Wheelchair passenger’s airport experience

This item appears on page 26 of the August 2011 issue.
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I have a heart condition and need to use a wheelchair in airports.

On Sept. 3, 2010, I had a four-hour layover in Miami between an American Airlines overnight flight arriving from Seattle at 7:15 a.m. (I flew on Alaska Airlines, but it was a code-share flight through American) and an American Airlines flight to Caracas scheduled to depart at 11:05 a.m. — plenty of time for a big breakfast to make up for having no dinner the night before, or so I thought.

All deplaning wheelchair passengers were required to wait at the gate until EVERY “special needs” passenger had disembarked. I was one of the first off the plane and was wheeled up to the gate area, where I waited 45 minutes until the only other such passenger came off and was transferred to a motorized wheelchair.

The attendants, the other wheelchair passenger and I then went a short distance to the Concourse F elevator, where my attendant and I separated from them, as that passenger was going to baggage claim.

I had a map of the restaurants in Concourse E (from which the Caracas flight usually departed). I told my wheelchair pusher I wanted to eat breakfast and asked him to stop at the flight departures board so I could verify my concourse and gate and choose a restaurant for him to push me to. However, every time I saw a board, he said it did not have listings of American Airlines flights and he would not stop.

He took me through Concourse F, then outside past Concourse E, then into Concourse D to the “holding area.” I tipped him a few dollars.

All “special needs” people waiting for connections were required to go to the American Airlines holding area, an area with no bathrooms, no water and no food, until being escorted to their departure gates a half hour to an hour before their flights. That might have been okay if there were a number of holding areas, but there was only one — in the ticketing area of Concourse D.

I learned I would have to wait in the holding area almost three hours. I waited 20 minutes and then approached the representative, who handed me my boarding pass with “E7” written on it. I said I had to eat before I could take my medicine. He replied, “So, walk.” When I told him that I couldn’t, he just shrugged and turned away.

I asked a supervisor at the check-in counter how to file a complaint about the wheelchair holding area policy. She said the only way to do it was online. I asked if they had a computer to use and she said I had to use my own.

The woman also said that Miami handles more handicapped travelers than anywhere else in the world and their system works, with no problems, so I should go sit down and she’d come see me sometime.

I waited a few minutes and, needing to take my heart medicine, got somebody to point the way. Walking, sitting, walking and sitting, I retraced my route to Concourse E, which my wheelchair pusher and I had bypassed hours earlier. On the way, I saw one of the departure boards we had passed. It did list American’s flights.

There was a restaurant right at my departure gate, E7. I got food and took my medicine and walked to my gate, where I discovered the flight was delayed. It ended up leaving about three hours late.

I have since learned that Department of Transportation CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 14 Part 382 requires the airline to have a Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO) available in the airport or on a free phone to resolve all complaints. Also, airlines are not supposed to segregate disabled passengers from others. Anyone who is interested in what Part 382 says may see it online at http://air consumer.dot.gov/rules/382short.pdf.*

After returning home and making several attempts to file a complaint on the American Airlines website (receiving blank e-mails in return), I finally received an e-mail on Oct. 15 which said, in part, the following:

“Since you arrived in Miami on Alaska Airlines, it was that carrier’s responsibility to provide you with assistance to our terminal. We are sorry to learn that you were unhappy with the wait you experienced while another passenger was deplaned.

“… we truly regret your disappointment with the response you reportedly received to your request to be taken to get something to eat so you could take your medication.

“According to a manager with our vendor in Miami, a male employee that was manning the desk at the wheelchair waiting area did not recall the events you described. However, he insisted he did not tell anyone to walk.

“Also, since we have many supervisors in Miami, we are unable to investigate your concerns about the handling of your complaint by a female supervisor without knowing her name… You mentioned that she asked you to be seated and she would come over to speak with you further. However, you decided to walk after waiting a few minutes for her.

“… we were unable to confirm that a violation occurred by our vendor or supervisor regarding your wheelchair needs… . As a gesture of goodwill, we have made arrangements for an eVoucher ($100)… for you to use toward the purchase of a ticket… . Sincerely, Cyndia Parchman, Customer Relations, American Airlines”

While it had been a code-share flight with Alaska Airlines, I know that the wheelchair pusher was employed by American Airlines because I asked. (Some airlines/airports have policies against their employees receiving tips, but contractors don’t, so I usually ask whom they work for.)

I am used to being dropped off and picked up at restaurants in airports. It happens all the time, except this time with AA in Miami. I was not given any chance to go anywhere, including the bathroom.

KIT STEWART
Sequim, WA

*The following are rules enforced by the US Department of Transportation:

CFR 14 Part 382.55(c) states, “Carriers shall not restrict the movements of persons with a disability in terminals or require them to remain in a holding area or other location in order to be provided transportation, to receive assistance, or for other purposes, or otherwise mandate separate treatment for persons with a disability, except as permitted or required in this part.”

And CFR 14 Part 382.65 (a) states, “(a) Each carrier providing scheduled service shall establish and implement a complaint resolution mechanism, including designating one or more complaints resolution official(s) (CRO) to be available at each airport which the carrier serves.

“(1) The carrier shall make a CRO available to any person who complains of alleged violations of this part during all times the carrier is operating at the airport.

“(2) The carrier may make the CRO available via telephone, at no cost to the passenger, if the CRO is not present in person at the airport at the time of the complaint.”

ITN sent a copy of Ms. Stewart’s letter to American Airlines (4255 Amon Carter Blvd., MD 2400, Fort Worth, TX 76155) twice and each time received a form postcard stating, in part, “You’ll hear from us again just as soon as possible,” but no further response. ITN also wrote to Alaska Airlines (Box 24948 - SEAGT, Seattle, WA 98124-0948) but received no reply.

Ms. Stewart subsequently wrote to ITN, “On Feb. 9, 2011, I received an e-mail from Cyndia Parchman which stated, in part, ‘Through the courtesy of International Travel News, we received your additional comments about your experience in September. Unfortunately, we have no record of your contacting us directly regarding my response sent October 15… .

“Thank you for clarifying you were assisted by a wheelchair attendant when you arrived on our codeshare flight operated by Alaska Airlines. Again, this contracted service employee represented Alaska Airlines in this situation and was responsible for assisting you to your connecting terminal…”

Ms. Stewart wrote, on Feb. 15, “I just received an eight-page response to my complaint to the US Department of Transportation about American Airlines. They created three different complaint issues and three Investigation Summary Sheets, all of which ended up saying they were unable to determine if violations had occurred (‘she said, they said’) but that they would remind the carrier of the rules. The DOT representative added, ‘… it is a violation of our rule to require a disabled passenger to remain in a specialized area should that passenger choose not to remain there.’

“The letter describes their procedures and my rights to private legal action whether or not they decide to pursue enforcement action and advises that they have entered my complaint into their industry monitoring system.”

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

I have a heart condition and need to use a wheelchair in airports.

On Sept. 3, 2010, I had a four-hour layover in Miami between an American Airlines overnight flight arriving from Seattle at 7:15 a.m. (I flew on Alaska Airlines, but it was a code-share flight through American) and an American Airlines flight to Caracas scheduled to depart at 11:05 a.m. — plenty of time for a big breakfast to make up for having no dinner the night before, or so I thought.

All deplaning wheelchair passengers were required to wait at the gate until EVERY “special needs” passenger had disembarked. I was one of the first off the plane and was wheeled up to the gate area, where I waited 45 minutes until the only other such passenger came off and was transferred to a motorized wheelchair.

The attendants, the other wheelchair passenger and I then went a short distance to the Concourse F elevator, where my attendant and I separated from them, as that passenger was going to baggage claim.

I had a map of the restaurants in Concourse E (from which the Caracas flight usually departed). I told my wheelchair pusher I wanted to eat breakfast and asked him to stop at the flight departures board so I could verify my concourse and gate and choose a restaurant for him to push me to. However, every time I saw a board, he said it did not have listings of American Airlines flights and he would not stop.

He took me through Concourse F, then outside past Concourse E, then into Concourse D to the “holding area.” I tipped him a few dollars.

All “special needs” people waiting for connections were required to go to the American Airlines holding area, an area with no bathrooms, no water and no food, until being escorted to their departure gates a half hour to an hour before their flights. That might have been okay if there were a number of holding areas, but there was only one — in the ticketing area of Concourse D.

I learned I would have to wait in the holding area almost three hours. I waited 20 minutes and then approached the representative, who handed me my boarding pass with “E7” written on it. I said I had to eat before I could take my medicine. He replied, “So, walk.” When I told him that I couldn’t, he just shrugged and turned away.

I asked a supervisor at the check-in counter how to file a complaint about the wheelchair holding area policy. She said the only way to do it was online. I asked if they had a computer to use and she said I had to use my own.

The woman also said that Miami handles more handicapped travelers than anywhere else in the world and their system works, with no problems, so I should go sit down and she’d come see me sometime.

I waited a few minutes and, needing to take my heart medicine, got somebody to point the way. Walking, sitting, walking and sitting, I retraced my route to Concourse E, which my wheelchair pusher and I had bypassed hours earlier. On the way, I saw one of the departure boards we had passed. It did list American’s flights.

There was a restaurant right at my departure gate, E7. I got food and took my medicine and walked to my gate, where I discovered the flight was delayed. It ended up leaving about three hours late.

I have since learned that Department of Transportation CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 14 Part 382 requires the airline to have a Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO) available in the airport or on a free phone to resolve all complaints. Also, airlines are not supposed to segregate disabled passengers from others. Anyone who is interested in what Part 382 says may see it online at http://air consumer.dot.gov/rules/382short.pdf.*

After returning home and making several attempts to file a complaint on the American Airlines website (receiving blank e-mails in return), I finally received an e-mail on Oct. 15 which said, in part, the following:

“Since you arrived in Miami on Alaska Airlines, it was that carrier’s responsibility to provide you with assistance to our terminal. We are sorry to learn that you were unhappy with the wait you experienced while another passenger was deplaned.

“… we truly regret your disappointment with the response you reportedly received to your request to be taken to get something to eat so you could take your medication.

“According to a manager with our vendor in Miami, a male employee that was manning the desk at the wheelchair waiting area did not recall the events you described. However, he insisted he did not tell anyone to walk.

“Also, since we have many supervisors in Miami, we are unable to investigate your concerns about the handling of your complaint by a female supervisor without knowing her name… You mentioned that she asked you to be seated and she would come over to speak with you further. However, you decided to walk after waiting a few minutes for her.

“… we were unable to confirm that a violation occurred by our vendor or supervisor regarding your wheelchair needs… . As a gesture of goodwill, we have made arrangements for an eVoucher ($100)… for you to use toward the purchase of a ticket… . Sincerely, Cyndia Parchman, Customer Relations, American Airlines”

While it had been a code-share flight with Alaska Airlines, I know that the wheelchair pusher was employed by American Airlines because I asked. (Some airlines/airports have policies against their employees receiving tips, but contractors don’t, so I usually ask whom they work for.)

I am used to being dropped off and picked up at restaurants in airports. It happens all the time, except this time with AA in Miami. I was not given any chance to go anywhere, including the bathroom.

KIT STEWART
Sequim, WA

*The following are rules enforced by the US Department of Transportation:

CFR 14 Part 382.55(c) states, “Carriers shall not restrict the movements of persons with a disability in terminals or require them to remain in a holding area or other location in order to be provided transportation, to receive assistance, or for other purposes, or otherwise mandate separate treatment for persons with a disability, except as permitted or required in this part.”

And CFR 14 Part 382.65 (a) states, “(a) Each carrier providing scheduled service shall establish and implement a complaint resolution mechanism, including designating one or more complaints resolution official(s) (CRO) to be available at each airport which the carrier serves.

“(1) The carrier shall make a CRO available to any person who complains of alleged violations of this part during all times the carrier is operating at the airport.

“(2) The carrier may make the CRO available via telephone, at no cost to the passenger, if the CRO is not present in person at the airport at the time of the complaint.”

ITN sent a copy of Ms. Stewart’s letter to American Airlines (4255 Amon Carter Blvd., MD 2400, Fort Worth, TX 76155) twice and each time received a form postcard stating, in part, “You’ll hear from us again just as soon as possible,” but no further response. ITN also wrote to Alaska Airlines (Box 24948 - SEAGT, Seattle, WA 98124-0948) but received no reply.

Ms. Stewart subsequently wrote to ITN, “On Feb. 9, 2011, I received an e-mail from Cyndia Parchman which stated, in part, ‘Through the courtesy of International Travel News, we received your additional comments about your experience in September. Unfortunately, we have no record of your contacting us directly regarding my response sent October 15… .

“Thank you for clarifying you were assisted by a wheelchair attendant when you arrived on our codeshare flight operated by Alaska Airlines. Again, this contracted service employee represented Alaska Airlines in this situation and was responsible for assisting you to your connecting terminal…”

Ms. Stewart wrote, on Feb. 15, “I just received an eight-page response to my complaint to the US Department of Transportation about American Airlines. They created three different complaint issues and three Investigation Summary Sheets, all of which ended up saying they were unable to determine if violations had occurred (‘she said, they said’) but that they would remind the carrier of the rules. The DOT representative added, ‘… it is a violation of our rule to require a disabled passenger to remain in a specialized area should that passenger choose not to remain there.’

“The letter describes their procedures and my rights to private legal action whether or not they decide to pursue enforcement action and advises that they have entered my complaint into their industry monitoring system.”