A Sumner man paralyzed from the neck down is fighting for change after his specialized wheelchairs were damaged beyond use by two airlines within the span of a year.
Kenny Salvini is now working to make sure it doesn’t happen to others.
Salvini’s wheelchair has become more than just his legs, his arms, and extensions of his brain, he said.
It helps him live life.
“I drive this chair with my head,” he told KOMO News on Monday night. “I know that I’m lucky because I have a back-up wheelchair, but this thing is not nearly the same as the one that I usually use.”
He should be using the newer wheelchair.
But for the last few days it’s been parked in his entry way held together by dozens of zip ties because of a mishap on an Alaska Airlines flight last Wednesday, he said.
Salvini, who was injured in a snow skiing accident in 2004, flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional leaders to advocate for people with spinal cord injuries.
Somehow the chair he got just 11 months ago was heavily damaged on the flight back home to Sea-Tac International Airport.
“It was the worst kind of déjà vu there is,” Salvini said.
That’s because a similar situation happened to him a year ago on a different airline, he said.
“It’s affecting everything,” Salvini said. “I can’t control my phone. I can’t control the lights and thermostat and door locks in my house. Kind of the whole world has gone a little bit sideways for right now.”
Salvini hopes his experience will prompt a larger conversation about the airline industry and ways to improve travel for people like him.
He points to legislation like the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, which was introduced in Congress earlier this month. If passed, the bill would help protect the rights of disabled airline passengers and close service gaps that they frequently encounter, one of the bill’s sponsors said.
“In order to keep America’s promise of full equality for all, we must work to break down the barriers that individuals with disabilities and our veterans face when they travel,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). “Equal access to air travel ensures individuals with disabilities are able to participate in today’s economy and enjoy their travel opportunities.”
“Hopefully we can start to see a change in how… what accessible travel looks like for people in situations like me,” Salvini said.
Salvini has no plans to stop flying because of what happened to him within the past year, he said.
But he hopes no one else has to experience what he has.
“The end game goal is I want to sit next to my girlfriend in my own seat,” Salvini said. “But I’d love to have a conversation about how we get there and the steps we can take in-between so that we can make it a little bit easier to fly.”
Alaska Airlines refunded Salvini’s ticket and will pay the full cost for fixing his wheelchair, a spokeswoman told KOMO News. The airline has also launched an internal investigation to figure out what went wrong and what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again, she added.
“We feel terrible and apologize for the inconvenience Mr. Salvini has experienced and for damaging his wheelchair. While we are paying the full cost of fixing his wheelchair and have refunded his ticket, we truly understand that the impact this has had is very significant,” said Bobbie Egan, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines.
“Transporting large, heavy specialized wheelchairs that are designed with fragile controls that are exposed, is a significant challenge for the airline industry. Alaska Airlines accessibility advocates and staff have reached out to him to learn from this experience and discuss how we can partner with chair manufacturers to design mobility aids that are better designed for air transport,” Egan added.