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Monday, August 6, 2012

Alaska Airlines and Blatant Discrimination

A few friends sent me emails about a story that has generated online buzz. Multiple stories have appeared in various mainstream news outlets as well. Alaska Airlines has been accused of discriminating against an elderly man with a disability and his friend. The source of the story is from Facebook--a fellow passenger who was outraged by what took place. Below is the raw Facebook post. 

 I request a complete and thorough review of the actions of staff today.. at the Redmond Oregon Airport. Cameron Clark reports, from the Redmond, Oregon Airport today.. """"i witnessed today, what i consider to be the worst of humanity.
standing in line at an @alaska airlines ticket check in, in redmond oregon, i watched as a disabled/mentally and physically challenged couple were left standing in the front of a line by the ticket attendant, melissa, who didn't say a word- no "final call, redmond to seattle"-- no "if you are flying to seattle, it's too ... 
late to make this flight," etc-- nothing. 
when a different agent appeared 1/2 hour later-- the flight still had not left. i asked for a quick "side bar" with the new agent-- telling her that this couple needed some leeway-- some additional help. she quickly informed me that "we treat every single customer the exact same here"-- she was annoyed by my insistence and advocacy. i tried to explain to her that her colleague had left the man and his companion alone, without saying a word to them. that they were "different" and that it would be ok for her to make exceptions for them (uttering something like, "exceptional circumstances sometimes require, exceptional responses").
melissa finally agreed to try to get the man on the flight-- but he couldn't bring his luggage (ug).
he had a hard time walking-- no one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. he stumbled off toward the safety inspection line.
predictably, he didn't understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security. 
while this was going on, the ticket attendant and myself were continuing to have quiet words about how they needed extra help-- she told me that "i didn't know the whole story"-- that he had the "same problem yesterday, showing up late to his first flight." i told her that i thought there was a real reason he was struggling to make it anywhere on time, and that this was cause for some compassion and some exceptions to rules, and some additional assistance. by now i was fully annoying her. she had her rules, and she was growing tired of my moral compass.
security ended up sending the man back, telling him in the confusion around his luggage that there was no longer enough time for him to make his airplane, without the plane running late.
the original attendant, melissa, returned, and lightly shamed the couple for being late for the second time in a row, telling them there was no way the man could get to bellingham before 9pm now.
the man and woman broke into tears. his "nervous system hurky/jurkyness" became profound. he begged her to help him. nothing.
i asked tiffany to go on with the kids, that i wanted to stick around and advocate for this couple for the 20 minutes i could and still make my own flight...
i asked the man for his name. "brent" he and his companion were easily 70 something. he was crying something fierce by now. i asked him what his condition was. he said he had late stage parkinsons, and that his companion had MS. 
i asked to speak to the on site manager- a man named "jim cook." jim listened to me politely tell him the story about the man with parkinsons, and the woman with MS, and how none of his staff did anything to offer them additional assistance when it was clear to all 20 of us in line, how much they needed it and deserved it, and then he explained to me that the "laws don't allow alaska airlines to provide anyone, for any reason "special treatments." i wrote that comment down, word for word. he responded by saying, "so great, you are going to take me completely out of context aren't you?" i said, "what other context is there?" i asked you why your staff didn't help these people, and, in that exact context, you backed up your employee who told me that everyone is treated exactly alike. he stood by this position.
the end of this story is sad to the core. after wrapping up with mr. cooke, i talked to brent for a bit longer. 
this trip- redmond to seattle/seattle to bellingham, was allowing him to see his daughter one final time, who works on the ferry system and is out on the water for most of her time-- she was scheduled to meet him in bellingham at 3pm today. he said that it was a "bucket list" item that he could no longer realize. i asked him if she could get off the ferry and wait for him tomorrow-- and he said that she was only available for this brief time today-- that he was to join her on the ferry, and that otherwise she'd be out on the water for days-- his trip was done. he couldn't re-schedule. he was simply, now, in defeat, asking for his money back.
what part of this story is "ok" in any way?
what happened to our collective sense of decency, of compassion, of our disposition to help those in need of extra help.
alaska airlines. you broke a man's heart today. you maintained your policy, and ignored an opportunity to do the right thing.
you broke my heart too.
if i knew who to contact, i would contact them and invite them to pay for this man's daughters unpaid leave, and provide her a ticket to come see her father? short of that, i know of nothing that could undo the inhumanity i witnessed today.

I have no doubt this is an accurate description of the incident. It would in part reflect my experience every time I fly. Airline personnel are routinely rude to people with a disability. When I show up at a gate I do not even need to utter a word--the gate agent sees me as nothing but extra work and a hassle to deal with. When I fly I have the plague. Using a wheelchair and flying is a miserable experience. If I am lucky and all goes smoothly I will only be delayed about an hour. If things go wrong, and they often do, much worse things can happen than just being delayed. With this background in place nothing reported above is a surprise. What is a surprise is the reaction--over 42,000 people have noted they like this story and are upset with Alaska Airlines. This will surely sound like sour grapes but where are all these out raged people when I fly and get treated like dirt by airline personnel?  I cannot think of a single incident when I was supported by a fellow passenger. Once every few years a passenger will look at me as they pass and say something to the effect they are sorry I am being treated so badly.  This summer as I waited and waited and waited for assistance well after every passenger exited the plane the pilot for the next flight looked at me puzzled and asked "Are you still waiting?" Yes, I replied. He said "You guys who use wheelchair really have it rough" and then entered the cock pit and closed the door.  

The point of my two stories is simple and will negate the sour grapes aspect of this post: when one observes an injustice speak up. Offer your support. Take the risk and tell airline personnel you are offended by the way a fellow passenger is treated. And I know this is a risk. When people fly once they enter an airport thanks to the Patriot Act they give up their civil rights. All people must endure the humiliation ritual performed by the TSA. I get crowds need to be controlled. I get people have to get from point A to point B. I get airlines need to operate efficiently and maintain rigid control of passengers. Within this structure however the rights of people with a disability can be respected. When I assert those rights I am not liked--I am deemed a "problem". Perhaps if other passengers supported me and the airlines realized this would occur my rights might not be violated in the first place. I might even be treated with respect. I hope one day to have this sort of experience.


Matthew Smith said...

I Googled the story and found that the airline tried to smear the elderly man by claiming he smelled of alcohol -- something the man who posted the original FB account of the incident says he never noticed while standing with him for fifteen minutes.

Catherine said...

I've seen it happen twice. The last time I flew, the airline lost someone's wheelchair. Yes, wheelchair. And denied ever having it, when I personally saw the woman check it at the door of the airplane. Yes, I intervened, and yes, they were disgraceful. They did find the wheelchair but only after a big stink was made. They could not care less that the woman was missing her wheelchair. She did not get a tag for it as she should have when she turned it over at the plane door, and that apparently exempted the airline from any blame if it did not make the trip.

Another time, an elderly woman was left sitting for two days when flights were delayed and backed up. She was in a wheelchair and was not strong enough to get a seat on the flights as they were filled after hers was cancelled.

My MIL who is not a very together person was directed deliberately to the wrong flight--actually given a wheelchair ride to it once.

So, yes, I am fully aware that the airlines are disgraceful and even criminal about how they treat passengers.Ironically, this is one area where it is equal opportunity abuse.ANYONE a bit slow on the uptake or just not pushy is going to get the shaft anytime any service is needed or if something goes wrong. It behooves one to go early and start getting a complaint letter started, identifying all airline personele you come across, adding the abuses as they occur. I cannnot begin to list the cruelities that our family has undergone by the airlines.

Catherine said...

I agree that airlines treat people with a disability much worse than an average person because they have a much higher likelihood of getting away with it.

I had quite the scene at the airport over my luggage--the tag they gave me was blank for the bag I turned over to them. I only got the tag because I asked for it and it was worth nothing as a receipt. The wheelchair was given nothing so when it did not show up, the airline was not on the hook. I have no doubt the personnel were doing this deliberately. I nearly lost the privilege of boarding the plane with the fuss I made over the blank receipt.

I'm sorry, Elizabeth. It hurts to think that anyone would treat a child poorly, and I cannot imagine how others gave YOU a hard time when you raised the subject.

Under the law a child flying alone has certain protections, from what I understand, up to a certain age. But one iota away for the letter of the law, and all bets are off. THey could not care less about the welfare of ANYONE including children is what my experience has been.

We need another Ralph Nader to hit them where it hurts. They were getting away with even more before he sued them and made policy such that the airlines at least have to suffer some of the pain of overbooking and other practices that they were doing to give themselves every benefit and leeway they could.

Becky Andrews said...

Wow. I had not heard this one -- this breaks my heart and is absolutely appalling. I will not fly on this airline and want to reach out to this couple. I am still working through my experience and so appreciated those who reached out to me. Your previous post on the Olympics is very thought provoking as well.

tigrlily said...

It annoys me that people think of providing equal access to folks with disabilities as "special treatment." Because the airline industry has become a mechanized process for moving product (people) from here to there with maximum efficiency, thus removing any trace of humanity, basic courtesy and respect has become "special" treatment.

But it's not "Special" it's a civil right to have access to air travel, and if that means the airlines have to make small modifications to their policies and practices, then they have to do it.

I understand the calculus involved in deciding how much of a stink to make at any given moment. It's a hard battle, and the airlines haven't had any incentive to do better. One or two successful lawsuits might do the trick, but who has money to sue?

Probably the best way to start is to carry hidden cameras (pen cameras are pretty unobtrusive) when we travel to record the outrages. That way we can use the evidence either in a public relations attack or to support a legal action.

Cake-Pie said...

Flying doesn't always suck for me (I was treated phenomenally well by Jetblue many times) but like anyone who travels with a handicap it seems like we should expect trouble.

I'm a part-time wheelchair user, but I always need a chair for everything when I fly. At the end of a flight I was still on the plane and a flight attendant asked me to take my bags from overhead. I said "I can't do that I'm disabled" and she looked at me disgusted and said "Well it's not my job to get those for you". Usually it's a long wait to get off the plane for me as well but this time it was longer because I had to wait for an undisgusted person to help me get my one small bag from overhead.

You mean to tell me they can't just get up and walk off the plane anytime they like? How hard would it really be to train people to think about this for one second?

It's also worth noting that I haven't flown with the new backscatters and increased security theater. I imagine it's a special hell.

william Peace said...

Cake-Pie, Jet Blue and Southwest are the best airlines for people with a disability. I would say that these two airlines at least try to the best they can. Delta is without question the worst. I would never fly Delta.

Unknown said...

Can you believe this?

This morning I left for the Airport to fly to Seattle. I was flying to Seattle to pick up/get fitted for a new wheelchair from the VA Hospital. The Seattle VA is the only regional hospital that handles spinal cord injury.

For six years since I have been paralyzed I have been flying (not ready to disclose airline) to Seattle...sometimes 2 to 3 times per year. I have flown in and out of the Boise, ID problems. I have flown in and out of Seattle, Wa problems.

Since I have lived in Medford Oregon in the last year I have made 4 or 5 trips to Seattle. Twice the Medford Airport (airline) dropped me on the ground. For my trouble they gave me a gift certificate for the next time I fly for $200.00. One time they trashed my bag...destroying everything in it...they replaced my clothes, books, cell phone charger etc.

About 3 weeks ago I attempted to fly out of Medford. They denied me...even though I have two seats and I have wheelchair/transfer assistance on my ticket. They told me that I was not there on time...but I was there more than an hour before take off.

Today, I never made it to the check-in. She recognized me...met me and said she was sorry I couldn't board ready? "We are not boarding you because you are in a wheelchair!" She handed me a customer service card and told me I could call them at 8:45am.

I called...the supervisor all but called me a liar saying that is not possible because we fly people in wheelchairs all the time. He then accused me of not checking in so how could they have told me that...I said she never gave me the chance. Besides I have a time stamped parking ticked and hour and fifteen minutes before takeoff...and a security guard as a witness.

Meanwhile, they keep giving me the run around...and it has been escalated to a manager because of the "potential of a lawsuit" I was told. I am still in Medford...still need my wheelchair since my current one is broken...I called Seattle they will not ship it to me because they need to make sure I am fit ted properly...which makes sense.

I hate to do it but I think I should go to the media and call a lawyer...I really feel discriminated against. I have flown many...many...many times with this airline. In fact, the attendant that denied me today has actually assisted me in getting on the plane in the past.

Unknown said...

Update: They called me from their "Customer Advocacy" Department. She said it had been an hour since I last called and she wanted to give me an update. An hour? Am I being a pest? Anyway, not much of an update...said, "we are working on your behalf."

Really? She said that Medford does not have the equipment to get me on the plane. I said (raising my voice), "That is a lie....I have flown out of Medford before and I can assure you that they have the equipment."(She is referring to the isle chair that I transfer too...they seat belt me in...and push me onto the plane and then I slide over onto my seat...this is how I get on and off.) At that she said, "oh yeah they have the equipment it is just not in proper working order." What? First they didn't have it now it is broken? I brought her contradiction to her attention and she responded, "oh...ummm...well I am not sure but we are working on trying to resolve this for you."

I said by lying? I feel like calling the media and a she got upset, "Sir, we are doing everything we can to work on your behalf..." I said, I called at 5:30am I don't understand what you could be "working on". She said, "when do you have to be in Seattle? LOL good grief...THIS MORNING WHEN YOU DENIED ME ACCESS TO THE PLANE IN CLEAR VIOLATION OF THE AMERICAN DISABILITIES ACT of 1974.

So...should I wait for them to call or should I call? Good grief. BTW...she seemed surprised when I told her the frequency that I fly to Seattle.

She said, "Do you go up there for medical reasons?" Oh my goodness THANK YOU for asking that question... "YES, I AM A DISABLE VETERAN." Normally I don't sling that around but somehow this seemed appropriate.