Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hello British Airways? It's Blair from America.....

Two BA Flights & My Right to Do
British Airways Flight Number: 182- 10/1/07 7pm-JFK Arrival Heathrow

I am flying to London Heathrow from New York. I get to JFK Int’l Airport and stand in line to check in. Nothing that crazy happens, a young red-headed man faints next to me in line. But he seemed okay. JFK must not have heard everyone’s screams for EMS or a doctor. Ten minutes later they brought him an airport wheelchair and rolled him away somewhere. I never saw him again.
It is now my turn to check-in. At the counter.
Scene: Four BA Agents visible. One young white woman behind the counter helping me check in. She has to ask a supervisor if it is okay to take my chair apart and put it in the closet on the plane. She leaves. She returns with the Middle Eastern Male Supervisor. He says it is okay but my wheelchair must still be tagged as baggage and I have to ask the CDC advisor at the gate if it is okay. He then asks me at the check-in counter with at least ten people in earshot if I can go to the bathroom on my own. I looked at him and said yes. He started to get defensive and said he has to ask it is policy. I said to him “asking someone if they can go on their own is pretty personal-“ He again was defensive and started to flex slightly, he said we have to ask and if you can’t go on your own you can’t fly with us: especially if you don’t have someone with you. This in combination with the young woman checking me in and asking if I can walk out loud, in front of everyone at the check-in counter, was not only humiliating but I started to wonder if there was a better way to handle these questions. I asked the supervisor if there is another way and he said no he has to ask just like he did. So there, take that. And he walked away back to his Supervising.

After check-in and a Body Cavity Search….

The Duty Free Zone: My skirt got caught in my caster. I had to get into the ladies room to fix it and find the handicapped stall which was taped shut with garbage bags. As I took by bags off my lap and adjusted my skirt everyone was watching in the bathroom and it was very quiet. I was oddly on stage Reverend Billy Style. This odd British woman came up behind me after she washed her hands right next to me, right in my back space and said, I saw your skirt was caught, I was going to help you. I said I don’t need your help, thank you, and I left the bathroom. She followed eerily close behind me, then we were doing that odd “I Don’t Know You Side By Side Walk” and I went the opposite way out of the restroom.

Young Pakistani Man at T.Fax Exchange window told me it would be okay to go to Pakistan, there is a lot of Military, but safe. Be careful of the cabbies ripping you off, they play off each other and also he said don’t take public transportation.

I got to the Gate for my flight to London and another British Airways employee approached my in a crowded waiting area and asked me the same question about the bathroom. I asked her if this was policy, to do this questioning in public, isn’t she afraid someone may be a lawyer or a journalist? She shrugged nonchalantly and said that it is policy and the law, British Airways has to ask. She said she had a woman come on board and lie about having a miscarriage and she would have bled all over the plane. She said people lie. I asked again if having this conversation is better in privacy or maybe the Airline can adopt a new system of discretion. Like a paper questionnaire at check-in? She said she was being quiet, no one was looking at us. I turned around and there were passengers sitting on the floor two feet away from my wheelchair. I said, they don’t have to be looking at us to hear us. She said she has to ask and this is the way they do it. So as long as I can go to the bathroom on my own and I tell them if I can stand up or not then I can travel on my own. I reminded her again that I have done this many times and never once have I been asked publicly if I can go to the bathroom on my own. She said the people in the past weren’t doing their jobs correctly then. She walked away. I smiled and said thank you and wrote down our conversation.

My wheelchair made it on board. I was told you never know with the crew, they might be okay with it they might not. This crew was okay with me putting my wheelchair in the closet. The aisle chair was hard to move me in so they put me in a World Traveler Seat. Seemed they weren’t booked. The seats were very nice. They pulled out into a bed. I slept.

When the plane landed and all the passengers got off I had to wait an additional fifteen minutes to get off this BA flight in order to catch my connecting BA flight to Dubai. I waited. And as I waited for someone to get me into an aisle chair I noticed Flight Attendants leaving the plane, putting on perfume, gossiping. Finally one Flight Attendant came over and I told her I had to catch a connecting flight. She went herself and got me into an aisle chair. I was then escorted to the next gate.

Again I encountered the Maybe/Maybe Not of the Wheelchair on Board Campaign. The Flight Attendant at the gate said she would ask but it was up to the crew if they wanted to let me put my chair in the closet, if not it would go under the plane as baggage.

And then there is the bathroom on board this flight to Dubai. I was in Coach, had a whole row to myself. But when I asked to go to the rest room two Flight Attendants came over and asked if I needed help in the bathroom. Before I answered I wondered if anyone communicated with each other about this bathroom question. So I said no, I said I will ask for help if I need it and I can do everything on my own, just get me the aisle chair. They still tried to lift me as I transferred which I told them politely I could do myself. Getting into the bathroom is impossible. I twisted both ankles. American Airlines has “Handicapped” bathrooms by First Class. You can put the aisle chair besides the toilet and transfer inside the bathroom or stay in the aisle chair. I asked the BA employee if they had a bigger bathroom on the plane he looked puzzled, said there was a longer stall in the back. I thought, cool, maybe that one would work better than having to do a 360 each time I am in the bathroom. After I sat down in my seat in Coach I heard a female Flight Attendant in the Galley behind me ask him what I said, he told her and she said the bathroom we just used is fine-but with a “what is she complaining about/how dare she ask” tone.

Interestingly enough there was a closet that had two small carry-ons in it right across from my seat. This closet was deep and very empty, except for the two small carry-ons. It was big enough to fit my wheelchair if you took it apart. I didn’t understand why there is such a hassle to put my wheelchair on board when there was room right by my seat-behind row 36 on British Airways Flight #107 to Dubai.


The stress level is immense when you have people publicly asking you personal questions a doctor wouldn’t ask in a public place because he would be violating your right to privacy. Do you give up that right once you desire or need to fly if you are in a wheelchair? And why should a wheelchair user have to cross their fingers that the crew is in a good mood in order to get their chair on board when there is space available? Also is it really the law that gives British Airways the permission to ask publicly those very personal questions? And one last question for British Airways, where is it in the safety video demonstration or the manual in your seat pocket that explains what would happen if I needed to get off the plane in case of an emergency?

I decided not to ask the last question. I didn’t want to stress out anyone working that airline today. I had suffered enough silently and I know how it feels to be put on the spot.

I am now in Dubai. People are friendly, my hotel rate got jacked up 80 AED but who is complaining. It is hot here. October 3rd 2am.


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