Flying…on American Airlines, Oh My!

As readers may remember, my previous post concerned the treatment that Dawn Wilcox, a veteran with a disability received on an American Airlines flight. thanks to the gift of a trip to St. Croix from my husband’s mother and stepfather, my husband and I were recently in a position to fly with American Airlines, as well.  Anytime we can exchange northeastern North Carolina winters for sunnier climates, we are there!

Our experience began 48 hours prior to our flight, as I reconfirmed our reservation. As the customer service representative rattled off our flight numbers and times, I made sure to let her know that we were passengers with disabilities and we would require wheelchairs at each point in the trip, from first arrival at the airport to connecting flights, as well as the destination airport. I was assured that our needs were noted, and that there would be wheelchairs available at the airports.

So far, so good.  All was proceeding smoothly, although I will admit I was nervous about flying with them simply because I was familiar with Ms. Wilcox’s story. I let the flight attendant know that we would require wheelchairs upon deplaning, and she said she would see to getting them to us.

Even after all this advance planning, it still took about 30 minutes to get wheelchairs to the tarmac so that my husband and I could deplane.  The delay did not surprise me, as I knew that wheelchair service at airports is contracted out. This means that even though you contact the airline to discuss your needs as a traveler with a disability, the person helping you is not an employee of the airline but rather an employee of the subcontracting company engaged by the airport to provide services to travelers with disabilities. For instance, at my nearest airport in Norfolk, Virginia, the disability service company is named Huntleigh. In Miami International in Florida, the company is Eulen America.

In all my 10 years of flying, I have yet to see a kiosk open to deal with customer complaints regarding these disability service companies. So, the best I have been able to determine is that there is very little recourse available to the consumer should they have reason to lodge a complaint. Once we returned home, I conducted an internet search to see what I could find out about these disability service companies.  I found Eulen America does have a standard  ‘Contact Us’ page on their website where a traveler may access information to  email, write or call with an issue, but suffice it to say, any response may be slow in coming.

Unfortunately, the delay meant that we would have to forgo stopping by any kiosks for breakfast, as had been our plan. I am always hesitant to pack snacks, as I am unsure whether they would make it through the screening process unscathed. There’s only so much room in one’s handbag, and by the time I put in necessary medicines, passport and boarding passes, there’s little space left for so much as a granola bar. Sigh. I know … I need a bigger purse, but it might strangle me, as it is one of several things I’m usually holding on to at the airport. Let’s see, I’m seated in the airport wheelchair with my cross body purse around my neck? Check. Carryon positioned on top of purse? Check. Walker folded and resting against my knees as I attempt to keep my feet on the footrests? Check.  And then I am asked for my boarding pass. Aaargh…

Our return trip was made eventful by a touch of Montezuma’s revenge. Tip: Don’t drink the water in St. Croix. Don’t even chew ice cubes.

Ms. Wilcox experience was at the forefront of my mind as I prepared to board the flight home. Fortunately, the “first on, last off” policy worked in my favor as I was able to inform the flight attendant of my needs immediately upon boarding, and she discreetly assisted me to the nearest available facility each time it was necessary. She even made a point to ask if she needed to walk in front of or behind me, to better assist me should my balance shift as I traversed the cabin aisle. My experience with American Airlines was much different than that of Ms. Wilcox, I’m happy to say.

What do you feel would improve the experience of travelers with disabilities? Is it the airlines or the disability services companies that we should be directing attention towards to improve the experience of travelers with disabilities?


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