- Xavi Santiago said they were stranded at a Florida airport after American Airlines staff forgot to load their wheelchair.
- Santiago said they waited in the baggage claim area for about five hours, convinced their chair was lost.
- “This is not a lost bag. This is my mobility. These are like my legs,” they told Insider.
A passenger who flew on American Airlines said they were stranded at the Airport after the airline employees forgot to load their wheelchair.
“The entire time, I had no idea if my chair was going to show up. If it was going to be damaged, what was going to happen,” Xavi Santiago, 23, told Insider.”This is not a lost bag. This is my mobility. These are like my legs.”
Santiago, who posted about their travel experience in a vial TikTok video said they along with their partner and friends were stranded at the Orlando Airport for almost five hours. The group, which was on vacation, was unable to leave because they were told that Santiago’s power wheelchair was not loaded onto their one-way flight from Los Angeles, California, to Orlando, Florida.
A week before departure, the flight had changed to include a layover in Miami, Florida, Santiago said.
“When I booked my flight, I booked a one-way potentially because I am very aware of airlines and how they treat disabled people,” Santiago said. “I know disabled people who have had their mobility aids broken, damaged, or lost by airlines.”
In their layover in Miami, Santiago said they were unable to pre-board, which is a common accommodation for disabled passengers.
“That’s always how it goes, I pre-board, I get transferred while the plane is still empty or while other disabled people or other people who are pre-boarding are still getting on,” Santiago said. “That didn’t happen. There was no wheelchair attendant or accessible attendant to get me into the transfer seat.”
When Santiago finally made it on the plane, they said they had to squeeze past other passengers to get to the back of the plane to their seats.
Santiago said that after an hour-long flight, they arrived in Orlando at 6 pm to find their wheelchair missing and were escorted to the waiting area where their partner was told the chair was not boarded on the connecting flight.
“I was really freaking out because getting on the plane was such a mess. I was really worried that my chair still wasn’t here,” Santiago said. “No one was explaining anything to me.”
Santiago told Insider they were angry by the airline staff only communicating with their partner.
“I constantly have feelings of really not being seen as a person,” Santiago said. “I know it’s a common feeling for a lot of disabled people is they think that because you have physical disabilities, that it means that you’re any less capable or any less competent. And I sure as hell am not either of those things.”
While a staff member offered Santiago a temporary wheelchair, they said the airline employee could not find one that could be taken outside of the airport. They would have to wait at the baggage claim area until their wheelchair arrived on the next flight at 9:30, Santiago said.
“I went down in one of the temporary wheelchairs and was trying to sort out getting just a temporary chair that I could use to get to the hotel and they couldn’t find anything,” Santiago said. “They couldn’t find even a manual wheelchair that was my size, that they could get to me.”
Santiago, who said they paid more than $22,000 for their electric chair, said they feared they would never see it again and be stuck on vacation without mobility.
“I was convinced that it was not going to make it on the flight and that if I got it back, it was going to be damaged. Just with how many people told me that they hadn’t seen my chair,” Santiago said.
Passengers with disabilities repeatedly call out about harrowing experiences with air travel
According to a report from the Department of Transportation published in July, US airlines saw a 108% increase in complaints from flyers with disabilities, from 76 in May 2019 to 158 in the same month this year.
A passenger who also flew with American Airlines in July accused the airline crew of destroying his wheelchair and then severely damaging its replacement, costing him $65,000.
Writer and poet Allegra Keys, said her power wheelchair was severely damaged and left inoperable after she flew on Alaska Airlines in September.
US lawmaker Jim Langevin of Rhode Island was barred from his flight twice this year after airline staff thought his power wheelchair violated safety regulations.
As US airlines damage thousands of wheelchairs every year, disability advocates and wheelchair users who fly often have urged a shift in the narrative regarding wheelchairs, Insider’s Bethany Dawson previously reported. Rather than saying wheelchairs are being broken, they should be viewed as a part of the body that is being destroyed.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, who also travels using a wheelchair, proposed a new policy last year that requires airlines to report wheelchair breaks and other among other incidents to the Civil Aviation Authority.
“Wheelchairs should be treated like a human limb because they’re my legs,” says Sen. Duckworth previously told Insider. “When you break my wheelchair, or you lose my wheelchair, you’ve taken away my legs.”
‘Taking up space as a disabled person is the way’
After nearly five hours of discomfort waiting in the luggage area, Santiago said their chair finally arrived at the airport about an hour after midnight.
“I couldn’t leave the airport. It was really difficult for me to get moved and go to the bathroom, hard for me to transfer in and out because the chair isn’t my own. It’s not made to meet my needs,” Santiago said. “I was just uncomfortable and stuck there for several, and it was awful.”
American Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.
Santiago said American Airlines offered them $300 of in-flight credit in compensation but they refuse to fly American Airlines again.
“While there is a part of me that wants to use the bare minimum of what they’ll give me, I barely want to fly again,” Santiago said. “I really don’t think I’ll ever fly with American Airlines, and I sure as hell am never going to the Miami airport again.”
Santiago said that all the positive feedback they received from their TikTok video calling out American Airlines made her feel seen and heard.
“The only way that people will listen to us sometimes is if we are abrasive, if we are angry, if we are pushing and that’s okay,” Santiago said. “It’s something that I have to remind myself of constantly, but taking up space as a disabled person is the way.”
They added: “There is nothing wrong with taking up just as much space as able-bodied people and asking and not even asking, demanding for the support and access that we need in order to do the same things as able-bodied people, to travel, to live, to exist and to enjoy our lives. We are deserving of those things.”