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Flyer ‘just in shock’ after watching wheelchair fall off baggage belt from a United flight


This is the second time this year that Neena Nizar’s wheelchair was damaged on a flight, and she said it’s much worse now.

“My wheelchair is totaled. I’ve had it break before but not like this,” she told USA TODAY.

Nizar was flying home to Nebraska from Vancouver via Denver on United Airlines on Oct. 13, and she said she watched her wheelchair fall off the baggage belt after landing in Omaha.

“There was nobody holding it, and there was nobody there to receive it so it fell right off,” she said. “That’s crazy, it’s like, are you kidding me?” 

In May, the chair’s armrests were damaged after a flight on Southwest Airlines, but the device was still usable. Now, Nizar said, her wheelchair won’t even turn on.

Nizar realized the extent of the damage on the jet bridge and ultimately spent hours in the Omaha airport after her flight trying to see what recourse was available before eventually being pushed in her non-functioning wheelchair to the airport entrance and carried and driven home by her husband.

“I just started crying, I was so upset, I said, ‘how could you do this?’ ” she said. “I was numb, I was just in shock.”

United Airlines acknowledged the incident in a statement to USA TODAY.

“We’ve been working with Ms. Nizar to get her a high-end loaner chair and her preferred vendor is currently assessing her wheelchair. We’ve apologized to Ms. Nizar and will cover the cost of repairs or a replacement, depending on the final assessment,” the statement said.

But Nizar said simply replacing her chair isn’t nearly sufficient compensation.

“I can’t walk my dog. I can’t go to the grocery. It was my son’s birthday the other day and I needed to go to the store multiple times and I couldn’t … I teach and I need to be able to go out and teach as well and I can’t do that,” she said. “I have to rearrange everything and they’re not going to compensate for any of this.”

For now, Nizar said, she’s stuck at home until she gets her chair replaced or a fully-functional loaner.

“I asked them how am I going to get to work, how am I going to continue to be able to put food on the table for my family if I can’t get around?” she said. “The response from one of the customer service people was ‘have someone drive you’ and it’s like, ‘what? This isn’t my car that broke down, this is my wheelchair, this is like my legs.’ They just don’t understand.” 

Nizar said it could take up to a year for her chair to be fully replaced, because the device needs to be custom fit to her body. She said the whole situation makes her feel unwanted by the travel industry.

“I just feel even more angry that we are isolating this whole section of society who otherwise would be productive and moving around and working … It’s almost like a fear mechanism you’ve created that prevents people from doing what they need to do,” she said. “It’s not an option for me to stop traveling and I don’t want to stop traveling because it’s my right to travel.”

How common is mobility equipment damage in air travel?

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines “mishandle” on average about 1.5% of the mobility equipment they transport. In 2022, that translated to 11,389 incidents reported by U.S. airlines, up from 7,239 in 2021.

This year, USA TODAY wants to highlight what those figures mean for travelers with disabilities. We’re looking to track these incidents throughout 2023 with the goal of bringing light to an all-too-common problem. 

If your own mobility equipment was damaged or lost by an airline this year, please share your story with us using the form below:

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com

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