Airline Follies

When it comes to feedback from PN readers, the subject of airline travel makes people's blood boil!

In his May 2010 editorial, PN Editor Richard Hoover asked for “horror” stories so PVA could compile some “ammunition” for action. Following are a few of the letters he received, as well as a report on the status of some of the issues.

Tales of Travel and Airline Mayhem

I recently flew from Nevada to Syracuse, N.Y., and some of the issues [in your May column] hit home. But now there are new “twists” that are intended to help(?) disabled travelers.

The newest feature when using large airports’ wheelchairs is the chair similar to the Raz Shower Chairs (Innovations, May 2010).  I encountered this latest innovation at Salt Lake, Kennedy, and Syracuse. Literally, they make you a completely disabled traveler, as there is no way to propel yourself to rest rooms, food, etc. There is no main wheel, and skycaps are scarce, even when your plane’s boarding call is made.

(If ADA and its systems are there to “protect” my interests, why am I not allowed the dignity to go to a restaurant or the head in privacy without an observer? The manual chairs did allow privacy and the ability to mix with the rest of society at large. What has happened?)

During the trip I had to transfer to an aisle chair due to a smaller aircraft being used. This occurred during a midwinter rainstorm—about 2–3 inches per hour, with a gentle breeze of 50 mph. There was thunder and lightning, too. All seating, lifts, etc., were on the tarmac without lift operators or appropriate personnel around.

Five minutes after getting to my transfer position, I was soaked to the bone, as there were no shelters, much less personnel to effect the transfer. After what seemed like an hour (probably 20 minutes or so), someone was rounded up to operate the lift and get me boarded. The personnel involved were apologetic about everything, but a poncho to put on before leaving shelter, some hot coffee, and a change of dry clothes would have been much more meaningful!

This type of event is not supposed to occur; even elderly people were quickly boarded using physical assistance, and efforts were made to keep them dry. Why was I allowed to get completely soaked? Where were the proper personnel? I did declare disability and assistance needed.

Do not mistake this as a whining session; when pointing out problems, I try to bring a solution to the table. Since the problems encountered fall under ADA, TSA via FAA regs, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice (DOJ), why not gather the forces of all veterans’ groups, along with civilian advocacy groups, and file complaints en masse to DOJ? We are protected by ADA, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment, and other laws, along with remedies and fines, to keep this from happening.

It may well be time for all the groups to gather, threaten to file suit, and do it should nothing be done to mitigate these conditions. The above is part of the groups’ stated missions. For the sake of the membership at large, take up this cause on behalf of the members. You are our voices. Please gather the groups and make this happen.

P.S. At Syracuse International, I was told no taxis were capable of safely transporting a paraplegic to a destination at night. I’ve run into this in El Paso, Tex., where the closest van rental company was 250 miles away and you were charged for delivery.

Déjà Vu

On June 8, 2010, my wife and I embarked on a trip from Reno, Nev., to Sacramento, Calif., on what should have been a simple straightforward flight on United Express/Skywest Airlines. While the United Airlines (UAL) flight was not our first choice, it was the most direct. Additionally, UAL has real-time experience in dealing with passengers with disabilities. When getting the tickets I declared “assistance needed,” and they were marked as such so the trip would be easier—yeah, right!

The Reno to San Francisco leg went well, after making sure I had bulkhead seating (a request UAL personnel tried their best to push onto gate personnel) and paying the $25 “first bag” tribute.

Once at San Francisco, I checked at the desk to get a look at the plane we would be on for the Sacramento flight. The plane was part of a continuing flight, so the ticket/gate person couldn’t (or wouldn’t) describe the aircraft. After the plane arrived I saw it was a turbo-prop—loaded from the tarmac. [This was] a flashback to an experience with Delta at JFK (getting soaked to the bone) and waiting for the transfer seat to show up. What was different here at San Francisco was all passengers would embark from a ramp. I was brought down to board early, and the ground crew realized my scooter would not fit through the ramp entry, which was six inches too narrow, and no aisle chair was to be found anywhere near.

After all the passengers were loaded, the aircraft’s flight-deck crew was looking worried, as I was still on the tarmac and they were about to lose their spot in the take-off order. The chair finally showed up, along with a host of UAL folks…apologizing profusely about the foul-up. I was finally boarded, and we made it to Sacramento without incident. Once there, they brought the same type ramp for passengers to exit, but this one had the wider entryway, and I was able to exit with my scooter!

Forward to June 10. The return was smooth until the plane landed late at San Francisco and the earlier aisle-chair mayhem occurred again. We got off the aircraft late enough to miss our flight back to Reno—we crossed about half of the terminal and got to the gate to see our plane sitting there waiting to be disconnected from the Jetway. The gate agent said that once the [aircraft’s] doors were closed there was no re-opening them. As he made the statement, the Jetway® was pulled back.

He then booked us on a later flight. Instead of leaving at 18:34 hours (6:34p.m.), our departure would now be at 22:30 hours (10:30 p.m.) and ultimately 23:20 (11:20 p.m.). After that announcement, we were able to get him (after an animated conversation with his supervisor) to give us two $15 food vouchers so we could at least eat.

After leaving that point, hindsight kicked in—it would be nice to gain access to the UAL Club! Peace and quiet away from everyone would be great.

The next leg of the adventure was a trip to the UAL Customer Service desk. Two guys were dealing with a hostile crowd; it was a good thing TSA didn’t allow tar, feathers, torches, or pitchforks in there.

After we made our arguments for Club admission, the representative called his supervisor, who finally agreed it would be a good idea. The basic arguments were based on ADA needs—I was fried, and my wife was not faring much better. We were told to go to the Club to meet a waiting supervisor (my wife heard a different destination).

The Club entrance was on the way to where we were going to eat. No one was there, so we proceeded to the United Express counter, where they politely told us only the UAL counter could authorize such a thing. We backtracked to the UAL counter again, but this time we were shutdown. It didn’t matter what the representative had said a few minutes earlier; he would not call anyone! I finally argued a valid need, and he called a “supervisor” (most likely a friend, as the call was made well away from us, and the conversation was in a very low voice). We were politely blown off!

Well, there was maybe one more place to try. We couldn’t do any worse.

Power Play

The last place was the Club itself. I introduced myself and explained the request along with what had transpired already. With the smirk and voice of someone enjoying her bit of power, the Club rep flatly stated no one outside of the club could grant such a request, that the various UAL personnel we had talked with were less than honest. We felt there was no way in Hades she would contact anyone in authority; she was the gatekeeper, and riffraff such as we were not welcome—period!

Any additional requests fell on deaf ears, but ah, that smirk remained a constant: Just keep smiling (?) for the customers. She was even smiling as she offered to call and have us removed! We had reached our daily level of fun and dealing with these folks. We went to our gate where the last bit of “fun” occurred.

Yep, you probably guessed it—there was no plane or crew for the Reno leg! Eventually everything was located, but we would leave an hour later than originally scheduled.

Now for the latest in disabled travelers scams and abuse. Virtually all folks being moved in chairs were in patient transfer chairs! Imagine the joy of having to go to the bathroom with someone who may not be trained in helping paras or quads transferring to the toilet. Makes you wonder what happens when that person is the opposite sex.

The trip was an experience, slightly better than going to Syracuse. When we got home, UAL had destroyed the corner fabric of our suitcase.

—submitted by Tom Hudson

Demolition Derby?

In 2005 (as I recall), my husband Peter (a C5–6 quadriplegic) and I were traveling from Florida to the VA in Texas. I don’t recall the name of the airline. Peter was using a manual chair instead of his power chair for ease of transport; however, his ability to guide and power the manual chair on his own is limited.

Typically, when airline personnel take him onto the aisle chair for transport in the gangway, I have taken his personal items from him. Once he’s out of the chair, I work to quickly fold the chair, remove the leg rests and armrests to take inside with me, and leave the chair to be gate-checked, as we need it to deplane.

On the way to Texas, the airline personnel took Peter down the gangway for me, as my hands were rather full. When they got to the second “ramp” downward, for some reason the lady released the chair, sending Pete careening into the wall at the end of the gangway. He put his hands out, but there wasn’t much he could do. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt.

We went through our routine gate-checking the chair and being seated. When we got the chair back, the seatbelt had been ripped off.

This may all seem like enough, but the return trip took the cake. On our layover, our second flight was delayed—by 23 hours. We waited in line for the airline rep who was making alternate arrangements for folks. They said all nearby hotels were full, so we’d have to stay at the airport. Then, they wanted Peter to go home a day before me!

How was this going to work? Although he drives his specially equipped van in his power chair equipped with a lockdown—we had switched seats in the van so I could drive, as he was in his push chair. And, how were we to address all the basic things he needs assistance with when I’d be in another state? This is not to mention the total lack of compassion with regard to a person in a wheelchair being stuck in an airport with zero facilities for personal needs and no way to get a hotel room!

When we finally were boarded on a standby basis into the last two seats remaining, we were boarded last. Prior to this, the gate agent told us we could get on the plane but they were not allowed to gate-check the wheelchair and it was too late to load it with luggage.

We were arguing that point when another airline employee came over and told the gate agent it was illegal for her to refuse to load the wheelchair due to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).Then, we were seated toward the front of the plane but not in the bulkhead area where we often sit for ease of lifting Pete into his seat as well as giving him some leg room. The folks seated by the bulkhead stayed there, and somehow the airline staff squished Pete into a regular seat. Now, the folks in the bulkhead were certainly older, but they did walk off the plane under their own steam—something Pete cannot do.

What I’ve detailed here is probably the worst we’ve experienced. I did write to the airline, which paid to replace the seatbelt and provided us some dollar value of vouchers on their airline. They also pointed out that whereas we didn’t file a complaint for the damage immediately at the home airport, we really weren’t entitled to seatbelt replacement, but they’d do it anyway.

They forgot a few facts—namely that we had been awake for nearly 30 hours when we arrived at our home airport. The airport stayed open for our flight, so the only ones working there were members of the ground crew to unload luggage!

We have had several occasions where the plane had to be boarded via an exterior stairway, leaving Pete on one of their exterior lifts. Somehow, this typically happens in the rain, and he’s soaked, cold, and miserable for the remainder of the flight.

Most of the time one or two females are assigned to assist in seating Pete. They just don’t seem to have the upper-body strength necessary to seat someone who is unable to help them with the process. They have to lift him, and the plane’s seat backs are typically very high to reach over.

I’m not sure what the answers are: all movable armrests on aisle chairs? Sliding boards? Uniform training for attendants? Removable seats to allow wheelchair users to remain in their chairs?

Of course, there need to be limitations, guidelines, and perhaps some way for people to certify their needs. Unfortunately, people will take advantage if there are not.

—submitted by Bonnie Hoffman

Say, What?

About three years ago, I flew out of Orlando, Fla., to Denver on Frontier. The loading in Orlando went without incident, but in Denver I had two individuals for whom English was a second language. They took me from the airline seat to the aisle chair the way I had advised them with the help of airline people re-explaining as the transfer progressed. The two proceeded down the aisle, allowing my knees to bang against the seats as we passed.

When we got to the Jetway, they stopped me next to my power chair and began to remove the restraint straps. I reminded them several times that I have no balance. It was a case of their thinking, “It’s okay; the other guy has hold of him, so I don’t have to worry.”After a few near misses of going to the floor, they were ready to move me from chair to chair.

I prefer to be lifted by having the person reach under my armpits and grab my wrists. It’s easier on my shoulders and forces them to use their legs rather than their backs. Suddenly, they were unable to comprehend my instructions. They spoke back and forth in their native language and did it their way.

Halfway through the transfer, the man behind me lost his grip and I slid down the front of my chair and onto the floor. After a bit of struggling, they finally wrestled me into my power chair, leaving me disheveled, but at least in one piece and with nothing broken.

I was by myself; my wife was on the next flight. I figured trying to get a complaint filed with the help of these two would be a lost cause.

—submitted by Steve Kirk

Breaking Point

I’m a C5–6 quad, and every year I go to the Milwaukee VA for my annual checkup. I live in Hot Springs, S.D., and I have to transfer four (4) times between here and Milwaukee.

On July 25, 2003, I was boarding a United Airlines plane at Milwaukee for my trip home. While going down the gangway to the plane, the airport’s old wheelchair I was riding in lost the handles and I was freewheeling toward the aircraft. Just before I crashed into the plane, the transfer helper waiting by the plane put his foot out and stopped the chair before I hit. Since I was not belted into the chair, I came flying out and onto the floor. The helper caught me just as my knees hit the floor. This accident broke both my legs in five places, and it took a year to heal.

After the accident they put me on the airplane for my trip home. Since I have no feeling in my legs, I did not know anything was wrong until I got home. I hope this will help get the attention of the airlines in their handling of disabled people.

—submitted by Tim Murray


I know how it feels to be traveling to other hospitals for surgery and then coming home. I had to leave the Tampa SCI to go to the Milwaukee, Wis., VA facility. It was free, but not a fun deal. They had large frame aircraft back in 1990, and it was not a problem then. I’m not sure about now.

I don’t plan on flying anymore because of the issues you talked about in your column.

—submitted by Gerard Bergeron,USAF Retired

No Answers

I have had it with airplane travel! When I flew two years ago, the trip was so horrendous I swore never to fly again.

However, last year I thought I would give it one more try instead of driving four days roundtrip to Washington, D.C. During this flight American Airlines personnel unstrapped me from my aisle chair and walked away; the chair and I tumbled to the ground on the Jetway.  Thankfully, seven hours later in the emergency room, x-rays revealed no broken bones.

Several Gateway PVA members experienced problems on their trip to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Spokane. Nasty letters to the airlines accomplish nothing but a form letter saying they met Department of Transportation guidelines and perhaps, ironically, an offer for some free miles. One Gateway member got a broken leg and pursued Southwest Airlines in state court. They ended up settling the case.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but we need to do something as an organization.

—submitted by Stanley D. Brown


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