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‘I was dropped to the floor’: Disabled passengers site problems at Atlanta airport

A disabled Georgia man says he was physically dropped by an employee because there was one person doing the job of two.
Vincenzo Piscopo has been in a wheelchair for more than a decade. He said many facets of life...
Vincenzo Piscopo has been in a wheelchair for more than a decade. He said many facets of life are harder, but airline travel is are at the top of his list.(WGCL)
Published: May. 18, 2022 at 4:16 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Of the 35,150 wheelchairs and scooters were enplaned 647 were mishandled by airlines in January alone, according to new numbers released by the US Department of Transportation. That leaves it at 1.84 wheelchairs and scooters mishandled per 100 enplaned.

It’s creating hazardous situations for people traveling with disabilities.

Vincenzo Piscopo suffered from a ruptured herniated disc, putting him in a wheelchair for the past 12 years. Many facets of his life are harder, he said, but airline travel is at the top of his list.

“Every time we travel, we think inside, ‘Let’s see what we are going to face this time,’” said Piscopo, CEO of United Spinal Association.

Piscopo said there are supposed to be two agents helping anyone in a wheelchair board a plane, but on his latest flight to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport, only one agent was available to lift him from his wheelchair onto the plane.

“Obviously it cannot be done by one person; I’m a big person,” he said. “And when he was doing that, I was dropped to the floor.” Eventually, another passenger helped lift Piscopo, which he said is not the standard.

Vincenzo Piscopo has been wheelchair-bound for more than a decade.  He said many facets of life...
Vincenzo Piscopo has been wheelchair-bound for more than a decade. He said many facets of life are harder, but airline travel is at the top of his list.(WGCL)

“It was very concerning to me, not only because what could have happened to me, because I could have hit my head, or broken my leg,” he said. “But what could have happened to the airline agent who was not trained to do it, and to the passenger? On top of that is the undignifying experience. It’s not very dignifying for a human being to be dropped on the floor, in front of people.”

For Piscopo, flying on an airline could be a matter of life or death. “I feel that we are treated like a sack of potatoes, or like farm animals, and not human beings,” he said.

Delta Air Lines outsources its wheelchair transport to Atlanta-based Unifi. A Unifi employee who transports wheelchair passengers for Delta spoke to CBS46 on condition of anonymity. She said employee shortages put passengers in danger.

“We literally went from about 200 agents wheelchair agents to about 50 a night,” she said. Unifi, according to the employee, has changed staffing schedules, and many employees quit or transferred to different departments. She said because of this, she’s been asked by dispatchers to push two people in wheelchairs at once.

“I get on, I pick up one. And people are walking up to me saying, ‘Hey, I need a wheelchair. And there’s 10 of them and there’s just one of me,” the employee said. “I shouldn’t have to be messaging dispatch, ‘Hey, you need 10 more agents.’ They should have already known that.”

Piscopo said nearly all of his members in wheelchairs have similar experiences with the carriers.

“Some people in wheelchairs who are independent choose not to travel anymore because they don’t trust the airlines,” Piscopo claimed.

“The times that I have everything has gone completely smooth -- with my chair, with the way they transfer me, with the wait, with the aisle chair being in good condition -- are probably 10 to 15 percent,” he explained.

CBS46 reached out to Delta and Unifi about these alleged problems. The companies declined an interview but released statements.

10th annual Roll on Capitol Hill

“It creates a lot of anxiety, knowing some people in wheelchairs who are independent choose not to travel anymore because they don’t trust the airlines,” Piscopo said.

Members of the United Spinal Association will be going to Washington D.C. in June for an advocacy conference called “Roll on Capitol Hill.”

Around 100 grassroots advocates are slated to attend this year’s 10th annual event, which is the first in-person Roll on Capitol Hill since the pandemic began.

Accessible air travel is one of their key policy priorities this year, and one proposal being discussed would possibly add fines for airlines that do not properly handle wheelchairs and passengers in wheelchairs.

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