Sunday, May 03, 2015

Flying While Disabled-A Cautionary Tale

I have a vision problem. Actually, I'm legally blind. I'm usually able to take care of myself and get around just fine, although I don't see well enough to drive. I've discovered that as air travel and airports get harder for all of us to deal with, I need some help when I fly. The airlines are supposed to provide assistance for disabled passengers, and some do a fine job in that area. Of course, there are exceptions to that, and this is a true story about my latest flying experience. It's not presented for sympathy or pity. I'm sharing because people with a disability should know what to expect when flying, what their rights are, and how to deal with airlines and airports when something goes wrong. This post was updated on August 11, 2015.

Remember when airlines claimed to make travel a "special" experience, even running ads like this on TV?

If you've flown anywhere in the last ten years, you know those days are over and this is what flying is like now.
crowded airport and plane
It isn't pretty. It isn't easy. And it's harder if you have any kind of a disability. Yes, there are laws that provide protection and help for disabled flyers like 14 CFR Part 382, which provides for nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel, but the laws are only as good as the airline employees who have to follow and enforce them. More often than not, the airlines are aware of the laws and do their best to follow them. But when airline employees don't follow the rules, things can go horribly wrong.

I had to fly from St. Louis to Boston on April 28, 2015. 

US Airways and American Airlines, Together
American And US Airways, Together
I bought my ticket on American Airlines, and as it turns out, the flights I was taking were operated by US Airways, the company that recently "merged" with American. As soon as I made the reservation for this trip, I contacted both American Airlines, who I bought the ticket from, and US Airways, who was operating the flights. I let them both know that I am legally blind, would need wheelchair assistance getting to the gate because it's sometimes hard for me to see signs in some airports and would need to sit near the front of the plane because I have problems navigating the aisles and can't see the signs above the rows. When I got to the airport in St. Louis for the first leg of my flight the term SSR  (airline talk for Special Service Request) was on my tickets and the people at the US Airways ticket counter knew that I had special needs. The gate agent and flight attendant on that flight were very helpful and made sure that I was able to find my way and get everything I needed. That's the way things are supposed to work under the Air Carrier Access Act

When I got to Philadelphia, I was quickly taken to my departure gate and I checked in with the gate agent to let them know I was there and had special needs. They found me on the manifest and said they would let me pre-board and take care of me on board. They did let me pre-board, but mispronounced my name so I had to go after a few other people. When I got on the plane, I was unable to introduce myself to the flight attendant because she was looking away from the door doing something in the galley. I always try to identify myself when I get on a plane. However, this time I was not able to. To make a very long story short, I had to go back about four rows behind my seat in order to find an overhead compartment to stow my suitcase as the one above my seat was already taken. During the flight, the flight attendant never approached or acknowledged me as having special needs.

This is when things went wrong, really wrong.

Not my actual bag or overhead bin
Not my actual bag
When the flight landed in Boston, I let people who were rushing to deplane get off the plane and found a break in the line that I could use to go back and get my suitcase. I got it out of the bin facing towards the back of the airplane. I turned around with the suitcase and tripped on the leg of a seat, which I could not see. I fell on my knees and my hands and it hurt quite a bit on my knees. The flight attendant was probably five rows ahead of me and she did not do anything to help me, didn't even walk towards me or ask if I needed help. When I got myself up, I realized that my leg was bleeding and I told her that she hadn't done her job because I had an SSR and she didn't look out for me. She claimed she never saw an SSR for me. I explained that there was one on my first flight and that the Gate Agent saw it, so she must not have looked very hard. I told her I wanted to speak to the captain about the situation and I wanted her to come off the plane with me so we could reported to the CRO (Complaints Resolution Official) on duty. She refused to leave the plane and when she asked the captain what to do he said he didn't know. In fairness to her, a flight attendant isn't supposed to deplane while passengers are on board, but she didn't even come off to follow up with me or the gate agent once the plane had emptied out.

I walked down the Jetway with my pants covered with blood and my leg bleeding. The gate agent was a CRO and I told him what happened.  His immediate response was "what do you want"? I told him I wanted my pants replaced, to fly home on a different airline, and a full refund of my ticket price. According to the ACAA, he had the authority to resolve the problem on the spot, and I wanted to clear things up as soon as I could. the Massport EMTs were called to look over the bleeding knee, examined me, they cleaned it up, and applied a bandage to it. They asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, and I declined but asked them to file a report of the problem for the record. 
My leg and pants after EMT's cleaned me up
My leg and pants after EMT's cleaned me up

The male CRO (whose name tag I couldn't see so I don't have his name) was very helpful in re booking me on another airline for my return home and having a check drawn for $40 to help pay for my pants. (I haven't done anything with the check because the whole situation is still not settled) However, we were not able to agree on the refund of my entire ticket price. He said that the reason that wasn't possible is I was technically still traveling and that a refund couldn't be processed until I returned. On a number of occasions, he said that refund would probably show up on Friday May 1st. Later on, it was made clear to me that a refund would probably be out of the question. I reminded this gentleman and a lady who was helping him named Heleine Delalue that he had agreed to that refund and then he needed to find out who could get it done. They called the station manager, the person who oversees US Airways operations in Boston, and his response was the same, that I would have to deal with Customer Relations after my travels were over to try to get the refund. 

I could tell we had done all that we could do, so after about 3 hours of activities after I fell, I was put in a cab and sent to my hotel. Later that night, I received the CRO's report to the airline, posted below.As you can plainly see about halfway down the page, there's a question "Did a violation occur?" The CRO checked "YES", meaning that the airline had violated the ACAA. In other words, he admitted that his company broke the law.

I posted quite liberally on social media about my injury. Here are some of the first posts. You might want to open the Facebook post to see the reaction I got. Sorry the same photo is repeated.

When I fly, I usually ask for assistance because I don't see very well. I asked USAirways for the same assistance on...
Posted by Mark Edwards on Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trying to get the situation resolved

I received a call from a gentleman in American Airlines customer relations the next day, Wednesday, saying that he had seen my social media posts and wanted to talk about the situation to me. I asked if he was calling because I had filed a complaint at the airport, and he said no, it was only because of my social media activities. I explained to him that the outstanding issue was the fact that I wanted to be reimbursed for the full amount of my plane ticket. He told me that he would have to check into that and we get back to me in the next day or so. I asked him to get back to me by the end of business on May 1st, because I wanted this situation resolved, over and done with. In writing this, it is 3:22PM on May 3rd and I have heard nothing else from American Airlines Customer Relations despite many Facebook posts and tweets to their social media team. 

I found out that the flight was actually operated by Republic Airways, I left messages for their senior management on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon I get a call back from Julie Moser, their customer service director and I asked her for the name of the flight attendant. She would not give it to me. She was under the impression that I was ready to file a personal injury lawsuit and I explained to her that I did indeed mention that at the airport because it was an option but I have not decided whether to exercise it or not. She claimed that American Airlines turned my case over to her because of the threat of a lawsuit and that her airline would have to shoulder the burden of that situation. I explained that I had not decided what action I was going to take at that point, but I did want the name of the flight attendant for my records. She said she would get back to her counterpart an American Airlines and see what they can do to get this situation behind us.

I still haven't heard from her. I did try to call her again on Friday, May 1st to follow up but never received a return call. I also called the US Airways disability hotline on May 1st to try to speak to someone and was only able to leave voicemail. American Airlines does not have a telephone contact method as the phone number listed on their website has been disconnected. As a last resort, I left a message with American Airlines' Media Relations department Friday evening. I received a call the next day from a very nice lady in Media Relations, not Customer Relations, who listened to my story and said she couldn't help me, but would talk to someone in Customer Relations and I'd hear back from them "soon". I'm still waiting, just like I have been waiting for the help the American Airlines Twitter team promised early in this situation.
So five days later, I have a huge scab on my knee, a large bruise under it, and while I can bend my leg (which I couldn't do for two days after the fall) a pretty fair amount of pain. And no resolution from US Airways, American Airlines, or Republic Airways.

What to do if you have a disability and have to fly

I thought I did everything I could have to prevent any problems while flying, but even the best preparation can be foiled by bad airline employees, the monopolistic "customer service" practices of the few remaining national airlines, and fate. If you have a disability and need to take a trip by air, I suggest you do these things. 
  • KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. The US Department Of Transportation has many resources showing the rights of the disabled.  If you don't want quite as much information as that link has, here's a handy guide that puts your rights in simple terms. 
  • LET THEM KNOW BEFORE YOU GO. Call your airline's reservation number or look on their website for Disability Services contact information. Once you've made your reservation and have a record locator, contact the airline and let them know EXACTLY what you need to accommodate your special needs. Don't be afraid to ask for what you really need, most airlines will do whatever they can to make your travel experience as painless as possible.
  • GET TO THE AIRPORT EARLY AND IDENTIFY YOURSELF. Even if you already have your boarding pass, get in the airline's ticket line in the lobby of the airport. There are usually airline employees roaming the line and you can tell them you have special needs. They'll get you to the right place and right people to help you, or at least they're supposed to.
  • IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG AT THE AIRPORT, ASK TO SPEAK TO A CRO. The CRO, as mentioned above, has the authority to resolve any problems on the spot. The law requires that at least one CRO be on duty at the airport when their airline is operating. If for some reason the airline can't put you in touch with a CRO, they're violating the law. Ask for the person in charge of the airline's operations at the airport, even if they need to get them on the phone. 
  • IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG ON THE PLANE, TALK TO THE CAPTAIN. Even the "Senior" or "Head" Flight Attendant is just that, a flight attendant. The Captain of the plane has the final word on what is right or wrong and how to resolve a problem. Be strong, many flight attendants don't want their bad decisions overruled by the Captain, but you can consult him if you feel your rights aren't being respected. 
    Once your travel is over, you can discuss any bad experiences you've had with the airline. Most of them have a special Disability Hotline listed on their website for problems. You may have to look hard to find it, but it's there. And if the airline is too slow, unhelpful, or refuses to deal with your issue, file a complaint with the Department Of Transportation. You can do it over the phone, online, or via mail. Your complaint will be investigated, you'll get a full report of the investigation, and if the airline broke any rules, they will be held accountable for the violations. One thing to be aware of is that the airline has 30 days to respond to a complaint once they get it from the Department Of Transportation, and they usually take every nanosecond of that 30 days to respond. Don't expect a quick resolution, but expect a fair resolution by the specialists at the Department Of Transportation. Some of them are disabled themselves, and they really do understand both the laws and what it's like to travel with a disability. 
  • IF ALL ELSE FAILS, SUE. Even if the Department Of Transportation finds that the airline has violated the ACAA or other regulations, they can't award you anything for damages. They CAN fine the airline and use your complaint to establish a pattern of misbehavior. I'm not a lawyer, but using the legal system might be a remedy in some cases, especially when monetary damages or injuries are involved. Don't just go out and file a lawsuit because you feel like it, find a disability rights attorney and discuss the case with her. Then you'll know if it's worth your time and effort to take that route. I might suggest you talk to more than one lawyer to make sure you're getting the best advice and a plan of action you're comfortable with. 

Air travel is hard enough these days, and having any kind of disability, small or large, just makes it harder. I pray nothing like what happened to me happens to you, but I hope you can be better prepared for your next air excursion after hearing about my experiences and how to prevent bad things from happening to you when you travel. Please share your tips, comments, or other things you do to travel without incident in the comments below. And if you know someone with a disability or an organization that helps the disables, please share this tale with them. It could make someone's next trip a lot less challenging. 

UPDATE AUGUST 11, 2015 The US Department Of Transportation found Republic Airlines violated Section 382.111(e) of the Air Carrier Assistance Act by not properly assisting me after I told them I had a disability. The airline received a formal warning about their illegal conduct, and this event will be taken into account when evaluating the airline's performance, possibly leading to a cease and desist order and/or civil penalties. The DOT issued a report today saying air travel complaints rose in the first half of 2015, and this unfortunate incident was one of the complaints. As of today, I have not settled my dispute with Republic Airlines. 

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