Thursday, May 24, 2007

Another reason not to fly United

This letter came in to us from a friend who blew out both his MCL and ACL (knee) and had to fly United on crutches. It was so harrowing, that I had to share it. We've had Craig's wheelchair broked twice, his shower chair broken three times, and almost denied access because the new flight attendant mistook the word "pet" in her FAA guidebook for "service dog." But we stopped flying United a long time ago when we heard they were the only airline that did NOT go through disability training. We found out who got the highest marks on customer satisfaction -disabled or not- and fly with them: Continental.

So here's Damien's story.... (injured on a kayaking trip deep in the backcountry) It's long, but then, most of these stories are...

"I had to fly 2 days after my accident so I called ahead to get a wheelchair to my gate on all my stops. I'm on a free ticket so I stop about 14 times, which I don't understand instead of taking up room on one flight I'm taking up room on almost every flight United has that day, plus I'm traveling 10,000 miles to get to a destination that's only 1500 away. When I got to the airport in Raleigh they told me it was going to be a 30 minute wait for the wheel chair. I might have missed my flight if I waited so I crutched it down to the gate. Of course the gate I was going to was the farthest possible from the ticket counter. I must have been run into 5 times by gapers looking at the gate numbers and not where they were going or people just in a hurry to make their flights and didn't care who they knocked out of the way. I was also sore from paddling out the day before so I had to stop about every 10 yards or so and rest my arms.

I get to my gate and ask if I can pre-board with First Class. The First Class passengers look pissed that I get in line with them. It's a class issue, like I was scamming them with my fake crutches to try to be better than I really am. (On United they have First Class walk over a Red Carpet and then they rope it off and make everyone else walk around it. Is this the 19th century?? I almost expected not to have a window or life preserver when I got to my seat!!) When I get on board I ask them to make sure they call a wheelchair to the gate.
"No problem," the flight attendant says.

When I get to Dulles, no wheelchair. I try to ask someone but there is a line and the gate agent, not too politely, asks me to go to the end of the line as she thinks I'm trying to get on the outbound of the flight I was just on and am cut because of my crutches. I can't wait and hobble again to the next gate. With no hands to carry anything, I tied a plastic bag with all my personal belonging, tickets, wallet, cell phone, magazine and water bottle, to the handle of one of my crutches. As I'm about to get on the terminal shuttle, the bag breaks and my stuff goes everywhere. The look on everyone's face was priceless. "Do I help or not?" No one helps but I got a lot of looks of pity and end up missing the shuttle because I'm picking up all my stuff. I get to the gate and there's no open seat; no one offers to get up. I find a seat on the floor and wait for my next leg to Chicago.

I get to Chicago, again no wheelchair again but this time I feel like I'm in luck because I'm only about 4 gates from my next departure to Denver. In between was a bar and I was ready for a drink, but again, no seats. I wait for a seat near the entrance in a pretty obvious place. Apparently cell phones make people oblivious because as soon as a seat opens up a suit on his cell brushes past me and takes the seat. I was about to say something but another seat opened up right after and I took that one and let it go. Again I board and again I get dirty looks when I board with the First Class passengers. This time I didn't get permission to board with them and she points out that I'm not in the right class to be boarding first but lets me on.

I get to Denver and, hooray, there's a wheelchair waiting for me. I'm almost in tears I'm so happy. I have to go all the way down to the end terminal to pick up the little prop plane to Steamboat but I had to stop at the bathroom on the way. The guy stops at the bathroom and when I come out he's gone!! The *&%$er ditched me!! I can't get on the moving walkway in crutches, so I have to hobble my way down again. I get down to the gate and they tell me I won't be able to make it down the stairs to the tarmac so they call another wheelchair for me. Guess who shows back up??? The Ditcher!!! He wheels me around when he gets to the bottom he stands there and waits for a tip. I was so pissed so I gave him a fake novelty $3 bill my Dad gave me with a picture of Bill Clinton on it. This guy was from India so didn't know the difference and pocketed it.

I sit down at the gate for a while until we get word that they don't have a pilot to fly the plane. He's in Phoenix and and will be here in 2 hours. All of the passengers go back up to the concourse but the lady tells me I have to stay because they can't get a wheelchair to bring me back up. I guess that Indian guy was at the bar spending his $3 bill. Everyone leaves and I had to sit down there by myself for 2 hours with no water or access to the bathroom.

We had some testy weather and they told us we might have to go back to Denver but luckily we landed and I was asleep in my bed about an hour later. It hindsight everything else seems pretty easy to get around crutches on."


Monday, May 07, 2007

Confuse "Pet" for "Service Dog?"

On our way home from the Abilities Expo in Edison New Jersey, we ran into a bit of a problem with Continental. To their credit, our first problem ever with them, and it was sorted out without an issue.

However, we figured we might as well just share it, so if you come across this issue, you know what to do.

The request: Our service dog is big, and we like the bulkhead for her and for extra room for us.
The problem: The gate agent thinks "No animals in the bulkhead row."
The truth: "No PETS in the bulkhead row."

His justification: All animals must be considered as luggage, and stored out of the way of passing customers for safety. Therefore they must be stowed under the seat in front of them.
Our justification: Mohawkie is not a pet, and we've done this for five years without question.

How do we protect ourselves usually?
1. We bring a copy of the FAA rules with us to back our rights up.
2. We bring a copy of the Service Animal rules from the ADA with us to back our rights up.
3. When in doubt, we ask for the airport disability representative or a TSA representative to protect our rights.

How did we resolve this issue? Upon proving to both the gate agent AND the green flight attendant that although the FAA states "Pet," this does not apply to a service animal because a)many of them are too big to go under the seat in front, and b)the bulkhead is the official disability seating.
We did have to get a TSA agent over to settle our dispute professionally, but we spent the first 10 minutes nicely stating our point so that the issue didn't get inflated with defensiveness and anger so it could be resolved more quickly. When our case wasn't accepted, we had someone else back it up.

Usually Continental employees are more informed than this, so we were surprised, but not disappointed. We managed to educate 5 staff members, and got into our seat on time as usual.

The bottom line: KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.