Yesterday, my wife, daughter and I returned home from Dallas, Texas by way of American Airlines. So many things went wrong, I wanted to share our experience in the hope that other disabled travelers might avoid some of the issues we encountered. And some may just want to consider avoiding air travel all together. I think that is the choice I will now make.
Now, you have to understand that all three of us have “issues”. I am now unable to walk unassisted and must be in a wheelchair almost all the time. And, I have to be taken to my seat in the “straight-back” chair that reminds me of “Silence of the Lambs.” My daughter has systemic lupus and can not walk long distances and has a service dog. And my wife has leg and foot pain that prevents her from walking long distances. So basically we’re a party of three all needing wheelchair assistance, particularly in a large airport.
When we travel, I always try to go the extra mile to inform the airline of our needs. On this trip, I documented our needs when I made the reservation online. I then called the airline to explain them further. And then the airline called me the day before travel to confirm their understanding of our needs one more time. So, it’s not like we didn’t try to get it across to the airline and plan ahead.
The airline informed us that we needed to be at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport 2 1/2 to 3 hours prior to departure. Departure was scheduled for 6:15. Before leaving the hotel, I checked online to see if it was on time. Per the airline web site, there were no delays. I also checked weather radar and there was nothing between Dallas and home. The hotel shuttle left on each hour so we took the 3 pm shuttle to the airport and was dropped off at about 3:20 on the lower level of Terminal E.
Here was the first problem. I can’t walk and none of us can carry baggage. We needed to get from the drop-off to an elevator and go up one floor to the ticket counter. We called the airline and the airport operations for help and no one responded. My daughter went up to the ticket counter and tried to explain our situation. No help. Now, since the hotel shuttles are required to drop off passengers on the lower level, this is a big airport problem for those with handicaps. There are no skycaps or anyone else on this level to help.
After all this, a very nice American flight attendant on her way home heard our predicament and offered her help. She went above and beyond any expectations. She went and obtained a better wheelchair for me. She also rented a baggage carrier and helped my wife load it. She then escorted us up to the ticket counter where we encountered about four or five American employees doing nothing. No line at all, but did they respond to our needs? No, of course not. It was not their job.
However, about the time we made it up there, the wheelchairs and attendants had arrived to help us to the gate. One knew my daughter from her previous trips to Dallas and was very helpful throughout the rest of our ordeal. The time was now about 4:20. So, what should have been a ten minute process turned out to be an hour-long ordeal.
I again tried to explain our needs to the ticket agent but we were assigned seats in row 12. Now this obvious problem is entirely on the airline. At the gate, we were moved to row 3, which was better, but as we learned not enough on this particular plane.
We go through security. No unusual problems there. Other than the airline failed to mark our gate passes as “pre-checked” which I suppose added a few minutes to the process. Error number two for the airline.
Our boarding pass and the e-mail I had from the airline said we were leaving from Gate 35. When we got to Gate 35, we were told by the gate agent that it would leave from Gate 36 and so the attendants took us up to that gate and situated us in a nice area close to electric outlets to wait for our flight. I then received an e-mail from the airline saying our flight would be delayed until 6:46 and it still said it would leave from Gate 35. My wife asked the gate agent there and was told that it was Gate 35 and not Gate 36. So, we then had to be moved to Gate 35 where we should have been in the first place. Airline error number three.
While at the gate, we observed a lot of chaos. For example, a rush of people came up to gate who were waiting to go to Sante Fe. The agent got on the speaker and told them that their flight was not leaving from Gate 35 and he didn’t know what gate it would leave from. Later on, he was right because there were no gates open if a plane made it in. It really gave the appearance of an airline operated by the Three Stooges. Only, in the end, that would be an insult to the Three Stooges. There were announcements galore about flight delays and gate changes.
Then, we were told that our flight was back on time – 6: 15. That was about 5:45. It wasn’t very long that the agent announced that there was no crew for our flight, so even though we had a plane at our gate, we couldn’t do anything until a crew was found.
At about 6:30, we were told that a crew was on an inbound flight and that it would arrive about 6:45 and we would plan a departure for 7:05. Well, somewhere around 7, two crew members did arrive – a co-pilot and a flight attendant. But no captain. So, we were still stuck.
The announcement was then made that they were looking for a captain and thought one would be there shortly. Eventually, a captain did arrive and the plane was ready for boarding. At first, one of the gate agents forgot about us and started boarding regular passengers. Then the other agent said there were pre-boarders – us, the handicapped. However, the other agent went ahead and boarded the regular passengers before boarding us. So many airline errors now, I can’t keep track of them all. I told the agent that my boarding was usually difficult and I needed to go on first, but my advice was rudely ignored.
Finally, they came for us. My wife and daughter boarded fairly easily and without much incident even with the service dog. Then it was my turn. The pathway down the jet-way was bumpy and enhanced my pain but we made it to the entrance of the plane where I was to be transferred to the “straight-back chair” so that I could be taken to my seat for transfer. First of all, the airline employees were not too familiar as to how to get me buckled into the chair. I had to show them. Then, when we entered the plane, the bump really, really hurt. But that was nothing. As we turned to go down the aisle, it was obvious that this chair made to go down an aisle was too big with me on it. The pressure on my hips gave me intense pain and I had to stop them from forcing me any further. Luckily, a person on row 1 was willing to trade seats and allow me to transfer without having to be dragged down the aisle any further. I have to say though that this whole process was embarrassing to me as well as causing me intense physical pain. I was in pain the rest of the way and tried to sleep as much as I could. If they had boarded me first, my bet would be that all of the problems would have been avoided. The fact is that the seats on the plane were too narrow, people’s butts were sticking out into the aisle, and the aisle itself was too narrow to accommodate loading a handicapped individual in any seat other than row 1. I put all of these issues squarely on the back of American Airlines. Selling seats, not customer care is first on their agenda.
Okay, we’re on the plane. It’s about 8 pm central, 9 pm eastern time. So far, we’re about two hours late leaving. Then, the captain announces that our plane has a lavatory problem that had not been fixed during the hours that it had been sitting idle at the gate. So, we had to wait for the lavatory to be fixed. About 8:15 we pull away from the gate for “immediate departure”. Then, we sit. We are told that there had been a flight plan change and it had to be put into the computer. After that was done, we did finally take off at about 8:30 central or 9:30 at home.
We arrived at our home airport at about 11:30 pm. When we got there, the jet-ways were broken or unavailable and they attached a “ramp” to the plane. All the other passengers got off the plane. My wife and daughter were helped to their wheelchairs and escorted up an elevator to the terminal. Here came a young man with the “straight back chair” for me. Again, he was not too familiar with how it worked but between two airport employees and my help they got me down the ramp. Almost lost me midway, but made a recovery. But that meant more pain for me.
It was a long trek the “back way” but we finally made it to baggage claim. My wife went to get the van and my daughter and I waited. . . and waited. We did have two helpful attendants who finally figured out that all the luggage had been unloaded by the time we had gotten to baggage claim and that our bags were in the office waiting. Wasted time.
We got loaded up in the car and it was almost 12:30 am when we were in the car on the way home. By the time we got in the house and partially unpacked so that we could go to sleep it was well past 1 am.
What a nightmare! But from stories I’ve heard from many other people, this is not really unusual. And, it seems Dallas-Fort Worth is notorious for problems. For me, I think no more flights. But if you must fly, do everything you can to have your needs accommodated.
Even when you think your trip is well planned, the chaos of airports can rip them to shreds. Stay safe.