03 April 2009

A bad airline trip, and a few lessons for schools

In 14 days at the end of March I crossed 16 time zones as I attended two conferences. This required eight airline flights on two airlines. I flew American from Grand Rapids (Michigan) to Chicago (O'Hare), Chicago to Los Angeles (LAX), LAX to Dallas (DFW), and Dallas to Grand Rapids. Then, after some 9 hours at home, I drove to O'Hare in Chicago and flew Delta from there to Atlanta (Hartsfield) and on to Gatwick, which is "sort of" London (actually quite well connected by fast, inexpensive train). And finally, Delta again from London/Heathrow to JFK in New York, and after an 11-hour layover spent mostly prowling the streets of New York and Brooklyn with old friends (including dinner at Junior's), JFK back to O'Hare.

For someone who has been, essentially, locked in the house for three months, this was a fabulous chance to rejoin humanity beyond the boundaries of blogs and email and Skype and Twitter.

Of course I have disability issues when travelling. The flood of print information which comes at me during airport or unfamiliar rail station experiences can overwhelm- though "the woman in my life" and I did discover one key dyslexic/word-shape-recognizer advantage in the travel experience that I'll get to later on. But this time I was also struggling to walk, and in real need of a wheelchair to navigate the vast distances and many stairs/escalators of the contemporary travel hub.

The trip to the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference was fine. American Airlines crews and the staff at all four airports was supportive, helpful, and raced me - at breakneck speeds in Dallas - to ensure that my son (travelling with me and helping me through this) and I made all of our connections. I might complain about the lack of an alternative to motorized revolving doors at the entrance to American's LAX baggage claim (and surely those enforcing the ADA should complain), but overall I was treated with dignity, was asked about my needs, and I received all of the assistance I needed - from check in, to security, in flight, and in terminal.

Not so on journey number two. Not so with Delta Airlines. Now, let me begin by saying that I pre-warned both airlines about my needs. In fact, every boarding pass was labelled "Wheelchair Assistance" or "Wheelchair Requested." And this is no 'hidden disability' - I walk with a cane and the cane is clearly not in my hand for 'style points.'

So, on the way to the CAL '09 "Learning in Digital Worlds" Conference in Brighton (which was fabulous), I was abandoned in a corner of O'Hare when Delta ticket counter agents refused to request a wheelchair despite being asked by "the woman in my life" three different times (finally, TSA workers came to my rescue). I had to wait until a wheelchair was found in Atlanta, standing in the path of all other departing passengers. Then the wheelchair would not come down the jetbridge, which was about 200 meters long, slanted, and filled with trip points, so I had to struggle up that to the chair.

At Gatwick Delta failed to tell BAA airport staff how many passengers needed assistance, forcing a long, difficult walk until airport workers came to my rescue.

At Heathrow what was described as a "short jetbridge" ("Will you be able to walk a short jetbridge?") turned into a four story high downramp (downramps are the single most difficult thing for my knee to handle). And then it got worse.

When the plane landed at JFK (and again, the wheelchair attendants were not allowed onto the jetbridge) I was told that I could either use the wheelchair or have my companion with me - a completely ridiculous and unfair choice. Considering how Delta had treated me so far I chose to walk supported by my companion. At the end of this, I was so exhausted that I fell at Passport Control, hurting myself (the Border Agents were minimally sympathetic if not at all helpful). In a baggage claim room with no seating I fell again, and was treated to the flight crew from my Delta flight stepping over me in their rush out of the terminal (other passengers rushed to my aid). Those helpful passengers requested and finally got a wheelchair, but after customs, the woman with the wheelchair took it away from us, leaving us a 1/4 mile and a full story below the passenger pick up area.

The next morning's flight out included a between-JFK-terminal journey on a van with no way to secure a wheelchair, allowing my knee to be slammed into the wall of the van on a turn, long waits in rooms without toilet facilities, and, to top it all off, being left for ten minutes blocking the base of a staircase at O'Hare as other customers banged past me with their carry-on bags and Delta struggled to figure out where an elevator might be.

Am I complaining? Even whining? Of course I am. Delta Airlines left me in pain and feeling humiliated. But as this was all happening I was also observing.

Whether people with differences are treated properly or not is dependent on a series of systems - macrosystems and microsystems and cultural systems and systems of human training.

American Airlines seemed to have a system which was watching out for passenger comfort in general, and that was easily extended in my case. At LAX an American staffer watched me approach the check-in kiosk and immediately came over to help and ask what assistance I might need. On every flight the crew checked in with me to make sure they were communicating my needs with the airport. American agents also pointed out the information on the boarding passes: gate, airport wing, etc, which is very, very helpful for those of us who do not read swiftly and accurately - especially under stress.

None of this kind of attention was part of Delta Airlines' system. Even with an absolutely lovely flight crew from Atlanta to Gatwick (among the best crews I have ever flown with), communication with the airport failed. So, this is not a question of individual failure, but a basic problem with the system, and the customer service culture, at Delta. Most Delta passengers seemed miserable. I was just more so. Most American passengers seemed comfortable, and I was as well.

Just as schools which work for the most students tend to work for those with "extra" needs, and bad schools are usually bad schools for everyone.

Consistency of system helps as well. The US Transportation Security Agency was unfailingly pleasant and helpful to me on these trips, and yet, because every airport was different in operation, life remained difficult. At Grand Rapids they provided me with a clear, plexiglas cane so I could walk through the screening arch. Quick and easy, and I was very impressed. No other airport had this though. So in every other case I needed at 'pat down' search. At some airports the sleeve holding my laptop was fine, in others, the laptop had to be out of that. At most airports my companion was allowed right next to me at screening so they could secure my scanned possessions, though not at LAX - where I sat worried about my computer (my lifeline), my wallet, and my phone as my son struggled to catch up.

Inconsistency in basic operations is hard on everyone, but especially on those with those 'extra needs' - that is why 'special needs' students so struggle with, say, differing testing regimes among different teachers.

Little things matter. At the 'Mens Rooms' at Delta's JFK terminals there is no way to dry one's hands near the sinks. If you are "ambulating" with crutches or a cane or a walker, this is between annoying and extremely dangerous. Directions to airline check-ins should be at every terminal door. Those directions should include words and logos. When walking is hard it is unfair to make someone walk two football fields in the wrong direction because you are too lazy to put up a sign.

Check your environment for the 'problem spots.' And check your environment not through your eyes, but through the eyes of every one of your students.

Dignity matters. I was clearly an annoyance and a problem for most Delta employees. That comes across. And that made me a less pleasant customer as that attitude kept coming. The US Passport Control guy complained about his workload to me after I had fallen in front of him. On the other hand, woman pushing my wheelchair through O'Hare (on the trip to LAX) and DFW, and the woman driving me through Heathrow, made me feel as if we were all part of a team. The TSA people also made me feel as if this was, if frustrating at times, something we'd get through together. British customs as well. Let's face it - most of us would rather be treated as a human than as a burden.

Are your 'special needs' students part of your 'team,' or do they see themselves as constantly begging for help? It makes a difference.

In the end these were wonderful trips, but one part was miserable, because of a system which failed to treat me as a human. And wherever, whenever that happens... it simply is not fair.

- Ira Socol

Note: Delta has not responded to my complaints. Though I am not a "sue first" kind of person, I am contacting disability rights organizations and legal support in order to pursue this. Through government support of airports and air traffic control Delta receives hundreds of millions of dollars (and euros and pounds) in public money each year. In my mind this obligates them to highest level of equal treatment of all passengers. Though neither US nor EU law requires airlines to make the disabled 'comfortable' in-flight (the only appropriate coach fare seats are at emergency exits, which are inappropriate) there are legal standards for treatment of those passengers which must be enforced.

Ahhh... I forgot, the "discovery of one key dyslexic/word-shape-recognizer advantage in the travel experience." I realized how much quicker I am at picking directions on the tube (London Subway) than my partner. I've looked at the map, and the map and the "strip map" signs to the platforms are set in the same typeface. Thus I am just looking for 'the picture that matches" - say, "Russell Square" or (an old favorite) "Cockfosters." She, on the other hand, is trying to read through unfamiliar text until she finds the words. So she has to read while I am simply looking for a shape - and I'm the more efficient there. Which is interesting, you find advantages in the oddest places.


Deven Black said...

You have clearly identified Delta's problem and proposed a solution. They should hire you as a consultant.

Surely you are not the first special needs passenger they have had, but they must have assumed that every prior one would be their last. That is the only way I can understand Delta's inability to give you even minimal service.

irasocol said...

They should hire me, though perhaps with free flights on some more pleasant airline. I'm thankful my needs weren't 'higher.' I can't imagine being fully dependent on a group so irresponsible.

- Ira Socol

Chris said...

Ira, I am so sorry you had such a horrendous airport experience. I can certainly sympathize. A couple of years ago my mother broke her hip and her arm the day before she was to fly home to Minnesota from Cape Cad. After surgery and a couple of weeks of rehap, they were ready to release her and I flew out to accompany her home. Our experiences were uncannily similar to yours. The flight crews were wonderful, but the airport staff were rude and impossible to deal with. The only tool we had that you didn't have was a catheter bag to flash so she was allowed to stay in her wheelchair through security and up to the plane. However, we had been told by Northwest that we would be able to take the chair onto the plane and I had spent two days learning how to assist/lift her from the wheelchair to her plane seat. No dice. We had to get her from the plane door to her seat, broken hip, broken arm, catheter bag and carryons. It was painful for her and extrememly stressful for everyone else involved. Once we got into the flight the cabin crew was apologetic, saying that Northwest had just the day before outsourced its ground crew and no longer had any say or control over what happened until the plane doors shut. Unbelievable!

I hope you're able to make Delta understand why they need pay some serious attention to this problem. Thank you for taking up the cause.

irasocol said...


Your experience, and mine, are far too common to "let it go" as far as I'm concerned. I count myself lucky that I'm in a good position to complain, to protest.

Delta finally got back to me today - seven days after my first written complaint - to say they are "investigating" and will "contact me." Of course if they took this seriously their investigation would have begun by contacting me, but they are probably working to get their stories straight first.

Still, we'll see what they say. I'll keep blog readers informed.

- Ira Socol

Unknown said...

My needs aren't usually higher as well but the point is that you, as a costumer deserve at least a minimum resposability and commitment.

In a month I will travel to Brooklyn to enjoy one of these Brooklyn New York Tours with Delta and I hope I'll luckier than you!