Pay for damaged wheelchairs, leading Paralympian tells airlines

Published: 14 Jun 2016

British air carriers should cover the full cost of damage they cause to wheelchairs and mobility devices, according to Chris Holmes, Disability Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

One of Britain’s most successful Paralympic athletes and former Director of Paralympic Integration for London 2012 has criticised British Airways and London City airport for its treatment of disabled customers.

Lord Holmes spoke out after the electric wheelchair of Athena Stevens, a playwright and actor with cerebral palsy, was irreparably damaged on a flight from London to Glasgow last October. Although the wheelchair was worth over £25,000, no appropriate offer of compensation has been made and, before Stevens began legal action, she had received only £500 from London City Airport to cover taxi costs.

As British Airways prepares to take Team GB to the Rio Paralympic Games in September, questions have also been raised as to whether the airline would also refuse to replace the equipment of Paralympic athletes competing in Rio, in the event that something was damaged.

Lord Holmes said:

“Disabled people are often deterred from flying for fear of loss, damage or destruction of their mobility equipment. Athena’s story is a case in point. She has been left without a replacement chair for eight months. We’re not talking about a suitcase or a set of golf clubs - this is a person's mobility and independence.

“Considering that BA is a main sponsor of Team GB, I think it’s fair to ask whether this practice would equally apply to competing athletes, and if so, whether the Paralympic team been made aware that British Airways will not cover the full cost if their equipment is damaged? If this isn’t the case, it would be rank hypocrisy to fully compensate some, while others are left to foot the bill.”

Under the Montreal Convention, which sets rules for the carriage of air passengers, baggage and cargo, wheelchairs and assistive devices are treated as baggage, and compensation for damaged items is calculated on the basis of the weight rather than value.  According to the Civil Aviation Authority, the amount a disabled person can expect by way of compensation for damaged mobility equipment “may be limited to around £1,300.”

Lord Holmes believes air carriers are hiding behind an international convention to avoid paying for damaged mobility equipment vital for disabled people to live their lives independently.

“This unfair policy is trapping disabled people in a cycle of disadvantage, and British air carriers have the moral responsibility to stop applying it to disabled customers’ mobility equipment, as it's clearly unfit for purpose.”

The use of the Convention to limit liability for wheelchairs and mobility equipment has come under increased scrutiny. The European Commission “encourages airlines to voluntarily waive their limited liability to bring the amount of compensation closer to the actual value of the mobility equipment.”

This approach has already been implemented by the largest airlines in Germany and Canada - Lufthansa and Air Canada. Both airlines have already moved to waive the provisions of the Montreal Convention in the event of damage to a wheelchair or mobility aid. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) states that for domestic flights, “the criterion for calculating the compensation for a lost, damaged, or destroyed wheelchair or other assistive device shall be the original purchase price of the device.”

Notes to editors

  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission intervened in the 2014 case Stott v Thomas Cook, in which the Supreme Court decided that compensation for injury to feelings cannot be awarded where disability discrimination has occurred during embarkation, disembarkation or on board the aircraft. This is because the Montreal Convention limits the liability of air carriers.
  • The Commission published a leaflet Your passport to a smooth journey, which gives tips on how disabled and less mobile air passengers can have the best chance of a smooth journey.
  • The Commission and the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) produced a free online training course, Accessible Travel Made Easy, for travel agents, tour operators and other front-line travel industry staff. The course gives an overview of the importance of accessible travel and why it makes good business sense to meet the diverse needs of customers.  

The Montreal Convention (1999)

Civil Aviation Authority advice for travelling with mobility or medical equipment

  • “Airlines are liable for any damage to mobility equipment. However, the amount of compensation may be limited to around £1,300 so you may want to take out extra insurance. If your equipment is damaged, the airport is responsible for providing a temporary alternative while yours is repaired or replaced, but this does not have to be on a like for like basis.” (Source: Civil Aviation Authority)

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

  • §382.131 Do baggage liability limits apply to mobility aids and other assistive devices?
    With respect to transportation to which 14 CFR Part 254 applies, the limits to liability for loss, damage, or delay concerning wheelchairs or other assistive devices provided in Part 254 do not apply. The basis for calculating the compensation for a lost, damaged, or destroyed wheelchair or other assistive device shall be the original purchase price of the device. (Source: Air Carrier Access Act (pdf), p.123 §382.131

Position of the European Commission 

Lufthansa and Air Canada policies

  • Lufthansa: “If mobility equipment is damaged and we accept liability for that damage, we do not enforce the maximum compensation amounts set out in the Montreal Convention.” (Source: Lufthansa website)
  • Air Canada: “The provisions of the Montreal Convention are waived in the event of damage to a wheelchair or mobility aid.” (Source: Air Canada website)

Press contact details

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0161 829 8102