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Monday, October 26, 2015

Crawling off a Plane

By now most people will have heard about D'Arcee Neal, who after a flight from San Francisco to Washington DC, decided to crawl off a plane after an extensive delay. Link to typical news story: http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/25/us/united-airlines-disabled-man/ Like any other person, D'Arcee Neal needed to use a bathroom after a long flight, hence his decision to crawl off the plane. For those who do not use a wheelchair, when a person such myself or D'Arcee Neal, fly the industry standard is simple. You are the very first person on the plane and the very last person off the plane. When I state you are the last person off the plane that means every single passenger has deplaned. The slow elderly lady, the family with four very young children, the sleeping man all the way in the back, the couple who are angry with each other with no interest in exiting. The only good thing I can say about the boarding process is that finding my luggage is easy. By the time I try to retrieve my bag all other passengers have long since departed the airport bags in hand. The rule of thumb I use is if every single thing goes as planned I will lose "only" an hour of my time. When I fly things rarely go right. In fact the norm is for things to go badly.

When I read about D'Arcee Neal, I had one question: why is this a news story. I have crawled off many airplanes. Every paralyzed man and woman I have known who can transfer independently have also crawled off an airplane. This happened to me and others more than once or twice. Was I furious when put in the position of being forced to crawl off the plane? You bet I was. I wrote letters, emails, and filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. I am far from alone. The National Council on Disability filed a report directed to President Obama. It is an exhaustive report. Link: http://www.ncd.gov/rawmedia_repository/862358ac_bfec_4afc_8cac_9a02122e231d.pdf Sections of the report made me weep, curse out loud, and reinforced I am far from alone. There is a systemic pattern of abuse and refusal on part of the airline industry to comply with the law. Despite the fact the law is firmly on the side of people with a disability unfettered access to something as simply getting on and off an airplane has gotten far worse in the post 9/11 era.

I can imagine those who do not use a wheelchair rolling your eyes and thinking how bad can it be? The answer is worse than you can imagine. For example, Robyn Powell, an attorney for the National Council on Disability travels often. In 2014 United Airlines, US Airways, Jet Blue and Southwest to one degree or another broke her wheelchair. Every part of my wheelchair has been broken by airlines: brakes have been severed off, upholstery ripped, front wheels wrecked, tires have been flattened and rear wheels bent, spokes gone missing, and most impressive was a badly cracked frame. In December of last year noted George Washington professor David Mitchell's wheelchair was dropped by US Airways on the tarmac in Hawaii. Another professor, There Pickens of Bates College, had her scooter damaged by multiple airlines. Keep i mind you cannot easily repair a wheelchair. It is not as thought he wheelchair repair store is around the corner. Simply getting a part can take weeks. The only thing that separates these  men and women from others is the fact they had the social supports to push back. Mitchell waged an aggressive media campaign and the airline agree to provide a replacement. In the ensuing weeks, Mitchell had no choice but to use an uncomfortable temporary replacement. I admire his efforts. Yes, he advocated on his own behalf but hopefully empowered others to do the same.

The law is very clear the rights of people with a disability extend to when they travel. The Air Carrier Access Act is excellent legislation that is ignored and violated on a daily basis. Link: http://www.disabilitytravel.com/airlines/air_carrier_act.htm How else does one explain away the thousands and thousands of complaints made each and every year by wheelchair users. Remarkably, this represents progress. Before the law was passed I was often deemed a "flight safety risk" and denied boarding. The risk people with a disability who use a wheelchair take every time they travel is significant. The response on the part of the airlines when they break a wheelchair or force you to crawl off a plane is always the same. You get a formal apology and a voucher to travel of about $200 or a similar amount for wheelchair repair work. When my son was a child I flew to Salt Lake City with him and my wheelchair was lost for many hours. I refused to get off the plane until my wheelchair was found hours later. We missed our connecting flight. The end result was a $600 travel voucher. When I used the voucher an airline employee asked how had the airline screwed up. I told him and his reply was "that happens all the time. You were smart not to deplane."

If the problem people who use a wheelchair encounter are so rampant why is nothing done? No one cares. People are too afraid to offer any sort of dissent once you get through the humiliation ritual known as airport screening performed by the TSA. The airline industry at large has been and remains hostile to any person that uses a wheelchair. Surely the inequality is addressed by industry insiders. Yes, some object. The best example is WheelchairTravel.org. This website is a mixed bag at best. The website was founded by John Morris. It is a professional website and I assume Mr. Morris earns a living by traveling and is part of the travel industry. I have found very little useful information at WheelchairTravel.org and I perceive it as a site for industry insiders. If I have a  travel related question I prefer Scott Rains and his site the Rolling Rains Report. While far to quick to praise the travel industry when deeply annoyed Rains can be an insightful critic. He is simply to nice--a good character flaw.

Mr. Morris wrote "3 Takeaways from United Airlines' Disability Services Failure." Link: http://wheelchairtravel.org/3-takeaways-from-united-airlines-disability-services-failure/ What Mr. Morris wrote was a mixture of fantasy and reality. He concluded the lessons are as follows: 1. Wheelchair users should expect to wait. 2. Planning ahead is important. 3. United Airlines should be praised. I will respond to each point.

On waiting: Mr. Morris appears to blame and question if D'Arcee Neal was patient enough. Mr. Morris also appears to suggest waiting a long time acceptable. He blames the gate agent for the failure of outsourced personal to appear at the gate. A critical factor was the plane landed at night and was the only flight of the day for United Airlines to and from D'Arcee Neal's destination. Here we have an insider in the industry, an insider with a disability, who politely questions the veracity of D'Arcee Neal experience and paints him as either naive or inpatient. I have been in this situation many times. Land late at night and this often is accompanied by an extended wait. If all goes well, within 30 minutes assistance should arrive. Like D'Arcee Neal, I begin to get agitated after waiting 30 minutes. That is 30 minutes after the entire plane has been empty or essentially 45 minutes after the plane has landed. Depending upon the reaction of ground personnel I will wait at least another 15 minutes or longer for someone to appear. After an hour I deem the wait a lost cause and crawl off the plane.  After being assured for well over an hour that some one will appear shortly I become skeptical and take matters in my own hands. Once in a while airline personnel will share my frustration. In rare instances non trained personnel will help me off the plane. The point here is that most people who use a wheelchair and fly regularly know the system. At some point we give up and accept the fact no one is going to appear. I suspect D'Arcee Neal reached his tolerance limit. The only useful information provided by Mr. Morris is expect to wait at best 30 minutes but be prepared to wait longer.

On planning ahead: Planning ahead should help. It does not. Planning ahead is an utter waist of time. Mr. Morris is simply wrong. When one travels the major variable is luck of the draw. In a day of traveling I have one flight where the crew was great. The next flight on the same airline the crew was rude and nasty. Generally speaking, some airline personnel are great; most are not. A person that uses a wheelchair represents one thing for ground personnel: work. Most ground personnel are indifferent to my existence. Most resent my existence and audacity to travel alone. Mr Morris suggests that on long flights people with a disability that use a wheelchair should dehydrate their bodies. I have done this for decades. On long flights I dehydrate myself 24 hours in advance of travel. If I do this now at my age I feel sick for days. But wait! Mr. Morris enters into fantasy land when he writes:

Using the onboard lavatory is an option, even if you cannot walk. Prior to travel, passengers can request that an aisle chair be stowed onboard for use during the flight. Flight attendants have been trained to help passengers to the restroom using the onboard aisle chair. This aisle chair cannot be used for boarding or deplaning, and cabin crew are restricted from assisting in this regard. If the passengers’ disability would prevent him/her from using the aircraft’s lavatory in this manner, they should consider booking an itinerary with an intermediate stop/connecting flight.
I burst out laughing when I read this. I have been paralyzed for 35+ years. The above is never going to happen. Never. The idea that flight personnel would be willing to assist is wildly wrong. This would take time and energy. It could interfere with beverage and food service. Even the possibility such an issue might arise makes it impossible. The idea an aisle chair is going to put on an aircraft is unrealistic. The suggestion that the flight crew have been trained to assist a person such as myself is pure fantasy as well. I have seen flight crews refuse to help elderly people enter a bathroom. I have seen flight crews be point blank rude to mothers with an infant and a small child during toilet training who needed a bit of help. There is also no chance your wheelchair will be stored anywhere but the belly of the aircraft with the luggage even thought this violates the law if one uses a folding wheelchair.
On praising United Airlines response: This stunned me. Praise an airline for violating the law? Really? Mr. Morris wrote: 
One of the flight attendants witnessed a violation of the ACAA and reported it to corporate. They reached out to the passenger and offered a proactive apology and $300. According to the CNN report, United has also suspended the manager on duty. That is truly unprecedented, and a game-changer. United Airlines sent a message to its employees that failures in the provision of services for disabled travelers will not be tolerated.
United did not respond in a typical way. Offering $300 immediately is $100 more than usual. Suspending the manager on duty is called finding a scape goat. The gate agent did his job exactly as required. It was not his fault the out sourced employees did not show up.  The suspension is not unprecedented. It was corporate self protection. Better to fire one person than be subject to an investigation by the Department of Justice.  The spin here is remarkable. 
In short, Mr. Morris gives an industry response. I am sure the nuts and bolts of what took place will be debated intensely among those interested in the experience of those that use a wheelchair and fly. This is what I learned: Mr. Morris praised United Airlines for paying off a passenger with $300 whose civil rights were violated.  Mr. Morris suggests people who use a wheelchair and fly keep their mouths shut and wait for an aisle chair to arrive. Mr. Morris implies D'Arcee Neal was impatient. Mr Morris thinks becoming dehydrated is a good idea. Mr. Morris thinks flight crews will store an aisle chair on board and are trained to help you into the restroom. Mr Morris thinks planning ahead will help. Mr. Morris is very wrong on all these points. 
Let me give those that use a wheelchair some practical advice. This coming from a man who advocates for others with a disability and has no ties to the travel industry. This advice is based on the gritty reality that the disabled person who is traveling is doing so with a severely limited budget given the unemployment rate among Americans with a disability is about 70% Expect problems to arise every time you fly. Expect airline personnel to be unhelpful. Expect to be demeaned by either airline personnel or flight crews. Expect a battle each and every time you fly. Be grateful when things go as planned. At a practical level I suggest the following:
Fight for the bulk head seat. You will have fought for a tiny amount of extra space but being in the first seat will enable to see or hear problems as they arise.
If you cannot get a bulk head seat, sit as far forward as possible. The less time spent in aisle chair the better. 
Those charged with physically helping you on and off the plane know little and sometimes have had no training. Many will not speak any English and are poorly trained and poorly paid (think sub minimum wage). Be assertive in the way you want to transfer.
Try not to take a flight during the morning or evening rush hours.
Try not to take a flight that lands late at night. Airports can be desolate places.
If making a connecting flight reserve at minimum two hours between flights. I never leave less than three hours. 
Carry a copy of the Air Carrier Access Act. A good app is available as are brochures in the airport. 
Be assertive. Be willing to say no and ask for the terminal resolution officer. Such a request can be used to assert your power when airline personnel are uncooperative.
Remove anything that might become detached from your wheelchair.
A well used wheelchair helps. Think duct tape. My wheelchair is rugged in the extreme but I have learned in recent years to make it look fragile. A piece of duct take here and there goes a long way if baggage handlers think it is on the verge of falling apart. 
Travel with a power chair at your own risk.  Given the weight and complexity of power chairs these modern marvels are at high risk for severe damage or complete destruction. 

One last point. If you think I have been too harsh on Mr. Morris I suggest you read his post about flying first class in which he wrote: In the event something goes wrong, greater attention might be paid to your needs if you are ticketed in a premium class of service. Link: http://wheelchairtravel.org/first-class-for-the-wheelchair-traveler-luxury-or-necessity/ This is an indication Mr. Morris has no idea of his privileged status. I suggest Mr. Morris spend more time flying on low profit domestic milk runs his crippled peers most likely experience.  

11 comments:

Moose said...

I know very few disabled people, no matter their disability, who haven't been screwed over by an airline. It's part of why I don't fly anymore.

There's one thing I learned after an airline abandoned me at a gate. (at midnight, while the airport shut down around me.) Ever airline is required to have a CRO - Complaint Resolution Official - at all times the airline is in operation at that airport. "Available" can mean on the other end of a phone. The interesting thing here is that if you make a complaint to a CRO, whether the CRO decides in your favor, s/he must give or send you a written report of your complaint and the decision. This is very helpful should you take your complaint upwards or to other, regulating agencies.

I will say this - it's just my experience and I'm sure others have different ones, but the airline that treated me the best was Southwest. They fixed their screwups quickly and efficiently, with apologies. And then on one flight across the country, the first of two flights was late. Not only did they hold the second flight, but they kept open front row seats for me (I'm fat; I buy two tickets). And, yes, they were bulkhead seats.

william Peace said...

Conflict resolution officer is indeed the go to person. Ground personnel dread their involvement as they create a paper trail. But if you are in contact with the CRO things have already gone wrong.

I hesitate to single out any airline as they are all lousy in terms of disability rights. Yet industry wide Southwest and Jet Blue seem quick to apologize and fix errors. Delta is by fat the worst.

John Morris said...

Dr. Peace:

I appreciate your analysis. Respectfully, I believe you have either failed to understand the purpose and essence of my post/argument, or have intentionally misrepresented its content.

I founded WheelchairTravel.org to show that travel is possible in spite of disability. I built it largely out of frustration - competing resources and blogs did not answer the question of "How?" Questions like, How to board an airplane or book an accessible hotel room - these are simple questions with easy answers. The value of my website can be found in the highly detailed reviews of accessibility in the world's cities. The information is accurate. There is no italicized text at the bottom of the page warning readers that I found the information on Google. I stand by my content, because I have experienced that which I write about.

Your contention that I am an "industry insider" is offensive and laughable. It assumes that I do not endure the same violations of my civil rights as you. I have been left waiting on planes, on the tarmac in the rain, and in the jet bridge as passengers boarded the aircraft. My wheelchair has been damaged countless times, and totaled on one occasion. I have been disrespected by gate agents and cabin/flight crew.

I am not associated with any travel provider, other than through my membership in loyalty programs and as a passenger or hotel guest. We are only separated by the greater frequency of my travel.

By the Department of Transportation's reading of the ACAA, 30 minutes is the time standard for compliance. Passengers should expect to wait up to 30 minutes to deplane and be reunited with their mobility equipment.

I am a realist. I don't lie to my readers. Oftentimes, passengers will wait longer than 30 minutes. If that occurs, the airline has committed a violation of the ACAA. The passenger should file a complaint with the DOT. The DOT should levy the fine of $27,500. That is what I wrote, Dr. Peace.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have onboard aisle chairs on every one of their mainline aircraft. I can't make a blanket statement that flight attendants are "happy" to help a passenger to the lavatory, but those who have assisted me have always been kind, helpful and willing to listen to my instructions.

I don't necessarily disagree with you on the point that the suspended United employee was a "scapegoat." But, that reaction is one that I have never seen as a consequence of my own rights being violated. It was a step. A judgment on the length of that step and the value of it is purely subjective.

I do not plan to use my website as a tool to wage war on the travel industry. That is the work of organizations such as the ACLU. I commented on this story because it was an opportunity to offer suggestions on how to protect yourself in the event of these violations. Planning is key. I expect a violation such as this on every flight I take. You're correct that it is horrible, but I am a realist. I prepare for the worst, always.

I will not apologize for having extensive knowledge of air travel. I love flying, and traveled frequently long before the car accident that claimed my limbs. I read frequent flyer blogs. I discovered that Mr. Neal was on a once daily flight that arrives in the evening by performing a search on Google Flights. I performed research to inform my opinion. You are an academic, are you not?

As to your last point, and one that we have already discussed on Facebook, I do my share of travel in economy class - more often than even a normal American frequent flyer. I use my earned points and miles to book first and business class. We all have a right to be consumers.

I admire your passion for this subject, and would love to invite you to write a guest post on my website. That offer is open to your readers as well. http://wheelchairtravel.org/contribute/

Best wishes for your future travels.

--John

william Peace said...

Mr. Morris, I am glad you replied in detail. Despite our differences we each have the same goal: improve the travel experiences of all people with a disability and undermine ingrained bias in the travel industry. A few points need to made. You object to being called an "industry insider". I assume WheelchairTraveler.org is not a labor of love and is a for profit website. I assume you are a travel writer and earn a living this way. Correct me if I am wrong. The term "industry insider" was poorly chosen. Travel writer is a better term. I am sure you have been discriminated against. All people with a disability are subject to this when they travel. I suggest given you earn a living writing about travel you are much less likely to experience the sort of bias an inexperienced traveler will. I agree 30 minutes to wait to deplane is reasonable. If everything goes right this is fine. Rarely when I fly do things go well. I do not travel as often as you but waits of 30 minutes are not the norm. In my experience waits are much longer. It is likely that for every one complaint there are likely hundreds of people who just get on with their tip. The aisle chair on board and trained crew willing to help me to a bathroom is theoretically possible. In the real world this will never happen. If one requested such assistance I suspect the answer would be a point blank no. I doubt the aisle chair would even be on a plane. Planning is a waste of time because the airline industry makes up things as they go. Yes, I plan. For instance I get the bulk head seat. If I am refused this accommodation I contact the CRO. I rent a car with not one company but several as the car with hand controls is often missing. It seems to me we differ on style and less on substance in terms of writing. No reason you should apologize for being a travel writer. It is a god away to earn a living. I likely would not have taken the flight D'Arcee did. As I pointed out in my post, the risk of taking such a flight is too high. This is wrong and objectionable. I doubt I would choose to be a guest writer. Of course that could change depending upon how much you pay writers. Thank you for the reply. We are on the same team but go about our life and work differently.

Katja said...

I, too, assume that most wheelchair users who can transfer independently and have flown more than once or twice have decided to crawl off the plane after waiting interminably for an aisle chair that never comes. I've certainly seen my share of airplane floors close up and personal. But I've had good success using the on-board wheelchair to get to the plane lavatory on longer flights. I've also had several flight attendants break out the on-board wheelchair to get me off the plane when the aisle chair never turned up.

william Peace said...

Katja, A year ago I was in the Denver airport making a connection. An airline employee tapped me on the should and asked me where I was going. I told her. She replied "I am going to upgrade you to first class for the rest of your trip. My brother is paralyzed and I know all airlines screw you guys over". The problems people with a disability encounter are industry wide and well known. The only thing preventing broad based solutions is the utter lack of interest. Based on your comment and Mr. Morris, next time I fly I will request an on board chair to get to the rest room. I would love to be wrong in this instance.

Nessie Siler said...

Finally, someone has pointed out that those outsourced agents helping people on and off planes rarely speak English. I wondered when it would come to light. I have spent many days with these good folks of all nationalities. I am thinking of investing in a pocket translator, or perhaps Rosetta Stone?

william Peace said...

Nessie, Thank you. The men and women who get people with a disability on and off the plane are good people indeed. They struggle with English and are poorly trained. They are thrown into a job they are ill prepared to perform. The fault is with those tasked with training people who I think do not care one iota. This problem exists because our existence is not valued.

Nessie Siler said...

I think part of the issue is that those tasked with training are suddenly required to care, when in everyday life, they have had the good fortune of not having to. So, they'll put a training together, which covers the absolute bare bones of what is expected on the job, and hope that nothing goes spectacularly awry. There's probably nothing much past "You have to make sure they're strapped in , and the footrests are down" in the training that they do get. God forbid any of us "make trouble"... Oy.

william Peace said...

Nessie, There is no reason to expect a poorly trained and paid employee will care one iota. Why should they? They are disposable labor working a sub minimum wage job. Without care and training the risk of injury is significant. Indeed getting on and off is when one is at highest risk for injury. I cannot think of a way to change the system and lower risk.

Nessie Siler said...

Nor can I, at the moment. :)