Air travel is degrading, stressful, and humiliating enough as it is, so imagine doing it when you can’t get up and walk off the plane.
If I could walk, I wouldn’t have missed my connection.
If I could walk, I wouldn’t have been left onboard, twice, after everyone else disembarked.
If I could walk, I wouldn’t have my feet crushed, dragged under a narrow chair, as untrained staff pulled me off a plane.
“We'll still have someone contact you," came the message, at last, after two trips in travel hell. "We don't want to lose your business and hope you won't give up on us.”
But I have given up on American Airlines. They have lost my business. I urge anybody who travels with a disability to consider any other airline.
As a space and aviation writer, I never look forward to writing about a bad experience in the air. Those who use wheelchairs to get around know how unfriendly our friendly skies can become. But I never expected an experience as unpleasant as the one given to me by American Airlines.
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Headed to Tallahassee, Florida, to look for an apartment, my mom and I flew American Airlines from White Plains Airport in New York. Hell begins at the stop in Charlotte, NC.
The Bombardier CRJ-200, a jet-engined puddle jumper, seats fewer than 50. Lacking a jetway, the airport must wheel a ramp to the door of the aircraft before I can disembark. We have an approximately 40-minute window before our connecting flight departs for Tallahassee. Having landed 20 minutes late, I watched from my wheelchair as the other passengers filter out the plan.
I wait some more. There is no ramp to get me off the plane.
Finally, 15 minutes later, one rolls up. If you’re doing the math for those connection times, you’ll already know this is going to be close. Though somebody runs ahead to my connecting flight and tells them to hold the plane, we arrive just in time to see it pushing away. I'm informed that a gate agent told our crew
they didn't know a ramp was needed.
It's about 9 am. We head to the American Eagle counter gives us standby tickets for the 1:15 pm flight and definitive tickets for one at 4 pm. The agent compares my mom to Bette Midler. It’s going to be a long day.
I asked the agents whey they can do for us. What can you do for us?”
“Not much," one replies. "It’s all done through corporate.” There is no-one here from American Eagle corporate, though were told a "corporate management liaison" is in the airport for the parent carrier. Which is to say, there is nothing they can do for us.
Even getting a breakfast voucher requires fetching a manager.
I took it to Twitter. American DM'd me their response: “This isn't what we like to hear and we'll forward your comments to both Customer Relations for review as well as our airport team. We value all our customer and and our apologies for the troubles that you had today.”
When asked what they’d do about it, they again privately replied, “We contacted the Charlotte airport and they're sending a manager to you. Please be on the look out for them. Let us know where you are if you don't see them soon and we'll provide them with your location.”
No manager shows up. After waiting an hour, we head to the gate for our standby flight. Two managers approach: including the one who begrudgingly gave us the breakfast voucher, and another manager I’d never seen. I ask if they were sent by the Twitter team. They had no idea I was in contact with their Twitter team.
An explanation is given for our broken connection: “There was a gate change on the ground at the last minute. You were supposed to get into gate E32 at 8:30, but at 8:32 they switched the gate to E6.”
I don’t quite believe them, because E6 was listed as the gate before the flight, but take that as you will. I ask about the corporate manager, and am told there is no corporate manager by the person who had, a few hours earlier, suggested otherwise. Moreover, we will not be getting on this flight.
“We’re sorry, the flight is full.“ Then, a few minutes later: "We have one seat left, if you and your mom would be willing to split up."
Reminder: I'm in a wheelchair.
I almost lose it and break down into tears. I describe my previous experience navigating the same problems with JetBlue, and how JetBlue acknowledged mistakes, took responsibility, and took action to improve their services for wheelchair users.
“Well we’re not other airlines," one agent says. "We do things differently.”
Which is to say, give excuses: people weren't told. It's the tower's fault. Management isn't here. Twitter? "Twitter is going to get you nowhere. They’re not going to do anything for you.” Can I contact a manager at customer relations? “We haven’t done it by phone for years now, it’s only online.” All they can do is send me to a website. On the website is a phone number to call.
After 8 hours waiting around in Charlotte, we're finally headed to Tallahassee. Upon arrival, I hear back from a special needs representative who apologized and offered a $200 travel voucher. I accept the voucher, and ask what changes will be made.
“We have purchased more ramps for the planes in Charlotte.”
Sadly, this isn't end of the story. The return leg, despite evident efforts to accomodate us, goes awry in even worse fashion.
Arriving at Tallahassee Airport, two skycaps, told to look out for us, greet us and escort us through security. We're given first class luggage tags, so our bags will be first off. I spot wheelchair notifications pop up on the computers are we're processed. A manager for American Airlines comes over and tells us to talk to him if we need anything.
Hell begins at the stop in Charlotte.
There's a jet way this time, and my mom heads off to get my chair. I’m waiting, and waiting. The minutes go by, me stuck on the plane. A quarter of an hour or so passes. Sound familiar? But this time, I still have an hour layover time, so there's no need to rush.
Peering ahead, I can see my mom yelling at agents in the jet bridge. Presently, a flight attendant comes on and says, “They put your wheelchair under the plane for your connecting flight to White Plains.”
There are airport wheelchairs, of course, which was their plan. But I need my own chair, designed so I can actually push it and use the bathroom.
My mom can't tell me about the situation or help me, I later learn, because the flight attendants refused to let her back onto the plane—the plane where the wheelchair user she was assisting was waiting to disembark.
She hasn’t even stepped off the jetbridge.
Finally an aisle chair arrives and person to help get me off the aircraft. Alas, removing me from a flight is a two-person job: one to help me at the front of the chair, and another at the back. The situation is especially difficult on regional jets' tiny plane aisles.
A second person is sought. Unfamiliar with my needs, neither of the two leg straps are fastened and my feet fall off the footplate of the chair. One drags underneath the chair while the other whacks against the seats, row after row. I’m trying my best to lift my legs up to keep them off the ground, telling the man in front, but he's not listening. At the door my mom realizes what's happening and starts yelling from the jetbridge to get his attention.
Finally she just walks on and grabs my legs herself. Mom survived breast cancer, barely has any chest wall strength, and here she is carrying my heavy legs in her arms so I don’t hurt myself. She's hurting herself in the process. I am one lucky son.
Another round of messages with the Twitter team yields a response: “Our apologies it was taking to your connecting flight. We'll have a Customer Relations specialist contact you directly.”
In compensation, American offered a $200 voucher or 15,000 frequent flyer miles, but said they said they cannot refund a flight that has already been flown. I have also filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation who are performing their own investigation.
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I have been flying while disabled since 2009. I’m a frequent flier. Every airline has its snags. What distinguishes them is how each airline responds after they are made aware of an incident. American's responses suck.
JetBlue and United each owned up to their problems and resolved them within 24 hours, if not at the airport. In fact, with JetBlue, it was the Fort Lauderdale airport staff who messed up, not the airline, yet they still called it unacceptable, took responsibility, and took action. I’ve flown into that same airport since with no incident: they identified and fixed an underlying problem.
This isn't an abstract problem. Airlines need to train all their staff to use lifts, ramps, aisle chairs, and to have each of these items ready for passengers who need them. If it’s not possible, at any given stop, they should be ready to let passengers know and to make reasonable alternative accommodations.
Having to rely on other people all the time is one of the most difficult parts of life in a wheelchair. Those of us who use wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices don’t need more difficulty in our lives. But that's what we get when we try to exercise our basic right to move around the country.
All airlines need to remember that we’re not just boarding pass numbers and on-time statics. All fliers are people, and that includes fliers with special needs like me. All airlines, especially American Airlines, need to remember that. I hope all disabled travelers who read this will think about which airlines treat us as people and not an inconvenience like American Airlines did with me.
Air travel is degrading, stressful, and humiliating enough as it is. Imagine doing it when you can’t get up and walk off the plane.
[Image adapted from a photograph by Sergey Kohl / Shutterstock.com]