A disabled writer says Alaska Airlines 'destroyed' her wheelchair on her way to model for New York Fashion Week
- Allegra Keys, a writer and poet, modeled in an adaptive fashion show at New York Fashion Week.
- On her Alaska Airlines flight to the event, her wheelchair was severely damaged and left inoperable.
Writer and poet Allegra Keys collaborated with designers Andrea Saieh and Jenna Dewar for four months to create a custom outfit for her runway debut at New York Fashion Week: a hot pink lace-up design featuring lines from her poems embroidered on the strings.
Keys, an electric wheelchair user who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), was one of several members of the SMA community slated to model in an adaptive fashion show called Double Take, organized by the biotech company Genentech and the accessible fashion nonprofit Open Style Lab.
Keys traveled from Seattle to New York City for the event over Labor Day weekend. She was apprehensive while boarding her Alaska Airlines flight with her caregiver, and had good reason to be. Airlines break thousands of wheelchairs per year, impacting the mobility, independence, and quality of life of disabled people.
To board a plane, wheelchair users must surrender their devices, which are often customized for their bodies and needs, and transfer into airport-provided chairs that fit through the narrow aisles. Upon arriving at their destination, they are transferred back into the aisle chairs to deplane, then wait to see if airlines will return their wheelchairs from the cargo hold intact. Oftentimes, they don't, leaving passengers stranded or waiting months for repairs.
"I was already nervous before I even saw the state of my chair because historically, flying with a wheelchair means that the wheelchair is going to be damaged. You just never know how bad," Keys told Insider via email.
After deplaning and waiting an hour and a half for airport staff to bring her wheelchair to the gate, Keys found that her chair wouldn't turn on. She says the control panel was "smashed open" with wires sticking out, and the joystick used to drive was "completely sheered off." The chair was also stuck in a fully reclined position, leaving her unable to sit in it safely.
"When my caregiver told me how bad my chair was broken, I felt my heart drop because I completely knew that this trip I had been looking forward to for months was essentially over," she said.
To get to the hotel from the airport, Keys' caregiver had to prop her up with blankets, pillows, and a sweatshirt while holding her in an upright position for the 50-minute car ride to prevent her from falling or choking on her own saliva.
Keys was then stuck in her hotel room for three days as she struggled to find a loaner chair over the holiday weekend.
"I called Alaska Customer Care, and was told this was a baggage claim issue," Keys said. "After my caregiver told [the representative] that she couldn't believe no one from Alaska had reached out to even see if I was okay, nor offer any kind of compensation, she was placed on hold so the representative could speak to an advisor. When she came back, she offered 5,000 Travel Miles, or $125. My caregiver was disgusted and flat out asked 'You think her safety is worth $125? That is absolutely unacceptable.'"
Keys eventually acquired a wheelchair from a local friend that allowed her to hold her head up, but she could not operate it independently. Another model accompanied her down the runway to drive the chair.
"I almost dropped out of the fashion show because I was struggling with having all of my independence stripped away from me," she said. "It was really difficult making my runway debut in a fashion show that was centered entirely on accessibility while relying a complete stranger to drive a chair I wasn't even familiar with down the runway because Alaska Airlines destroyed the only thing that makes my life accessible."
After her initial troubles receiving support from Alaska Airlines, Keys says the airline has since been "extremely apologetic and accommodating." They provided her with transportation to the airport and a first class flight home, as well as a replacement chair and escorts through TSA. They are covering the cost of the repairs, but 10 days later, Keys is still waiting to get her wheelchair back.
"I can only use my phone in my chair, which is mounted in a very specific way," she said. "I use my phone for writing, for my personal life, and augmented communication as well as controlling different appliances around my home, including my computer. I have not been able to do any of that independently in almost 10 days. I am in a lot of pain from sitting in positions that are not ergonomical for my body ... My mental health is suffering and the little bit of autonomy I have is gone."
A representative for Alaska Airlines told Insider: "We understand the significant disruption a damaged wheelchair has on our guest. We feel absolutely terrible about what happened. We delivered a replacement chair and are working with our vendor partner to repair her wheelchair as quickly as possible. Transporting large, heavy, specialized wheelchairs that are designed with fragile controls requires the utmost care. As we review our procedures for transporting assistive devices, we're committed to learning from this experience. We will use what we learn to train our employees to better serve all of our guests who rely on us to get them to their destinations safely."
Keys' experience is not unique. The Department of Transportation found that airlines mishandled 7,239 wheelchairs and scooters in 2021, which amounts to around 20 damaged devices per day. Activists and politicians are working to make air travel more accessible, but progress is slow.
"The most significant pieces of durable medical equipment we use are tossed around as if they are a dime a dozen," Keys said. "When damage does occur, we are spoken to as if we are children and have no idea how complex our equipment is. It's completely dehumanizing."
- Ashok Gehlot: Magician leaves centre stage in Rajasthan
- Trauma made Abrar an 'Animal': Bobby Deol on his negative role
- Victory of Modi's guarantees, say BJP leaders as party sweeps states states
- Sunil Kanugolu: The poll strategist behind Congress' win in Telangana
- Digvijaya and Kamal Nath are now history, says Ashwini Vaishnaw as BJP attains victory in MP