If you read any mainstream newspapers or blogs regularly, you’ve probably read at least one story about the horrors of air travel for people with disabilities. Not too long ago, I shared my own experiences with TSA in a blog for the MDA Transitions Resource Center. A The latest transportation entity on my shit list? American Airlines.
Saturday afternoon, I left for Reagan National to attend a housing conference. (More on that later.) Usually I fly Southwest, but no flights were available when I needed to arrive. Alas, American was my only option. Maybe next time I’ll just stay at home instead…
A quick explanation of procedures for those not familiar with the disabled boarding process: I’m not allowed to bring my wheelchair onto the passenger area of the aircraft. Airlines require that I be transferred at the end of the jetway. In regard to who carries me to the aisle chair, I have no choice – it’s whoever the airline sends. The type of training – if any – that these staff members receive is beyond me. Nonetheless, I am entirely at their mercy. Then, different staff members come to the end of the jetway, and whisk my wheelchair away to the underbelly of the plane. I am strapped into the aisle chair, taken down to the bulkhead, and transferred to the aisle seat. Nerve-racking is an understatement.
On Saturday, we got to the airport early and asked the check-in woman if she could go ahead and tag my wheelchair and transfer us to the bulkhead. Unlike Southwest, the check-in woman stated all accommodations need to be granted by the gate agent. So we proceeded to go through TSA. Fortunately, my inspection went rather quickly and the agent didn’t even pat me down – just my wheelchair. My experience with the gate agent was not so fortunate.
The gate agent stated that she wasn’t sure whether we could be moved to the bulkhead. Something about people paying extra for bulkhead seats. Nevertheless, after I explained that it is difficult to get me into the airplane seat given the four people involved in the transfer and cramped space, the gate agent promised to see what she could do.
The gate agent never followed up with me, so I figured everything was good to go. However, I was shocked to learn – only after I was strapped into the aisle chair – that we were stuck in seats 11A and 11C. Those seats were almost the very last in the plane! Apparently the gate agent told my mom that the people in the bulkhead paid a premium for their seats and were unwilling to move. Funny that she didn’t have the courtesy to deliver the news to me.
As the transferers pulled me backwards down the aisle, my butt and stomach began to scrape against the seats on either side. The sling that I sit on to transfer was also getting caught on the seat armrests and ripped. When staff realized what was happening, the man behind me would immediately stop pulling the chair, causing the woman holding my arms to step on my toes. It was painful, but they acted oblivious. Three aisles back, someone from Baggage stepped onto the plane and said it was ridiculous that I was not sitting in the bulkhead. No shit, Sherlock. My mom explained that the gate agent denied my request for accommodation, and though the baggage person kept talking about the ridiculousness of the situation, no intervention was made on my behalf.
Even after I got on the plane, I still wasn’t good to go. Baggage couldn’t get my wheelchair onto the plane. Staff told me they would tip it sideways and see if that worked. I told the baggage handler not to tip my wheelchair on the side with the joystick. Then they gate agent boarded to inform me that if my wheelchair didn’t fit on the plane, I would have to deboard and wait for a different flight. Approximately one hour after the scheduled time of departure, we finally took off for DC.
My reception upon arrival was similarly demeaning. A single man came to help me off the plane after everyone else left. Without even talking to me, he bent down like he was going to try to move me. I said, “No,” and my mom explained how to transfer me with the sling. We also explained that more people were needed to safely do the transfer. He ignored us, and grabbed the sling in a place that would be completely useless. Again, my mom tried to explain that we needed more help. He ignored us, but a woman finally joined him. They transferred me to the aisle chair. I started to slide, and stated that I needed to move backward. My mom lifted the sling to offer it to the man, but he said he was going to pick me up under the arms. I said I could not do this, and he told me I could. My mom put her arm over me to stop him, and the woman eventually got him to listen.
You might think that was enough for one day, but no. Because we did not land at a jetway, we had to take a shuttle back to the terminal. A fellow passenger was on the shuttle, and he started rudely talking about how waiting for my wheelchair to be loaded was an inconvenience. He suggested that I reschedule my flight home to avoid such delays in the future. To add further insult to the toe, stomach, and butt injuries, the guy who would’t listen to me on the plane tried to command my mom to drive my chair off the shuttle. Despite having witnessed me drive onto the shuttle, the man didn’t believe that I could safely exit it.
Once I got situated fully in my wheelchair, I realized it had been broken. More specifically, my left armrest was bent downward and no longer supported me. I was worried that I would fall over riding to the hotel on the Metro. So we stopped at the baggage claim area and explained the problem. The baggage claim woman stated that we would have to file a formal complaint. My mom stated that she could fix the armrests if given an Allen wrench. Three times the woman denied this request and said the only way to get my wheelchair fixed was filing a complaint. Fortunately, someone overheard, had mercy on us, and found someone with an Allen wrench. However, our helper informed us that if the airline knew what was happening, it would have the helper’s head. Abso-fucking-lutely ridiculous.
But it gets worse, friends. I had to return home on Tuesday.
Although my mom and I had no intention of booking a different flight, we did get to the airport super early in order to arrange for necessary accommodations. We approached the gate agent, she glanced at our tickets after ignoring us for several minutes, and mumbled something indecipherable. “What?” my mom asked. “Over there! Indianapolis!” the woman barked, nodding toward Gate 39.
We walked to Gate 39, but that was for a flight leaving Indianapolis at 3:30 PM. We were set to leave at 4:45 PM. My mom asked the new gate agent if our flight had been moved, and she acted as if we were crazy. Our boarding passes clearly said Gate 41. Was there anything this gate agent could do for us, my mom asked. She was shut down.
So we made our way to the Customer Service desk. Its staff indicated that no gate agent can help a passenger unless it was 30 minutes or less until the flight was scheduled to board. We explained that we needed to get things in order before the flight, especially since disabled people board first, but were told nothing could be done. As we waited another hour, our gate was changed again.
The new gate agent was a friendly man, but he was immersed in the details of the current flight and could not help us. He asked us to wait to the side of the desk, and my mom told him that was fine, provided we would be first in line for assisting passengers on the Indianapolis flight. He agreed. Then the airline called him to a different gate, leaving ours unstaffed. I waited in front of the desk for another 15 minutes or so before another man came to the gate. He just ignored me. It was not until my mom returned from going to the bathroom that he began speaking with her.
He stated that bulkhead seats are premium, so he could not move us. My mom asked if there was anyway we could be moved to the second row, so that I wouldn’t have to be pulled all the way back through the plane again. The gate agent literally walked away without responding.
Oddly, a different guy walked through and stated that someone from baggage would be coming to learn how to take care of my chair. My mom and I asked about getting our seats changed and getting help for transferring, and the man said we would have to work with the gate agent. When a gate agent came back, we tried again. He ignored me again. He wouldn’t even look at me, so I began to state in a raised voice that I needed to speak with someone about reasonable accommodations!
The man who was concerned with Baggage returned, and my mom attempted to intercept him before he left for a different gate. He talked to the gate agent, and said that the airline could do nothing to move us to different seats. Keep in mind that not only were my mom and I not sitting in the bulkhead – we were not even sitting in the same row! I cannot hold my head up on an airplane seat, let alone keep my body in the chair during landing. We explained all of this, but were told that nothing could be done. The man who is not the gate agent shouted to everyone waiting at gate that my mom and I would like to sit together, and the airline would accept volunteers to let us do so. He never explained why the request was made (aside from pointing us out in front of everyone), but he was sure to let everyone know moving was completely optional. It was humiliating, and I was terrified about what would happen to me.
A few minutes later, the man came back and said that I needed to board the plane. No one had come from Baggage. No one had told me that my seat had been moved. Somehow, miraculously, and without any volunteers, the gate agent managed to transfer us to the bulkhead, together. Why he couldn’t do this earlier is beyond me.
We waited for everyone to board. Then we waited to taxi to the runway. Then we waited longer. Then we waited more. Then we were told that we were going to be waiting a lot longer, as our flight was in the path of a storm.
Initially, we were given updates every half hour or so. Then the updates stopped until we were informed we needed to refuel. Cleverly, it was then that the airline decided to give us pretzels and the glass of water. This was about at the two-hours-of-waiting mark. We should have landed by then. In fact, I was counting on having landed by then.
My two major reasons for not enjoying flying – aside from having to deal with airline staff – are pain and not being able to go to the bathroom. I took appropriate pain medication for a two hour flight, and my back was starting to feel the agony. I also had not gone to the restroom since approximately 7 AM that morning. I thought I would be able to pee by 9 PM at the latest. Wrong, and my bladder was starting to get angry about it. Nevertheless, airplane bathrooms are so tiny, I cannot use them. I believe most domestic flights carry an aisle chairs, but the stewardess never offered me one. She never even asked if I needed any help, despite watching me wince and writhe. I begged my mom to signal the stewardess and ask if there was any way I could get off the plane, but my mom said we would have been informed if we were allowed to leave. In fact, we had repeatedly been told to keep our seatbelts on.
All told, I was on the plane for over six hours. Agony. If I can help it, I will never use American Airlines again.