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Friday, October 12, 2012

A week ago I read a New York Times story that angered me--"Rolling Past a Line, Often Exploiting a Rule" published on October 3. Here is the link:
 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/04/nyregion/a-few-passengers-use-wheelchairs-to-avoid-airport-lines.html?pagewanted=1&smid=re-share&_r=0

Apparently a new term has emerged when dealing with passengers in an airport terminal that request a wheelchair--"miracle flights". I have never heard this term but I have seen people who request a wheelchair and most likely do not need one. Some airports (not all) allow people with a disability, usually a wheelchair user, to go to the front of the security line. This supposedly great advantage does not happen every time I fly but it is not out of the norm. According to the New York Times:

In the modern airport experience, where the tedium of long lines, sudden delays and ever-more-invasive security checks is the norm, little can be done to avoid the frustrations increasingly endemic to travel. So it may be an expected, if uncomfortable, fact that some travelers appear to exploit perhaps the only remaining loophole to a breezy airport experience — the line-cutting privileges given to people who request airport wheelchairs, for which no proof of a disability is required.

I have not had a "breezy airport experience" in decades. The author of the article is very clear--not waiting on the security line is a significant perk. However, what the author utterly fails to mention is the downside to this policy to people like me who are paralyzed. There are no "miracles" for me. I am at the mercy of overworked, underpaid, and poorly trained employees. Thus when I read, "While wheelchair users face the same T.S.A. rigmarole as other passengers, their trip through security is often expedited," I was taken aback. I can assure you my passage through airport security has never been expedited. Never, as in not once. In fact I would estimate it takes me at minimum twice as long long to get through security. To state people with a disability are subject to the "same T.S.A. rigmarole" is grossly misleading. This is what I experience. I take off my shoes, belt, and personal items  and place them in a plastic container. I put my single small carry on bag and computer in separate containers. As I approach the entrance my items go through the xray machine. Here is where things goes awry. I approach a glass door between machines and catch the eye of a TSA agent. This person speaks very loudly telling me to wait. He then yells "male assist." I wait for anywhere from 5 minutes to 10 minutes for a"male assist" to appear. When this person ambles over he is often bored and disinterested. Once in a while the TSA agent is openly hostile, clearly I have ruined his day. I am asked "can you walk at all". I reply "no". Some TSA agents will then roll their eyes at this response. The TSA agent asks "do want to be patted down in a private room". I reply no. I am then escorted to an area where I am not within the flow of passenger traffic. I am also far away from my bag, wallet, phone, and computer--a perfect opportunity for my things to walk off (I have lost quite a few cell phone chargers this way and I would never dream of bringing my ipad with me). I am told to wait while the TSA agent walks off in search of gloves. He returns and explains I will be pat down. The pat down can be thorough, as in I am being arrested and searched for deadly weapons or cursory, as in this is a waste of time and energy. In recent months I am sure to fold the air valve under my cushion. Since last summer if the TSA sees this valve I am subjected to intense inspection by a supervisor. My entire body is frisked. Frisk complete I am then asked yet again can you stand. I reply no, more rolling of the eye--I am obviously a lazy shit in the estimation of the TSA. Once again the TSA agent walks away, comes back with a small pad to test for explosive residue. The small white pad is wiped all over my wheelcahir. Yet again the TSA agent walks away and returns. Total elapsed time--on a good day at non rush hour time at best 10 minutes. On a busy day, lets say Friday evening at 7PM when every miserably tired business man or woman wants to get home, it will take at least 30 minutes. When I am at last on my own, I go find my bags that have been left unattended and hope nothing has been stolen.

The above does not fall into the "expedited" category in my experience. Too bad the author did not consider the ramifications of people who lie about needing a wheelchair. The diversion of labor makes my experience as a paralyzed man all the more difficult.  Those hired to assist me on and off a plane assume I can walk. When it becomes clear I cannot walk--not even a little bit--they appear perplexed and hopelessly confused. The fact is airlines are hostile to people who use a wheelchair. In the post 9/11 era my expectations are exceedingly low. I want one thing from the airlines: to not be targeted for abuse. In other words I assume service will be subpar, airline employees over worked, stressed out, and miserable. I do not expect any food, a clean airplane or nice terminal. I simply want to get from point A to point B without being harassed.

10 comments:

Katja said...

I do not allow the pat down to begin until the TSO has gotten my things from the conveyor belt and put them in my line of sight. It is TSA's own standard operating procedure that you not be out of visual contact with your belongings - insist on it.

william Peace said...

Katja, Insisting on that is sort of like insisting on Santa. The TSA is rigid in the extreme. I had many arguments when my son was little. I refused to let him out of my sight. This reasonable request was perceived to be a massive issue.

Katja said...

And yet somehow it works for me most of the time. I do understand that TSA makes its own rules, and that each TSO seems to be free to make his/her own rules.

Holden said...

Wise to leave the electronics behind. I had a DS disappear. I have an insulin pump, leg braces and (temp.) metal screw. Then there is the service dog, and most of the time I am also using a wheelchair or scooter. One time I had an extra tire tube that came back inconclusive for explosives. Oh so many fun times. I feel lucky when half hour is enough. The only airport that I've have relatively good luck with Logan (Boston). I used to live in the DC area, and I swear flying out of Reagan was the worst.

william Peace said...

Katja, I think there are huge differences between airports and the way the TSA operates. NYC are airports are without question the worst. This is where I depart from on a regular basis. As you know there is a huge difference between what is supposed to happen and what really takes place. I also wonder if gender is a factor. Are you treated better because as a woman you are not perceived as a potential threat? I d not know if you are able to ambulate a little. I have spoken to friends who use a wheelchair and can walk enough to get through the gate area and onto a plane. They all seem to have less trouble than I do as a paralyzed man. Much speculating in my comment.
Holden, I think the entire Northeast corridor is a hard place navigate. Reagan is indeed terrible. I use Dulles even though it is a longer trek into the city. I rarely if ever am at Logan. Chicago is another terrible airport.

Katja said...

I think you may be on to something with your thought about different airports. The last few years I'm mostly flying to and from Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, John Wayne, and BWI. I avoid Dulles, Chicago and LAX like the plague (and Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle, but they don't come up as often, more's the pity).

I don't ambulate at all, and have almost never been asked if I can. I am almost always asked who is with me, and I use that question as the opening to say that I am traveling solo and please bring my stuff over where I can see it.

william Peace said...

Katja, I think we are indeed onto something r.e. different airports. Chicago and LAX are terrible. I like Denver. Dulles is slow and dirty. I use it so I can see air and space museum complex. Willing to put up with problems. Heathrow sucks. The airport in Amsterdam is awesome, Skippol? We should come up with a list of pros and cons to major USA airports.
I think gender issues are involved. I am asked virtually every time I fly if I can walk. I am not a big man--I weigh about 140 so it is not as though they are worried about lifting a 200+ pound man. I too am asked who is flying with me. This happens all the time. Some seem stunned I am alone. At security I ask to keep my belongings in sight. The TSA agent says NO.

Spikeabell said...

Whilst never perfect (communications between check in and boarding often go awry)in Australia (for the airlines that will assist) service and assistance is generally prompt and polite. Always first on last off. Amsterdam and Singapore also good in their own ways with the same first on last off policy. No experience in flying in the US...not sure I want to either after your comments! My view comes from flying with my partner who uses a wheelchair not myself, I don't do any of the transfer assistance, that's all done my airline staff (I just carry the bags:)) There are frustrations but your experiences in the US sound far far worse.

Katja said...

It's not just us: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/practical-travel-safety-issues/1397876-keep-carryons-view-while-awaiting-patdown.html

william Peace said...

Katja, It is indeed not just us. Stephen Kuusisto on his blog Planet of the Blind has written about some terrible experiences he has had with his guide dog.