That’s just one of many issues for passengers with disabilities. The planes themselves present more. As buses and trains have accommodated wheelchair customers, planes often haven’t. Airlines are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act; they’re covered under separate legislation.

“Airlines have been the most inaccessible. It’s not hit or miss; it’s how they are,” says Tyler Kendall, who lives near Denver. He aids his wife, Hillary Kendall, a hotel executive, when she needs to fly for business meetings.

Tiny lavatories are hardly accessible to able-bodied passengers and are all but unusable for people with mobility challenges. Power wheelchair users can’t drive onto airplanes and strap down as they do on buses and vans. They have to transfer to a skinny airplane aisle chair and, in most cases, remain seated for a long flight (made longer since they must board first and deplane last).

Airline damage to wheelchairs became something carriers had to report to DOT in 2019 because the wheelchair community grew so frustrated with broken equipment. In 2019, airlines carried nearly 686,000 wheelchairs and scooters; 10,584 were mishandled, or 1.5%. That rate has declined to about 1.3% in 2020 and the first eight months of 2021, according to the latest DOT stats.

Those rates are about three times higher than regular baggage mishandling. Still, they likely underestimate the frequency of damage to heavy power chairs. Collapsible manual wheelchairs rarely get damaged, airlines say.

The risk turned tragic this year when United Airlines damaged a $30,000 customized chair used by Engracia Figueroa, a disability-rights advocate traveling home to Los Angeles from a July rally in Washington, D.C. The chair was specially designed to support her injured spinal cord; she died from complications resulting from the loaner chair, according to Hand in Hand, the domestic workers organization Ms. Figueroa supported.

United declined an interview about wheelchair handling but said in a statement, “While each customer and their baggage is important to us, we are particularly focused on taking care of special items like wheelchairs and scooters, which are essential for those traveling with them.”

Airlines say transporting motorized wheelchairs is much more difficult than moving baggage because gates and planes aren’t made to accommodate heavy, fragile equipment and the chairs aren’t made for air travel.

“‘Commercial aircraft are not designed to accommodate mobility devices, and mobility devices are not designed to move easily into and out of aircraft.’”

— J.C. Gulbranson, senior VP of airport operations at American Airlines

Customized chairs can weigh 400 pounds, requiring elevators or lifts to get from the jet bridge to the ground. Small cargo-hold doors on narrow-body airplanes may require turning motorized chairs on their side. That puts pressure on parts not built to withstand that kind of weight. They can fall off baggage loading belts with steep inclines.

Sometimes batteries need to be removed, transported in the cabin of the airplane, then reassembled. Control arms and joysticks may be vulnerable. Even putting the chair in neutral so it can be pushed to an elevator can be tricky. Pushing a chair that’s locked can break it. Areas to grab for lifting aren’t marked, and lifting from the wrong spot can easily break a chair.

The Passengers Who Have the Toughest Time Flying

“Commercial aircraft are not designed to accommodate mobility devices, and mobility devices are not designed to move easily into and out of aircraft,” says J.C. Gulbranson, senior vice president of airport operations atAmerican Airlines.

American, which had the highest rate of wheelchair and scooter mishandling in 2019 but cut that rate by 40% in 2020 and the first eight months of this year, says it is working to improve training. It is starting to acquire special lifts that can be used at gates to safely lower chairs and return them to owners on jet bridges.

Delta, which has the lowest rate of mishandling wheelchairs and scooters among big U.S. airlines, says it consults an advisory board of wheelchair users who fly frequently.

Aisle chairs, the skinny seats on wheels that move immobile passengers through aircraft aisles, are another source of concern for advocates. Aircraft aisles are typically about 18 inches wide—your rolling bag barely fits. The narrow chairs don’t fit most people, yet that’s the only way for many to get to a seat or, during flight, use an often tiny lavatory.

Ms. Kendall, who travels with her husband, says aisle chairs leave her with bruising on her hips. “It’s painful, embarrassing and uncomfortable,” she says.

Rob Moore, a retired Wall Street executive, continues to travel extensively with his wife even though she has multiple sclerosis and uses a power chair. Mr. Moore has had crews stand holding blankets to shield his wife as he works to get her onto and off of an airplane toilet. And he’s had to lift her to get her into a business-class pod designed for passenger privacy and lie-flat sleep but not for accessibility.

“I’m just shocked that more people in the travel business aren’t aware and cognizant of these issues,” he says.

Airlines tell customers with disabilities to call and give information with each reservation about the size and weight of chairs and any operating instructions. He wonders why that can’t be part of a traveler’s profile.

What should airlines do to reduce broken wheelchairs? Join the conversation below.

Wheelchair-dependent travelers say what would make flying easier—and reduce expensive repairs for airlines—is to allow them to drive power chairs onto planes and strap them down. A seat or two in the first row might be removable or fold up as seats on buses do.

An organization called All Wheels Up has raised money to fund research on carrying chairs on airplanes for 10 years. The studies show it is possible, says Michele Erwin, All Wheels Up founder, but a lot more work needs to be done.

Strapping down wheelchairs in a cabin raises regulatory questions of whether evacuation tests would have to include getting wheelchair occupants out within the required 90 seconds. In addition, cabin floors may not be strong enough to handle the weight of a 400-pound customized chair plus its occupant.

Significant change may have to wait for a new generation of aircraft designed from the beginning to accommodate power-chair users.

“This is the only industry that gets to sidestep rules,” Ms. Erwin says.

Wheels Up

Airlines say there are steps wheelchair users can take to minimize the chances of damage to their essential equipment. Here are tips to consider:

Write to Scott McCartney at