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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Follow Up With Delta and Questions

I had a long talk with an employee from Delta. Profuse apologies were made and accepted. I am very curious though about one thing. I was told some passengers prefer the sort of straight-back I used. I find this hard to believe. The straight-backs I routinely use when I fly all have a cushioned seat. Given the width and short duration of use I do not expect much padding on a straight-back. I do expect the straight-back to be clean and have working straps. Curious I looked for images of straight-backs and came across the below.

Note the complete lack of straps. Imagine this straight-back with ripped canvas and dirty and add 20 years of use. That is what I had to use. The Delta agent suggested in the future if I am unhappy with the straight-back that I could ask to speak with the conflict resolution officer and not worry about the backlash of such a request. In an ideal world this is good advice. But we do not live in an ideal world. The fact is if I insisted on an appropriate straight-back and competent assistance the flight would have been delayed. This would undoubtedly have angered the flight crew and 160 passengers. Easy advice to give, hard to actually implement. This leads me to ask readers:

1. Would any paralyzed person prefer an unpadded straight-back with no working straps for torso and legs?

2. Has any paralyzed person ever knowingly delayed a flight by insisting on straight-back with straps that work, some padding, and competent assistance?

3. In recent years has service getting on and off the plane become significantly worse?

Over the years I have worked with a few conflict resolution officers with mixed results. I have also noted that assistance on and off the plane since it has been farmed out to the lowest bidder has deteriorated. I would love to know what other people have experienced.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unpredictable: Flying when Using a Wheelchair

I spent four days at the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) meetings in Atlanta. I returned to Syracuse physically and intellectually spent. Four days at an academic is too much for me. The night I got home I slept 11 hours which is extremely unusual. Flying to and from Atlanta was its usual mixed bag. Syracuse airport is small but clean. Amazingly, it is filled with employees that on the day I traveled were good at their job, polite and respectful. I got through security and boarding without a hitch. I wish I could say the same thing about Atlanta. Atlanta was terrible leaving and departing.

Arrival in Atlanta: Remarkably getting on and off the place on the flight to Atlanta was typically slow, first on last off. I find the wait upon arrival frustrating. Why are people in the back of the plane so slow departing?  Is there a party back there with free drinks? And more to the point why am I forced to wait until the plane is empty, that is every passenger departs the plane. Sorry for the aside. I get off  the plane and think all is well. My colleague and I are happy and head toward the elevator. We find a line--a long line. Atlanta airport has a single elevator for people that use a wheelchair. Yes, one elevator. The line I crankily and rudely observe is filled with people that most likely can walk a good bit and I speculate many do not need assistance. After I make this observation my colleague looks at me askance. She is correct, I of all people should have a nuanced understanding of disability. I apologize and acknowledge my comment was rude but remain deeply annoyed by the wait. I cannot help but note at least one man left the elevator line for the escalator nearby. I hope I do not sound petty. Think about my experience in terms of time. I boarded the plane first and exited last. This added about 45 minutes to one hour to my travel time. Now I have no choice but to wait for the elevator adding about 20 minutes to my travel time. I would guess in total an hour was spent in the Atlanta airport merely waiting. Sadly, I would deem this an uneventful trip.

Departure  in Atlanta: I get to the departure gate with my colleague who has experienced her first disabled travel related perk. We did not wait on the very long line TSA security line. The line appeared to be a 90 minute to two hour wait. I have been on that sort of line and it is not fun. As a result of not waiting on the security line we had time to eat, use the rest room, and get to the gate early. The usual pre-boarding starts and all appears well until I look over and see the straight-back. I have not seen a straight-back that old in more than 20 years. I regret not taking a picture of it on my smart phone. The straight-back should have been retired a decade ago. It was dirty. The canvas was badly worn and ripped in spots. The seat was not padded and had a deep depression. I was very worried I would fall through the seat when I transferred onto it. There was no strap to keep my legs on the chair (I have really long legs). My colleague thought the straight-back looked like a torture device. Getting on the plane was going to be risky and painful. I asked if another straight-back was available. Yes, but it would take a long time to find and would delay the flight. Every straight-back thanks to the Air Carrier Act is supposed to be padded. In the past too many paralyzed people have been hurt because of a lack of padding.  So there I am in Atlanta--I can risk my health and arrive home on time but in pain or assert myself and insist on a straight-back. Only one of the two men that were tasked with getting me off the plane was competent. I thus ask my colleague if she can hold my legs and protect them from injury. Frankly, I was humiliated for being forced to ask my colleague for help. Thankfully I got to my seat and transferred without assistance or trouble.

What never ceases to amaze me is the fact I would consider the round trip relatively uneventful. I arrived back in Syracuse in one piece as did my luggage and most importantly my wheelchair. I also arrived in pain. My right hip was on fire for many hours. It was like a person had a blow torch on my hip. Two very stiff drinks and a long sleep relieved my pain. But it was not the physical pain that bothers me. Why is acceptable for people that use a wheelchair to be limited to one elevator in a major international airport? Long lines waiting for the elevator are inevitable. I have no doubt this is a well-known issue. Why was a dilapidated straight-back still in service? Why was I forced to either  delay a flight or risk my health? And did I really have a choice? What if I did indeed request an appropriate straight-back? I have no doubt this decision would have been met with hostility. The fundamental issue is not the risk and inconvenience I endured. Access for people with a disability is perceived to be a "problem". The idea my civil rights were violated never crossed the mind of the airport employees.  Traveling highlights a myriad of social inequities that are deeply ingrained in American society. The airline merely takes this hostility to a higher and obvious level  I wrote a pointed email to Delta and based on the reply I may or may not file a complain with the DOJ. I asked at the time and in my email to Delta to remove the worn out straight-back from service.  I will keep readers up to date on what transpires.