Woman Claims Delta Airlines Broke Her Wheelchair During Flight in Viral Video

A viral video has surfaced showing the unfortunate realities of traveling for wheelchair users. The clip, which was shared on May 22 by Bri Scalesse, documented her friend Gabrielle deFiebre's reaction to finding that airline staff had broken the wheels of her chair.

"Today my heart broke watching my best friend sob because Delta broke her wheels," reads the on-screen text. In the next clip, deFiebre is lifted into the replacement chair by staff.

"People in wheelchairs live in constant fear of airlines breaking our wheelchairs because it happens so often," reads the text. "I am so tired of watching my community suffer."

Power-assist wheelchairs, like the ones used by deFiebre, are not only expensive but are also often customized specifically for the user.

In four days, the video has gained over 2 million views and raised awareness of the issues faced by wheelchair users during air travel. According to the US Department of Transformation's Monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, 310 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines in March 2021 alone.

"My wheelchair was fine and in good shape when I handed it to the ground crew at JFK before getting on the plane. My wheel was warped and mangled when I exited the plane in Phoenix. So I'm not sure when in the process of loading/during the flight/unloading it got damaged, but sometime between when it left my sight and when I saw it again after getting out of the plane it was destroyed. I had signs on my chair about how to properly lift and store it because I am always worried about my chair surviving a flight," deFiebre told Newsweek.

"I'm a quadriplegic and rely on power-assist wheels. I can push very short distances with regular wheels, but my power-assist wheels are really the only way I can get around. I am pretty private about crying—very few people have seen me cry. My sobs were uncontrollable and I didn't care that it was in front of the entire flight crew and others. I was defeated and devastated and figured we would have to turn around and go back to NYC," she added.

Scalesse, who shared the video, told Newsweek: "This moment was so heart breaking and painful because that weekend was meant to be one of celebration, not another reminder of how our community still is not treated the same as everyone else. Our wheelchairs are a part of us and they should not be stored under the plane like luggage. My wheelchair is a part of me in the way no other item or object is. I, as wheel as many chair users, feel deep anxiety when we watch our chairs get wheeled away, not knowing if they will come back in one piece. I love traveling. I don't want to be afraid that I won't be able to move when I get off a flight."

Scalesse shared an update video with deFiebre to her TikTok account on May 24, explaining that Delta has agreed to pay for replacing the wheels. However, deFiebre alleges she was forced to find her own temporary wheels both on her trip and when she returned home, while still waiting for Delta to replace her own.

"It was obviously devastating to get off the plane and see that my wheels had been completely destroyed. It happens all the time to people and it shouldn't be something that happens. Delta says they will cover the costs of the wheel replacement. While we're in Phoenix I was able to, through our amazing community, find someone who had an extra set of the exact same wheels and I've been able to use that while we're here," explained deFiebre in the clip.

A spokesperson for Delta Airlines told Newsweek: "We're so sorry that her wheelchair was damaged and have been in touch with her directly to make this right, including support to make repairs to her device. We know our customers with disabilities rely on Delta for their travel needs, and we fell short here. We're conducting a full investigation of what happened, because we must be better."

After a Twitter user posted the video, the International Air Transport Association responded with an apology and promise for improvement. "We are sorry to see this situation. Mobility aids like these are so crucial for the mobility of these individuals. As an industry, we need to do better on this as everyone deserves access to safe and dignified travel.

"We are engaging the accessibility and aviation communities to better this situation for travelers with wheelchairs. The handling of mobility aids is a key area we are addressing for improvement and there will be more news to come on this."

In regards to Delta's response, deFiebre said: "I'm not satisfied with the fact that multiple mobility devices are damaged on a daily basis by airlines. I am not satisfied that the training of staff is clearly inadequate for how to handle our mobility devices. I am not satisfied that there isn't a better system for getting reasonable loaner chairs for people whose wheelchairs are broken. And I'm not satisfied with how long this process usually takes for people. Based on the experiences of so many others, I think this process only went so quickly for me because of the social media attention Delta has been getting."

Update 05/26/21, 12:15 p.m. ET: This article was updated to add a comment from Delta.

Update 05/28/21, 02:20 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add comments from deFiebra and Scalesse.

A wheelchair in an airport.
Wheelchair prepared for passenger at airport check-in counter. A wheelchair user's experience with an airline has gone viral. Getty Images