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Monday, August 31, 2009

Flying Can be Hassle Free

My son and I spent the last week in the Seattle area. We ate our way through Pike Street Market, thoroughly enjoying outstanding produce and fresh sea food. We also spent much time people watching. My son looked at a few colleges he is interested in attending when he graduates from high-school. As for me, I forgot how much I enjoy urban life. Seattle is a vibrant city, has wonderful museums, and the waterfront is beautiful. What I did not enjoy was the crowds. It never ceases to amaze me how people react to my presence. I lost count of the times I heard "Watch out a wheelchair!" What this means is a mystery. I have not heard of any run away wheelchair users hell bent on injuring those that ambulate on two feet. What exactly are people watching out for? Are they afraid I will crash into them or are they just afraid of my presence. I eventually had enough of this and during the week a proverbial light bulb went off in my head. When a person stated "Watch out for the wheelchair" I would turn to my son an mimic their voice: "Watch out for the lady in the pink shirt". In return I got a few puzzled looks, one or two nasty replies, and much to my delight a few people seemed to get it. The comment, "watch out for the wheelchair" was dehumanizing and unnecessary. A small victory was had and I was proud to apply my anthropological knowledge to an every day situation. I felt very Goffmanesque!

What was really remarkable about our trip was how unremarkable our flight to and from Seattle was. I have always relied on major airlines such as Delta, Northwest, United, American, etc. My experience with these airlines is routinely horrible (exceptions exist of course). I have found ground and flight crews to be uniformly rude, demeaning, and uncoperative. I understand why this is the case. They are under intense pressure, over worked, under paid, and confronted by stressed out passengers who too often check their luggage and brains. However, I am a veteran traveler, need minimal or no help, and know how to board a plane quickly. What bothers me the most about airlines is the look and attitude airline employees seem to reserve for passengers with a disability. For those who travel a lot you will know what I am referring to: a look of disadain and dread is common when we appear. I often feel as though when I arrive to the gate I have the plague. This did not happen on our trip to Seattle. We flew on Jet Blue, an airline I have avoided in the past because I thought discount airlines would provide inferior service. When making reservations I wondered about this line of reasoning. No airline provides adequate customer support so why should I pay extra to be treated rudely? Screw Delta and Northwest.

I assumed Jet Blue would be like every other airline and treat me and my son poorly. Yet a funny thing happened on our trip. We were treated the same as any other passenger. Sure we still had to board first and got off last--standard operating procedure for every airline. An aisle chair was at the gate, on board the plane, and this was perceived by Jet Blue emplyees to be the norm. This is what I never feel like when I fly--normal. My presense was not perceived to be out of the ordinary, getting on and off the plane was stress free, and employees were polite. I have no idea if this is the norm for Jet Blue. Maybe we just got lucky. However I have heard from friends who fly on a regular basis that Jet Blue treats passengers with a disability like anyone else. What a radical idea! I wonder if this is corporate policy or due to the fact Jet Blue provides no services historically associated with airline travel. Expectations are severely limited. Jet Blue serves no food though free snacks and soft drinks are provided. They also charge passengers for every conceiveble item: $7 for a pillow and blanket, $2 for head phones and I was too cheap to inquire about the price of a movie. I was too happy regaling in my normality. Jet Blue won my business for the most basic reason--I was treated with respect and dignity.


FridaWrites said...

A lot of this is the Seattle airport in particular. Have you seen the accessibility info on their webpage? Unprecedented! In response to a very recent email from me to them about this (my husband was interviewing with a company there), one manager wrote:
"Thank you for taking the time to compliment our
>airport on accessibility information. We strive to make everyone's
>visit here a pleasant experience and particularly travelers with
>accessibility needs. We have developed an accessibility advisory
>committee which includes several Port of Seattle staff, airline
>representatives, Boeing, Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau,
>Wheelchair services, concessions and TSA (Transportation Security
>Administration). The purpose of the committee is to address issues
>that arise so that we can address them accordingly. Please contact
>me in the future if you have additional suggestions or comments."

She also emailed back that they do have people with disabilities on that committee.

The response about the "watch out" comments made me laugh. Usually I hear that from parents when a small child won't move away and let me through, but that's a little different from cautions for existing.

FridaWrites said...

Also, I've heard some the smaller airlines (including Alaska Air, Southwest) do better in terms of accessibility. Glad your trip was pleasant!

william Peace said...

Frida, My experiences with the Seattle/Tacoma airport have been negative. Many renovations have been made in recent years so perhaps things have changed. Amazingly, Jet Blue was very nice at JFK where rudeness is the norm. Indeed, I expressed amazement an aisle chair was at the gate and the agent looked at me and said "Its the law". Well that law is news to most airline carriers!

Yes, parents too often say "watch out" and the lesson learned has nothing to do with safety. Kids learn to avoid those dangerous people that use a wheelchair.

I am glad you liked and laughed at my reaction to watch out. I must confess I was very pleased with myself. I loved the reaction it prompted. One guy laughed in reply realizing his folly and laughed loader when I told him bipedal people can be remarkably stupid.

Full Tilt said...


I just got my chair, and was wondering how you found traveling with yours? I have been advised to rent a chair once I reach my destination as airlines break things or cushions etc go missing.

william Peace said...

Full Tilt, At no point in my life do I feel more disabled than when I arrive at an airport. I do not think I am traveling like others but going off to war. Social and architectural obstacles abound and hassles are the norm.

If your wheelchair folds the Air Carrier Access requires that it be placed on board the aircraft. This rarely if ever happens. Most likely your chair will be stowed in the belly of the plane with luggage. Any part that can come off you should remove and be sure to get a gate claim for the wheelchair. And, yes, airlines break wheelchairs on a regular basis.

In short, flying is a massive hassle from start to finish. If you can afford to rent a chair I would go ahead and do this. Just remember you are a human being, a customer like anyone and should be treated with respect. Airline employees and terminal employees tend to treat people with a disability like a bad child they dislike. Good luck on your trip and let me know how things go.

FridaWrites said...

I will have to give Jet Blue a try! Disappointing about the actual airport accessibility if that's not changed.

Full Tilt, there's a rental co. I found out about and listed on my blog--maybe under "traveling with a disability"--even if your chair is wrecked, this co. will get one to you. A difficult decision.

Unknown said...

Airline employees treat the disabled like dirt. The employees are why I hate flying and refuse to go on an airplane unless absolutely necessary.

william Peace said...

Rahi, You are sadly correct. Flying is inevitably a miserable experience because one is treated as you put it like dirt.