issued.

Also, if you have additional receipts for repairs to your wheelchair stemming from your travels with us, please feel free to submit them for consideration.

Alaska is technically correct. Its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between Gray and the airline, and international law — specifically the Montreal Convention, which deals with lost and damaged luggage — suggests the airline did everything it was required to. It fixed her wheelchair and delivered her to her destination. In fact, it went beyond that by offering her cash compensation.

Gray believes she’s entitled to more.

“Who will compensate me for the distress and misery caused by the damage to my chair and the serious consequences of this, both emotional and physical?” she asks.

Should I get involved in this case? I sympathize with Gray. Clearly, her vacation was ruined by her damaged wheelchair.

On the other hand, she has no case that I can see, legally. If Alaska coughs up £6,000, then it will set a precedent, and anyone who loses a day of work because of a flight delay or has their golf vacation ruined because the airline lost their clubs, will be able to make a similar claim.

Update (6/12/12): Gray offers the following clarification in response to the comments.

I would love to clear up some details. Can I tell you though that the travel agent checked with all the airlines that the dimensions and weight of my chair were suitable for the cargo holds – I even flew on a 717 between the islands.

At each airport they were shown how to fold my chair but on this occasion they were not interested because they were being instructed to get the flight away on time as it was running late.

A member of the ground crew came on to the plane to tell me that it would have to be laid on its side and I said ‘no way’, but obviously that is what happened as we were told when we arrived in Maui.

I waited with several members of the Maui engineers and CEO of Maui Airport Authority for 4 hours in the lounge, whilst they tried to just put the chair back together.

One engineer was clever enough to see the problem and cable tie the gears which enabled the chair to function basically.

As the chair had been laid on its side the whole body had been shunted out of place, the back is customized to suit my shape in order to support me in my chair, as I cannot sit unaided upright as I have no upper body support.

The airline immediatly took responsibility. There were no electric wheelchairs available from Gammie. The airline flew in two wheelchairs from Seattle but the representative in Maui could immediatly see that they were not suitable for me.

A special part was needed from the manufacturers but this could not be acquired until I returned to the UK.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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