An inquiry into the availability of insurance for lost or damaged wheelchairs reveals airlines must do better to meet the needs of wheelchair users.
Growing numbers of wheelchair users travel by air. For most, flying with one’s wheelchair is a seamless experience. Some are not so lucky. "Departing from Glasgow I was told there had been an incident and my wheelchair, worth over £3.000, needed to be repaired," Tammy Tracey said. "I was told Thompson fly was fixing everything so I had no need to contact my insurance but all I got was a check for little over £900 in compensation for the wheelchair they destroyed."
People can live without their favourite shirts or pants, but become immobile without the resources to go about our daily routine. The loss or damage of a wheelchair becomes unbearable when the complaint is poorly handled, or the refund does not cover the original cost of the item.
"On my return trip from Slovakia my wheelchair was damaged to the point that using my chair was unsafe,” Darren Smith explains. “On reporting the damage immediately at arrival, neither the airline nor airport staff wanted to accept responsibility or indeed offer me any help in resolving my immediate problem of safely getting to my car.” It took Mr Smith over eight months to get a refund only partially covering the damage to his wheelchair.
In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act waives the limit for compensation for lost or damaged wheelchairs on domestic flights. Elsewhere in the world, airlines apply the compensation limit set by the Montreal Convention, currently 1.131 SDR approximately £900/$1.540/€1.130.
However, the Montreal Convention offers the option to waive the limit by requesting a "Special Declaration of Interest", a declaration made by the Passenger when handing over the wheelchair to be checked in which specifies a value that is higher than that fixed as a liability limit by the Convention. Airlines can charge a fee for this service.
In 2013, the European Commission drafted a proposal to revise regulation 2027/97. In the proposal, the Commission proposes airlines offer passengers traveling with their own wheelchairs a special declaration of interest free of charge.
At the end of 2013 The Transport Committee of the European Parliament adopted an amendment presented by Reduced Mobility Rights. The amendment introduces the obligation for airlines and airport assistance services to inform passengers at the time of booking and again at check-in of the opportunity to make a special declaration of interest.
Last February, Frank Laurent, Team leader of the Passenger Rights Unit at DG MOVE, told European Civil Aviation Authorities that “discussions at the [European] Council are ongoing. [The Council] tends to have a more industry oriented approach with a weakening of the enforcement provisions.”
In his report, Mr Laurent highlighted the Council's orientation that “the gratuity of the special declaration for mobility equipment should not be imposed on air carriers, opting rather for a specific insurance (airlines to decide).”
Free of charge or subject to payment, access to the special declaration of interest makes a huge difference to passengers flying with their personal wheelchair.
On 24 June 2014, Reduced Mobility Rights ran an inquiry to find out how some of the largest airlines in the world handle information on the declaration of interest. One of our colleagues contacted several airlines posing as the relative of a passenger who wishes to make a special declaration of interest to waive the limit for loss or damage on his personal wheelchair worth in excess of £3.000/$5.000/€3.800. We asked about the process and cost to get the declaration of interest.
American is the largest airline in North America. The agent manning the special assistance line was unaware of the existence of the special declaration of interest. He said he would look to gather additional information and return our call. We did not hear back from him.
However, searching through the UK facing American Airlines website we found the following information:
“Wheelchairs or other Mobility devices are exempt from liability restrictions for loss, damage or delays to these items for both domestic and international travel.”
In absence of verbal confirmation, our assumption is that American Airlines unilaterally waives the Montreal Convention cap on international flights as they do with domestic travel.
China Eastern Airlines
China Eastern is the largest Asian carrier per passenger flown. Contacted via phone, the agent was unaware of the existence of the special declaration of interest. She asked us to send an email so she could forward the question to her supervisor.
One hour after sending our email we received the following reply:
“We at China Eastern Airlines are an airline operational company, if you are looking to insure one of your belongings I would recommend finding an insurance company that can cover the costs of your wheelchair. As I don’t think airlines sell insurance, that's why other companies sell travel insurance, where did you read about this? “
We replied explaining the content and nature of the special declaration of interest. In her following answer, the China Eastern agent sent us the following copy/paste, without mention the cost of the limit waiver.
“If the passenger completes a special declaration of higher value at check-in and pays the applicable fee, the carrier’s liability shall be limited to the higher declared value.”
The German flag carrier is Europe’s largest airline. The Lufthansa website says that “a passenger can benefit from a higher liability limit by making a special declaration at the latest at check-in and by paying a supplementary fee. “
The agent we spoke with had no knowledge of the special declaration of interest or its cost, and asked us to send an email to customer relations for more information. The agent said it may take several days to get a reply.
BA is the UK’s largest legacy carrier. On its special assistance page, the UK flag carriers says that “In the event of loss or damage, mobility aids or any equipment relating to your disability, placed into your checked in luggage is not covered for anything more than the maximum liability under the Montreal Convention. We recommend you have a suitable travel insurance for any equipment you are travelling with.”
However, the notice of liability page ba.com says “A passenger can benefit from a higher liability limit by making a special declaration at the latest at check-in and by paying a supplementary fee.”
Over the phone, the agent we spoke with had no knowledge of the special declaration of interest or its fees and gave us another phone number to call. The phone number turned out to be a main switchboard. The operator was unable to direct our call to anyone who could provide the information we are seeking.
Emirates are the largest airline in the Middle East. On its website, the Dubai based airline says “we will increase our liability to you for Damage to Checked Baggage to an amount specified by you and agreed by us at the time you hand your Checked Baggage to us at check-in, but only if you pay to us an additional charge calculated in accordance with our Regulations. This is known as a “special declaration of value”. Please ask us for details of the applicable charges if you want to use this option.”
Over the phone, the agent said he had no knowledge of the insurance product. He put us on hold to check with his supervisor. He then gave us the phone number of their office at Heathrow airport, asking us to contact them for information.
The quick inquiry shows that airlines need to do more, and better, to make essential information like that of wheelchair insurance available to passengers with reduced mobility.
Essential information like cost and procedure to make a special declaration of interest should be accessible on demand both over the phone and on the carrier’s website, preferably on the special assistance page.
Airlines and airports must never forget people with disabilities already have a difficult life. It’s basic human decency not to make it any harder than necessary. "I had to be assertive to make the point that my wheelchair is my legs," Alexandra Singer said after being denied a replacement wheelchair at Luton airport at the end of June.