The video that proves some airlines don’t care about disabled passengers

Sophie Morgan Wheelchair
TV presenter and disability campaigner Sophie Morgan has suffered substantial damage to her wheelchair during flights

When Haeley Dyrdahl posted this video on TikTok before boarding her flight from Miami, she had no idea it would go viral by the time she landed in Seattle just six hours later.

“I was on a long layover in Miami International waiting for our flight home when I saw those employees send luggage and two other wheelchairs down so aggressively that they were flying off the end of the ramp,” says Dyrdahl. “I was shocked and angered and saddened all at once – I couldn’t believe I just saw that twice in a row.”

Dyrdahl, who works for Make-a-Wish Foundation, is sensitive to disability issues and knew it wasn’t a small issue. “When they pulled out a third wheelchair I got my camera,” she says. “Initially, it was just to show my partner who was in the restroom, but we got to chatting about how that’s a much bigger issue than just disrespecting people’s possessions. If damaged, those are someone’s legs and it’s not cheap or easy to get wheelchairs repaired.”

The video has received more than 100,000 likes and attracted more than 5,000 comments.

“I don’t usually post on TikTok but I did before my flight took off and when I landed the video was everywhere. I was really surprised.”

Dyrdahl hopes the extra attention will improve the way in which mobility equipment is handled at airports.

“It’s absolutely infuriating to see this,” says Sophie Morgan, the TV presenter and disability campaigner. “But I’m not surprised. This has been happening for as long as there have been aeroplanes and as long as there have been wheelchairs. What’s happening now, however, is that we are seeing more and more of it because people are able to catch it on camera.”

Earlier this year, Morgan suffered £5,000 of damage to her wheelchair during a British Airways flight from Los Angeles to Heathrow and she posted an emotional message about her ordeal on Instagram. She says it was one of three instances of damage to her equipment this year and she has suffered countless more over the 20 years she has been a wheelchair user.

“What we feel in the wheelchair community is that we are facing a crisis – that is a part of our body, that piece of equipment that is being flung down that shute. It’s as traumatic as that.”

Sophie Morgan Wheelchair
A wheelchair is not just a piece of equipment but 'a part of our body' says Sophie Morgan

Morgan, who has presented The One Show on BBC1 and led Channel 4’s coverage of the Tokyo Paralympics, believes what she describes as a “catastrophic situation” is down to a systemic failure to train people properly.

“They need to learn that wheelchairs are not luggage. The training is not robust enough.” She says that ableism in the airline industry is rife. “There are so many different parts to this puzzle,” she says. “The more time I spend on my Rights on Flights campaign the more I see problems coming to the surface and we are the collateral damage of that shambles.”

The US is currently the only country requiring wheelchair damage statistics to be reported. John Morris of Wheelchairtravel.org, the US disability website, is hopeful that other governments will soon follow suit.

“This data allows disabled travellers to compare flights based on a metric that is critically important to their comfort and peace of mind,” he says.

Dyrdahl says the response to her video feels like the internet has collectively picked up their pitchforks and are demanding better care for people with mobility equipment during air travel.

“In posting the video I’ve learned so much from wheelchair users about how serious a problem this is,” she says. “I hope the visibility of the video can’t just be ignored and airlines make changes to protect all the passengers equally.”

American Airlines said in a statement: “We recognise how important it is to support the independence of customers with disabilities by ensuring the proper care of mobility devices throughout their journey with us. This visual is deeply concerning and we are gathering more details so that we can address them with our team. We will continue to work hard to improve our handling of assistive devices across our network.”

How to get airport assistance

Not everyone in need of assistance at an airport is a full-time wheelchair user. Perhaps you have recently had an operation, have a broken leg or ankle, or just can’t walk the distance because of age, injury or disability. Here’s how to get help if you don’t have your own wheelchair.

1. Add assistance to your booking once you’ve booked your flight. Most airlines allow you to do this online, but if not there will be a telephone helpline you can call. If you forget, you can usually request assistance at check-in.

2. Depending on where you are flying from, you may be able to get help from outside the airport – at the taxi drop-off zone, for example – otherwise head to the assistance desk in the departures hall.

3. You will be escorted through security in an airport wheelchair (through a dedicated assistance lane that is sometimes also shared with families). Once airside, you’ll be left to wait in a special area in the departures lounge.

4. If you need to shop, and have people travelling with you who can assist you with this, some airports will have a buzzer you can take with you that will ring when it’s time for you to be taken to the gate.

5. You’ll be transferred to the gate either in a wheelchair, or a motorised buggy. If you’ve stated on your booking you can’t use steps, you may bypass the gate altogether and be taken to an ambulift, which is a motorised vehicle that lifts you to the airline door so you can gain level access to the aircraft.

6. If you’re travelling with a single companion, then you can usually remain with them. If you’re travelling as part of a larger group, or with an able-bodied partner and children, they may have to make their own way to the gate or walk alongside the buggy.

7. You don’t have to prove you need the service. If you say you need it, nobody is going to challenge you.

8. You can request a sunflower lanyard as a way of indicating a non-visible disability that may require extra assistance. With this you will still have the option of an escort through security, even if you don’t need a wheelchair.