Archive for the ‘Air Travel’ Category

The AMS Vans blog posted about a new phone hotline for travelers with disabilities today:


You’ve gotta read the whole post to get the number, which I’m going to stick up here for your convenience. The number is 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). Hours: 9am-5pm Eastern Time, Mon-Fri.

Yeah, those hours suck. Usually when I’m having a travel problem, it’s not in Eastern Time’s biz hours, boys and girls. Must be nice to have a government job. 

I plan to give ’em a ring to discuss my experience with Prospect. I’ll report back here.


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wheelchairs at baggage claim

Photo by Doug Waldron on flickr

Did you know that the wheelchair attendants at U.S. airports often work for less than the minimum wage? That’s because they’re eligible to receive tips from the people they attend.

Wait, what?

Yup, you read that right.

Your wheelchair attendant may well be working for $5-7 per hour, plus tips. So tip your wheelchair attendants!

I like to tip $3-5 for good service, and $10 for great service.

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Wheelchairs at SFO

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.

That’s crap.

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.

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I haven’t even left California yet and I’ve already screwed up. Awesome.

Checked my e-tickets two days ago and discovered that for reasons lost to the mists of post-menopausal memory, I booked us on a 7am flight out of San Francisco.

Which means we need to get to the airport no later than 5am. Crap.

Much furious consultation with my spouse ensued. We decided to get a motel room at a place near the airport that offers free shuttle service, plus a well-lit place to park a car for the 10 days we’ll be gone.

Of course the problem isn’t confined to the California end of the trip. We arrive in Dublin at 6:55am. Which means that we’ve got ~9 hours to kill before our room in Dublin City Centre opens up.

I can’t manage sightseeing after a transcontinental+transatlantic flight. My body absolutely will not tolerate that kind of nonsense.

The answer is yet another airport motel room. I emailed customer service at the Radisson Blu Dublin Airport and discovered that they’re set up to deal with situations like this in a couple of ways. They’ve got what they call Day Rooms that are available from 9am-5pm, or they’ll let a weary traveler rent a room overnight and check in very late (like, say, early the following morning), then check out at 3pm for no extra charge.

I went with option B, which will allow me to stagger/roll out of Customs and Passport Control straight to the free shuttle, straight to my motel room to collapse in an insensible heap.

While I haven’t yet stayed in their motel, so far I’m quite happy with the Radisson Blu customer service folks. They’ve followed up with me and seem intent on making sure I’m taken care of.

The morals of this story:

1. Pay attention to your flight bookings, and try to make your departure and arrival times work for you rather than against you.

2. Flexibility and good problem-solving skills are key for traveling with pain. Be willing to change your plans to make yourself more comfortable.

3. Money helps. A lot.

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This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.  Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.
Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

One of absolutely most important parts of traveling with pain is sleep. To manage my pain on the road, I must must MUST get enough sleep every single night.

I ran across this article in the New York Times today. The author tried out a number of supposedly sleep-enhancing apps and products. While the article is very smart-phone-and-tablet-app heavy, it’s also got a few serious sleep masks and funky pillows mixed in towards the end.

I haven’t tried any of these products. And I won’t be trying the apps–I wear earplugs to sleep, even at home, and they work for me. But I may give the masks a whirl. And if I’m ever feeling really brave/uncaring of how ridiculous I look, I might try the Ostrich Pillow for the humor value.

Have you tried any of these products? If yes, what did you think?

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Guess what? You can sue an airline for failing to provide you with a wheelchair, according to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals:

Court upholds lawsuit

I’m horrified by the way United Airlines handled this situation from beginning to end. To yell at a passenger, deny her a wheelchair, and then cancel her ticket…really, United? That’s how you train your employees to deal with disabled passengers?

Just because you can’t see pain doesn’t mean it’s not very VERY real.

I wonder…back when I was healthy and participated in a full-contact martial art/sport, I used to carry a photo with me every time I went to the doctor. It showed me in my armor fighting a guy three times my size, and I showed it to any medical professional who examined me to head off questions about the bruises on my arms and legs.

Maybe I should start carrying one of the photos of my innards from one of my surgeries…perhaps the one that shows my left ovary attached to both my abdominal wall and my uterus by endometriosis and scar tissue. I bet that flashing that picture would not only upset and disturb the average airline employee, it would get me what I need really *bleep*ing fast. If Ms. Gilstrap had carried copies of her x-rays, would the United Airlines jerks have believed in her disability?

Which brings me to one of the Big Questions about having a hidden disability…how do I make it visible to others so I can get the assistance I need? I’m not going to wear a sign around my neck or tattoo Moderate to Severe Chronic Pelvic and Back Pain across my forehead. So…carry visual aids for people who question me?


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The plane bathroom on a Singapore Air flight by scurzuzu on flickr

The plane bathroom on a Singapore Air flight by scurzuzu on flickr

Oh how I hate airplane bathrooms. But then, doesn’t everybody? They’re tiny, they’re smelly, and sometimes you get to wait in line for half an hour or more for the privilege of squashing yourself into the cubicle. Yippee.

But I know that as bad as airplane bathrooms are, I’m lucky I can use them. On most airlines both major and minor, wheelchair users who can’t walk at all must…make other arrangements. When I stopped and thought about having to wear a catheter just to fly, I suddenly felt much better about the stinking cubicle.

Here’s how I make dealing with airplane bathrooms more bearable:

  • Use ’em as little as possible. That means I make time to visit the restrooms in the airport before I board.
  • Go easy on the diuretic drinks–that is, alcohol and caffeinated soda.
  • Keep hydrated…to a point. While I don’t do well at all if I let myself get dehydrated when I fly, I don’t spend whole flights chugging or sipping either.
  • Know when high-use times are, and avoid them. Everybody on the plane will want to use the bathroom after they’ve finished their meal. Another rush happens in the “wakey wakey” time after the sleep period on long-haul flights. Mini-rushes can happen right after the seat-belt sign goes off, and soon before it comes back on before final descent.
  • Try my best to time my bathroom trips to avoid rush hour. The instant the Seat Belt sign dings off, I bolt out of my seat and get to the bathroom as close to first as I can. Then I wait until the after-food bathroom lines die down and go when everyone else is getting settled with a movie or a pillow.
  • Pay attention towards the end of the flight. For me, it’s not just uncomfortable to “hold it” if I miss my window to use the bathroom before descent. It can be agonizing. So I keep track of how long I’ve been on the plane and what the flight attendants are doing, and make sure I get up and use the bathroom just before the plane descends.

Do you have any other tricks you use to deal with airplane bathrooms? Drop a comment here…

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