This was not how Stephanie Groce wanted to start her wedding trip.
She was flying from Washington National Airport to San Diego via Philadelphia on American Airlines on July 10 to set up for the big day.
Groce, 27, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and said she made it as far as Philadelphia before the itinerary fell apart.
That first flight operated on a small regional jet, sometimes abbreviated as CRJ.
“I have not had a good history with CRJs and my wheelchairs,” Groce said. Because the planes are so small, her chair can never go in the cabin and always has to be loaded with the baggage, which she said seems to make it more likely for the device to arrive broken after the flight.
“I’m sitting in my seat talking myself through what I’d do if they broke my chair at this stage of the game,” Groce said.
Her fears turned out to be well-founded.
“My wheelchair came out sideways and then I watch the person that’s unloading my wheelchair and I see him picking it up (and) I watch him drop it,” she said. “As I’m watching my wheelchair fall to the ground, I wound up on the ground sobbing.”
Her wheelchair was severely damaged as a result of the fall, and Groce realized she would not be able to do her planned Disneyland stop and continue on to San Diego without a working power-assisted wheelchair.
“There’s no way I can go to Disneyland without my power assist,” she said. “Thank God we were connecting through Philadelphia, which is where I’m from.”
Groce’s mother was able to meet her and her now-husband at the airport. The couple borrowed Groce’s mother’s car and drove back to their home in Ft. Meade, Maryland, to retrieve her backup wheelchair.
“I’m extremely lucky to have two wheelchairs,” Groce said. “When this happens – most people only have one wheelchair – you’re effectively downed until this gets resolved.”
Groce and her partner drove back to Philadelphia and continued on to San Diego the next day, though she said she had to argue with customer service representatives at the airport about storing her wheelchair in the cabin, rather than in the hold.
Groce said the flight crew backed her up in getting her wheelchair onboard.
“They were absolutely fantastic,” she said. “We got to California without further incident, which, thank God, because I’m out of wheelchairs.”
American Airlines acknowledged the incident in a statement to USA TODAY.
“American understands the importance of wheelchairs and assistive devices to our customers who rely on them. We remain committed to improving the handling of our customers’ devices and their overall travel experience. A member of our team has apologized and is working with the customer to replace their device,” the statement said.
Ultimately, Groce’s wedding went on as scheduled, but she said she still isn’t sure when she’s getting her new wheelchair. The whole ordeal added a huge amount of stress to an already high-stakes trip, she added.
“Our bodies physically got to California in OK condition, but my wheelchair didn’t. If you didn’t get my wheelchair there OK, you didn’t get me there OK,” she said.
Groce added that she’s had similar issues when traveling with her wheelchair before and hopes that airlines will work to address this ongoing problem in the industry.
“I’ve had this happen to my wheelchair at multiple airports and that points to a systemic issue,” she said. “It’s happening everywhere and instead of just turning a blind eye to it because the bottom line isn’t affected, they need to up the training on it.”
Cruising Altitude: Data doesn’t show how ‘catastrophic’ airline wheelchair damage can be
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Systemic issue’: Flyers with disabilities face frequent device damage