BOSTON (WHDH) - 7 Investigates found travelers left stranded, devastated, and heartbroken after airlines damaged the wheelchairs they depend on to get around and keep them healthy. The specialized devices can’t be easily replaced with just any wheelchair.

A custom-made wheelchair gives Kenny Hersh freedom. He has difficulty walking and uses an iPad to communicate due to a rare neurological condition.

“The chair is the way I can participate in life,” said Hersh. 

It also lets him travel with his wife, Leah. Last fall, the couple flew from Boston to Los Angeles for a family celebration.

“It becomes part of his body,” she said. 

Large and battery-powered wheelchairs are loaded into the cargo hold with the luggage, and sometimes that can be a difficult process.

When Hersh landed in LA, he discovered a piece he uses to steer his wheelchair was damaged.   

“I was angry,” he said. 

The couple said they were stuck in a hotel room for days, arguing with their airline about repairing or replacing his chair.

“I said, ‘Do you understand this is a wheelchair? This is not a piece of luggage,'” Hersh’s wife told 7 Investigates. 

Our investigation found Hersh’s chair was one of 21,000 wheelchairs and mobility scooters damaged, lost, or delayed on domestic flights since 2019. 

“Unfortunately, this is a problem that goes hidden a lot from the rest of the average travelers, because they’re not experiencing it themselves,” said Heather Ansley, associate general counsel for corporate and government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America

GG deFiebre appeared in an emotional TikTok post in tears.

“It’s made for me,” deFiebre said, referring to her wheelchair. 

She said an airline broke a wheel on her chair.  

“It happens all the time to people and it shouldn’t be something that happens,” said deFiebre. 

Disability advocate and model Bri Scalesse said after an airline bent her chair one wheel didn’t touch the ground.  

“Today my freedom and independence was taken away,” Scalesse said. 

We found despite thousands of problems the U.S. Department of Transportation has not fined one airline for mishandling wheelchairs in the last three years.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. airlines, tells 7 Investigates the companies recognize the importance of continuing to improve air travel accessibility while ensuring the highest level of safety for all travelers.

Eventually, the airline involved repaired or replaced deFiebre, Scalesse, and Hersh’s chairs but, the damage to their lives was already done. 

“If they are going to provide a service to the increasingly growing population with disabilities just get it right,” Hersh said. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) said a single damaged wheelchair is one too many. The agency wants to require that airline employees get better training on how to handle and stow wheelchairs.  

In March the USDOT held a public hearing on issues people who use wheelchairs encountered during air travel. Click here for video from the hearing. The agency has issued a rulemaking to make it clear that airlines are required to return all wheelchairs and mobility devices in the condition they were received and that damaging a wheelchair is a regulatory violation that may subject an airline to a fine. 

For information on passengers with disabilities rights click here.

To file a complaint with the U.S. DOT, click here.

US DOT travel tips for people with disabilities 
Paralyzed Veterans of America wants to hear from passengers who had travel challenges. 

Study: Why improperly fitted wheelchairs can be harmful 
All Wheels Up is crash testing wheelchairs in cabins for commercial flights. 

If you have a story idea, suggestion or tip please email: Tell7@whdh.com

(Copyright (c) 2022 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox