Monday, January 09, 2006

Flying the International Skies in a Wheelchair

Why is it so hard to get fair treatment while flying if you are in a wheelchair? American Eagle has been the worst airline to fly. Their planes are tiny and not anywhere near accessible. O'Hare is the worst airport to fly into. They never come to take you off the plane when you arrive or they even have gone as far to pull onto the runway without putting your chair on the plane and leaving it in the terrified hands of an O'Hare employee who was has to wave her arms frantically to the pilot so he won't fly away. Last November the American Eagle pilot and flight attendant had to get me off the plane themselves. This is only one of the interesting stories I own about the unfriendly skies. There are more below. And I am sure more to come.

The last two times I flew were international flights out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In November of last year I flew from Port Columbus International Airport to O'Hare. I arrived in O'Hare and was trying to switch planes from American Airline's American Eagle, a subsidiary of American, to one of their jumbo jets in order to fly to London and was left on the small communter jet for thirty minutes. No one from O'Hare's staff came to get me. The pilot, furious, had to lift me off the plane himself with the flight attendant. He asked me to send a complaint to the airline. He said American Eagle and O'Hare are infamous for this-leaving disabled passengers on planes. Once I was off I rushed to my next flight. At the gate for the international flight I was met by two young employees of O'Hare to help me on the plane. I have a wheelchair that weighs about 18lbs and comes apart. When you book a flight with American they guarantee, based on first come first serve basis, that your chair, if it is collapsible or comes apart, it will be stored on the plane in the closet and will not have to be checked as baggage. Once on the plane, in my seat in economy, I then explained to the two young O'Hare employees how to dis-assemble my chair and put it in the closet. They left me in my seat to do this and I noticed five blonde American Airline flight attendants shaking their heads and gesturing to the outside of the plane to the two young O'Hare employees. The two young O'Hare employees came back to my seat and said the chair wouldn't fit and I would have to claim it as baggage. I said that is impossible, would they please try again, the airline has to put my chair on board it is the law. The young male O'Hare employee looked at me and said they (The American Airline Flight Attendants) won't move their luggage out of the closet. I looked at him, he was worried, slightly saddened, and I said to him okay. As he and his colleague walked away I looked towards the group of blonde flight attendants who were too far away for my to yell to and noticed they were whispering and looking over at me. How lucky they were I could not get up. How lucky they were to be that lazy and mean-spirited. How easy it was for them to put their luggage ahead of my piece of mind. I had to pray that my wheelchair made it under the plane and that it would not get dammaged. I had a ten day London/Tunisia Trip ahead of me. All I could do for the next seven hours was press the button for the "Stewardess" every thirty minutes and ask to be taken to the bathroom in a poorly constructed aisle chair. Unfortunately for the flight attendants they couldn't claim my bladder as baggage. They had to be polite and acknowledge it. One interesting side note-the flight attendant who got stuck taking me to the bathroom the most asked me during one of our bonding moments while waiting in line for the ladies room why I was going to London and I told her about a dance performance I was in, and my love for this project the company I was performing with. But instead of discussing the event or London or Tunisia, she stopped me in mid-verse and said, " can you dance you can't use your legs? Dancers use their legs." I just couldn't compete with that much ignorance on one American Airline flight. I didn't answer, I just kind of shut-down and while ignoring being trapped on a rigid metal slab with my life in her hands and being dragged to the ladies room, I prayed someday this conversation would be public knowledge, and someone would know just how ignorant the "Stewardesses" of American Airlines were on that day in November.

You see I thought I had heard it all during an Aer-Lingus flight this past August when a Flight Attendant on Aer-Lingus told me I had to sit in the window seat in case there was an emergency because the Airline staff would have to evacuate all of the able-bodied passengers first and if I continued to sit in the aisle seat I would be in the way of them. She politely said this right before take-off with a plane full of people, in a very eloquent Irish dialect. I looked at a mentor of mine I was flying with and she said she didn't mind where I sat. The Aer-Lingus flight attendant then looked to the man in the window seat and he looked at her and shrugged his shoulders. It seemed the three passengers saw the absurdity of the "FAA" regulation as she put it, except her and Aer-Lingus. That flight I didn't make it to the bathroom. I didn't even bother asking for an aisle chair. The bathroom seemed so far away during that two hour flight. I watched with jealousy as passengers emptied their coffee and tea-filled bladders. I felt so horrible and second-class. There is great difficulty flying without incident for someone who is a paraplegic.

Two weeks ago I ran into the another problem storing my chair in the closet again while getting ready to board a flight to London. The flight attendants swore they couldn't fit the chair and that it would break "FAA Laws" if they forced the chair on board in the closet. But an aware skycap swept into my conversation with a finger-wagging flight attendant and took my chair frame from him and fit it in the closet with ease. I have no clue what the problem or issue was. I just know that you have to have skin that is thick like some real-deal Gucci leather to hear and take in these comments and treatment without crying or getting so angry. I gave up my fear of flight this past trip. The baloney that the airline puts you through before you get on the plane is enough to wash away any fear of a suicide bomber or some electrical malfunction. I have promised myself I will documnet these travels. Document the poor system of the aisle chair, the "your frame won't fit in the closet because my luggage is already in there", or the can I help you-can I help you-can I HELP you with your luggage-can I help you get to the gate-can I push you...wait you have no handles on your chair. I wonder if the day will come when the airline has one little section where there is one chair on the plane the size of a business class seat. And a closet for a wheelchair to fit in next to it and the small, but accessible bathroom right next to this larger seat, a seat without the bar in the cushion that could give a paraplegic a pressure sore during an eight hour flight-a nice cushion seat+a little closet+ the small but accessible bathroom=no stress. No stress for a lot of people. No stress for the passenger, the flight attendants, the airline. I wonder if they would ever consider remodeling a plane this way. Or just take out two seats so that one passenger could fly comfortably. I do doubt this day will come anytime soon. I think it will come but not in the next ten years. I say this because I just saw a news story on television today saying how "passengers of size" are making the airlines lose money because they have to put more fuel in the planes and have "passengers of size" buy two seats. If the airlines can't have seats for larger people constructed, people who I think are allowed to be whatever size they want, healthy or not, then they are nowhere near changing the current system for "passengers of inability".


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