Wheelchairs at SFO by applerom on flickr
I have a lot of compassion for the people who push my wheelchairs at airports. It’s a physically demanding, often unpleasant-looking gig. If nothing else, imagine having to go through airport security a couple of dozen times a day. Even without the long lines able-bodied passengers face, you still have to deal with taking your shoes off, going through the various detectors, getting patted down, and all that other fun stuff. (Yes, wheelchair attendants also get subjected to random pat-downs and extra searches.)
My experience with the wheelchair service provided by Prospect Airport Services, Inc. at SFO, coming of a British Airways flight from London Heathrow, on Tuesday April 22, 2014 sucked goats.
There were about 7 of us coming off that 10+ hour flight who needed wheelchair service. Only 4 attendants were deployed to help us. Coming off the plane, we were pushed into a group just off the jetway in the terminal, then abandoned for a bit. The way they stacked us up, I felt like a poorly parked car in a valet lot.
We were told we’d be pushed to Passport Control “relay style.” Which meant that we’d get pushed a little ways, then sit while the one attendant pushed someone else. When I asked why this was happening, I was told that there weren’t enough attendants for each person in a chair to have one. Then I was told that sometimes there are 30 people needing wheelchairs coming off flights from Asia, with only 8 attendants assigned to deal with that flight.
That was the extent of personal communication I got from any of my attendants. They talked to each other and traded comments with other airport employees. We might as well have been baggage for all they engaged us. No, this wasn’t a language issue. My attendant at Heathrow spoke little English (she’s Romanian, and I exhausted her English vocabulary pretty fast), but she managed to be smiling and friendly and to convey that she thought of me as a person.
How does this suck, let me count the ways:
1. It takes longer for each chair-user to get where he or she needs to go. After a long-haul flight, that’s a pretty big deal. If you’ve got pain, a long-haul flight makes it worse. Then you end up in this frustrating and stupid situation.
2. It’s dehumanizing. I seriously felt like a cow, or a piece of luggage, or a car. Not like a person.
3. No chance of a bathroom break. If one of your problems is a bladder or bowel condition, that’s just flat unacceptable.
4. This encourages attendants to engage in unsafe practices, such as pushing two chairs at once and forgetting to set the brake on the chair. I witnessed the first of these and was subjected to the second.
5. Being treated like this makes it unlikely that any chair user will tip an attendant. For people who are working this kind of job, tips make a difference. (When I get good wheelchair service, I’m a generous tipper.)
Prospect might contend that this is just how it works–that they can’t staff to a 1:1 attendant to client ratio because of the ever-fluctuating numbers of people traveling each day.
On this one trip, I landed in four airports in three different countries. SFO was the ONLY airport using the “relay” system with too few attendants for the clients using wheelchairs. SFO was the ONLY place where the attendants didn’t talk to me. In fact, I landed in Ireland at about 6am local time, and yet the attendant was cheerful and chatty and gave me great advice on what to do and see in Dublin. (I landed at SFO at about 6pm.)
Prospect–you need to do better than this. Will it cost more to have enough attendants available for every wheelchair client at SFO? Yes. Might it eat into your corporate profits to do this? Yes.
Here’s a thought on that issue: Cope and deal.
The way you’re doing it now is likely to lead to expensive lawsuits later. I’ve found info about your “push two chairs at once” problem going back to 2007. That this is still happening–not so good, kids.
Also, you’re looking at more blog posts like this, which will get reposted on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. If you’re really unlucky, a post like this could go viral. Ask some of your corporate brethren how much fun it is to have negative customer experiences go viral. And how much $$$ it can cost.
Or, you could fix this problem by providing the service you’re employed by SFO to provide. This isn’t the first time I’ve been treated like this at SFO. It’s not acceptable. Fix it ASAP, please. I will be paying attention. So will other people.