Help! Airline broke my wheelchair and ruined Hawaii vacation

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.

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.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend