Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Fly the Accessible Skies" with Continental. Why? Because they care about PWD.

Continental's mission is to "ensure to offer the highest standard of clean, safe, reliable, and accessible, transportation to their customers." Until recently, that fourth standard was a bit of a mirage, but this past Tuesday however, it seemed to become more of a reality, as Staff Vice-President of Field Services Stephanie Buchanan included the entire mission statement, fourth standard included, in her opening welcome to the astonishment and awe of the company's entire Customers with Disabilities Advisory Board (CDAB).

Twice a year, Continental Airlines hosts two days of meetings to discuss some very important issues in the disability community. As always, what is discussed for future progress is strictly confidential, but what is updated as past progress is not. We are proud to say that Continental is highly dedicated to the issues of the disability community, and to maintaining this board- a feat in itself in the current economy. But if it saves the company just one astronomical DOT382 fine per year, it outweighs two annual meetings by far.

This was the CDAB's 4th meeting since its inception in fall of 2008, and the progress in those two years has been astounding. Board member Dee Hepperly of Ohio, hearing impaired, said it best when she stated that what started out as emotional and defensive interactions between the board and 30 employees, in ignorance truly of the other sides' experiences, has now become more of a family get together with understanding, patience and progress for handling people with disabilities (PWD).

Continental doesn't just want to comply with the new DOT382 regulations, they want to be the best at handling customers with disabilities. We have seen a great shift in the attitude of their employees, the awareness has spread like wildfire, and as Board Coordinator Bill Burnell, Manager of Customer First and Regulatory Programs stated, "The results from this group have been extremely positive," and the other airlines, both domestic and intertnational, are taking notice.

This was our highest attendance for these meetings yet, with over 50 Continental Employees in attendance on the first day of meetings.

Some of the highlights include:
1. Where once you weren't allowed to even turn on your Personal Oxygen Concentrators (POCs) onboard the aircraft while in flight, Continental Airlines and Advanced Aeromedical have worked together with the manufacturers to approved 11 new devices for flight. Passengers need to clear their equipment at least 48 hours before each trip still with the "Oxygen Desk," (800-228-2744, open 24/7) but this is significant progress for this particular group of PWD. The Oxygen Desk has now been renamed the "Special Requests Department."

2. Verification of emotional support animals now also need to be approved by the Special Requests Department, also a big step in eliminating illegally traveling "service animals," and an even bigger step for acceptance of truly qualified emotional support animals, validating their need and legality. Support animals must give advance notice as well, with enough time for the employees to approve the Dr's licencing and the passengers' need of the animal.

3. Attentiveness to the needs of the Deaf and Blind communities is on the forefront of this progress as well. From added training on the needs of these customers to increasing work and progress on technology advances for communications with these passengers, we look forward to giving some amazing updates in the coming year.

4. One particular specific request made it to the forefront this year: everyone on the advisory board agreed that a "Lead Flight Attendant" pin, signifying the "boss" or manager on the plane for any particular leg, would help people with special needs speak with the right person. Often times our hearing impaired board members felt ignored by the flight staff, and were frustrated by having to tell each individual attendant that they had some special needs or requests. By designating the lead flight attendant with a pin or button, the board and Continental staff agreed that this would assist with the responsibility and follow through of handling these customers with special needs. In just one year it has made a huge difference, and the three members with hearing disabilities already report a heightened awareness and positive response during their recent flights with the company.

5. Continental's Wheelchair Stowage Placard (page 1, page 2) is being rolled out on a wider basis now and more and more gate agents are familiar with tagging your wheelchair with this informational piece. For the safety of your devices we recommend labeling it with this or a similar info sheet designating the brakes and general operation of your mobility device.

6. Continental and the Open Doors Organization out of Chicago, Il, have begun working together to train the ground operation crews at various domestic airports. This has been so successful that American Airlines has taken notice and wants to do the same. The trainings include a full day of awarenss training on handling mobility devices. The airlines spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year replacing damaged devices, and the ground crews have been extremely and positively receptive to these trainings, having never had anything like it before. To be able to "tamper" with some example devices to learn how to maneuver, lift, and stow these devices (sometimes up to 100s of pounds) safely and securely for both the device and the staff is integral to the protection of the device, which can cost up to $50,000 each. This is ground-breaking training! (Excuse the pun!)

I want to reiterate how proud we are to be a part of this inspiring and influential group. Every board member brings a wealth of experience and similar pride to these meetings, but just as importantly, so do the Continental employees, who are such a dedicated and caring bunch that its a blatent surprise they're still in this industry. It just goes to show that customer care trickles down from the top.

We look forward to giving more updates on this board, and hope to eventually provide some quantifiable, measurable financials and metrics to support the overall successes of this progressive group.

While Craig and I have spent years flying together, we've never had reliable politeness and knowledgable staff that we can depend upon until we started flying Continental. I'm not biased, it's the simple truth. Only one other airline in the world has a disability advisory board, and many don't even do disability awareness trainings, ground operation trainings, or regular inter-company write ups about issues, rules, rights, and awareness about the disability community and these passengers needs. While there are some airlines we won't fly anymore because of the reliability of their mistakes and dagame to our equipment, there are also a few airlines with staff that are helpful, friendly, and even occasionally knowledgeble about the needs of customers with disabilities, but never has it been so reliable as with Continental.

I truly believe this stems from the awareness that spreads from these meetings, and am thankful that Continental cares enough about all passengers to have them. Flying anything else for us is simply a gamble we are no longer willing to take for the sake of saving $20 or $50 in airline tickets. We hope you take our advice to heart and test out the Accessible Skies of Continental Airlines.

No comments: