The Unfriendly Skies:

CW: Death

After a family vacation, Shannon O’Brien’s flight arrived at O’Hare International Airport. However, her power wheelchair was not on board. Therefore, she couldn’t drive her vehicle, go to work or leave her bed.

O’Brien is a full-time wheelchair user due to a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy. The wheelchair allows O’Brien to be independent and on her own. The chair allows her to drive to work in her adaptive van. But without the wheelchair, O’Brien is bedridden. She needs help anytime she needs to do even the simplest of tasks.

The saga began last week when O’Brien vacationed in the Dominican Republic. O’Brien said the vacation was wonderful. However, the trouble started when she had to return to Chicago.

One of the plane’s hydraulics malfunctioned, which forced them to make an emergency stop in Orlando, FL. Over 100 passengers were stuck at Orlando International Airport for 12 hours. O’Brien’s wheelchair was never brought to her.

A Frontier Airlines gate agent told O’Brien that her wheelchair would be on the aircraft back to O’Hare, but when they arrived, she was told it was still in Orlando. She was then informed that it would be delivered on a separate flight to Midway International Airport, but the wheelchair never arrived. O’Brien was worried that the wheelchair would be damaged upon its return. Thankfully, she received her wheelchair yesterday with only minor damage.

Unfortunately, O’Brien’s experience is all too common. Since the end of 2018, at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters have been lost or damaged by the country’s major airlines. In 2019, the first full year of reporting, 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed, or stolen. This averages out to around 29 every day. By 2020, it had dropped to 3,464, or 9.5 per day. In the first quarter of 2021, passengers reported 712 mishandled devices or nearly eight per day.

Damaged equipment can have disastrous and even fatal consequences. Disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa passed away on October 31, 2021, at the age of 51. In July, Figueroa attended the Care Can’t Wait event in Washington, DC. When Figueroa returned to Los Angeles, she learned that United Airlines staff had accidently damaged her wheelchair. The $30,000 wheelchair had been stored in the cargo hold, where it was destroyed.

Figueroa’s wheelchair was designed specifically to support her body after she sustained a spine injury and had one of her legs amputated. Figueroa had difficulty sitting up and balancing without her wheelchair.

Due to having to use a wheelchair that didn’t support her torso and hips, Figueroa developed a pressure sore that worsened over time. Subsequently, the sore became infected, and the infection spread. Figueroa underwent emergency surgery. Unfortunately, she later passed away.

Accessibility on airplanes should be the norm. Without access to airplanes, people with disabilities miss out on vacations, special events, and medical care. All people with disabilities should be able to take a flight safely. It should not be commonplace for medical equipment to become damaged on a flight. We shouldn’t have to risk our lives to fly on an airplane either.


Brooks, Laken. “Disability Advocate Engracia Figueroa Died after an Airline Damaged Her Wheelchair.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Nov. 2021,

Donovan, Alyssa, and Eli Ong. “Airline Returns Lost Custom Wheelchair to Physically Disabled Woman after Multiple Delays.” WGN, WGN-TV, 29 Nov. 2022,

Sampson, Hannah. “Airlines Have Lost or Damaged More than 15,000 Wheelchairs since Late 2018.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 June 2021,

1 comment

  1. I won’t fly on an airplane until I can stay in my power wheelchair, as if I was on a bus. I am dead without it.

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