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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Airline Travel Wildly Inconsistent

I flew from John F. Kennedy airport to San Diego to attend the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities annual meeting. My experience, as always, was a mixed bag of negativity. I love to travel but despise airlines in particular and mass transportation in general. I get that all people are treated poorly by the airlines. Airlines are akin to very expensive and technologically advanced busses in terms of how they operate. I understand every inch on an airplane must generate revenue. After almost 40 years of traveling via wheelchair there is no doubt the airlines think I represent extra and unwanted labor. I am not a typical customer but rather an expensive and unwanted drain on man power. I also know my wheelchair takes up valuable space in a cargo hold. I could go on but you get the point--the presence of anyone that uses a wheelchair limits profit. With profit margins razor thin, I realize why an ingrained anti-disability framework exists in the airline industry. This is not uncommon. Other industries are hostile to disability foremost among them the health care industry. I never expect to have a positive experience when I fly. In the post 9/11 era I have a 500 to 750 mile rule. Any destination I desire must be in excessive of the aforementioned miles for me to get on a plane. The hassle is just not worth it. The stress I feel when flying is exceedingly high. Will I be injured by airline personnel who have little or no training? Will my wheelchair be damaged or lost? Will I be stranded for hours waiting for help? Can I tolerate the people I will be forced to interact with?

My thoughts were dominated by the above questions flying home from San Diego on the red eye. I left San Diego at 9PM and landed at JFK at 5AM. I do not ever sleep on air planes. I spent the night reading and lifting off my skin every ten minutes for the entire night.  How I wondered could flying be made easier for people that use a wheelchair? As of today, flying is routinely miserable. I always assume the worst. Airline personnel will be rude, uncooperative if not down right hostile. I assume TSA agents will act like, slow inconsiderate drones. My fellow passengers are unsupportive and typically look away when I am treated by airline personnel as though I am sub-human.  On that long red eye flight lying home I was struck by the angst I experience. Forget the social abuse and physical barriers. What makes me crazy is the inconsistency. For instance, at JFK I got a serious pat down by the TSA. This is usually a cursory examination--more show than security. The back hands of the gloved agent touch me all over my body.  A wand is spread over my wheelchair supposedly checking for residue of explosives. An utter waste of my time but required measure of control. The TSA agent at JFK gave me a real pat down. He was very firm with his touch and on the cusp of inappropriately hard. He touched every part of my body firmly. He checked my waist band, under arms, and legs. His touch was so hard he triggered spasms and asked why I was moving. I told him the movement was involuntary response to his firm touching. The TSA agent had me lean to one side then the other. He looked under my wheelchair in detail. This is, I suppose, text book. The text here for corrections officers working in a maximum security prison. I know enough to keep my mouth shut.  Dissent and objection is a very bad idea in any airport thanks to the Patriot Act.  I have no interest in disappearing as an enemy combatant. Did I object? Well, as a matter of fact I did. Upon completion I dryly noted "Thank you that was a text book pat down". He did not get it. In fact he took it as a compliment. Fast forward to my return  through the TSA. The TSA agent that patted me down never touched my body. Not once did gloved hands touch me. Perhaps I can thank Ebola for this as the vibe from this man was as though my disability was contagious. I flew through security with only a cursory glance.

I wish I could have an ordinary experience flying. I wish I could know what to expect. I wish I did not have to worry about getting injured getting to my seat. I wish the people that helped me on and off the plane were professional and not low paid and exploit employees hired by a second party responsible for assisting me. Leaving San Diego the two men tasked with assisting me did not speak a word of English. Not one word. Not seat. Not wheelchair. Not strap. Not feet. They were nice men who did want to help but the language barrier prevented basic communication. We were left to mime and point to work together. The message here is not sublet. I have no value. My life is not as important nor is my business in comparison to those that are bipedal and indecent within a very narrow range. I cannot envision this ever changing.

I cannot end on a depressing thought. Instead I will note the cross section of humanity that boarded my flight was interesting. A man four rows behind me snored loudly. Think freight train loud. This made me think of the Boy Scouts and some of the leaders whose snores were amazingly loud. What struck me though in terms of good feelings was the two young women sitting next to me. They were obviously intimate with one another. They were discrete but affectionate. They clearly had a wonderful bodily ying and yang.  Such movement is wonderful with a lover. It prompted many fond memories of my experiences with my long time ex wife when I was a young man. Better yet it made me think social progress is possible. Twenty years ago such affection between two women was not possible in public. We briefly spoke at the end of the flight about college life. I really enjoyed their company and for the first time in my life my fellow passengers offered a measure of support. I had explained I would be the very last person off the flight. They appeared shocked. They wondered why was I not the first person off the plane. I briefly told them about how terrible the airlines and how many law suits take place per year. After a short silence they each asked if they could wait with me or  help in any way. Wow, these young women got it. The way I am treated is wrong. They made that leap in logic in mere seconds.  Maybe there is hope after all.

10 comments:

Rhonda Greenhaw said...

This is terrific, Bill - why indeed are passengers with mobility supports not first on/first off? Great question that demands answers and change. The way folks with disabilities are treated by our society is deplorable.

Alex Schadenberg said...

Thank you for such a complete posting. Since I am able bodied it is important for me to understand your experience.

I also consider flying to be an onerous task, always wondering if I will be chosen for a pat down, nonetheless, I am thankful that I haven't had to experience the treatment that you experience.

Thank you again for sharing these experiences.

william Peace said...

Alex. Flying is indeed onerous. Perfect word. For wheelchair users flying is risky. Bodily harm is a real possibility given the poorly paid pepole responsible for assisting me. The real fear is a broken wheelchair. That is a disaster.

william Peace said...

Rhonda. The idea of first on last off is to have time to safely trsnsfer. This of course is wrong. I am for example faster to deplane than any family of people or the average business man with too many bags. Just a case of discrimination hard to discontinue.

Glee said...

The only advantage in being first on, last off is that we do not have to put up with a plane load of people gawking at us while we do it.

william Peace said...

Glee, I respectfully disagree r.e. first on last off. We get gawked at no matter what in airports. To me the note so subtle message is my time is less valuable than those that walked on the plane.

Vicki Jurney-Taylor said...

Please take the time to look over this petition, which demands greater wheelchair accessibility on airplanes, and has nearly 23,000 supporters:

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/wheelchair-access-on?source=c.em&r_by=8151355

william Peace said...

Vicki, I have seen and signed the petition. I am 100% supportive of your efforts. I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to fly and sit in my wheelchair. The airline industry is far too hostile to even consider the idea much less act on it. There is also no social demand to push this effort into law. Hate to be a downer. Again I support you 100% I just do not see this as a goal in my life time.

Moose said...

Made me think of this: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2008-03-12-wheelchair-travel_N.htm?csp=34 It's from 2008, and pretty much nothing has changed since then.

william Peace said...

Moose. Not much has changed. A pessimist could not nothing has changed in the lat decade. About the only positive I can think of is when one has a bad experience getting on a plane and it is noticed I politely ask the stewardess prior to arrival to request a competent person appear. Sometime this happens,