Sunday, 13 January 2008

The Gory Details

Kathryn wrote a post about her experiences recently travelling with her beautiful Ellie who is a CPer like me:   Mobility and Travelling with a Quadriplegic Child

It doesn't read like it was a good experience for them and being a lot further down the CP road than they are it both did and didn't surprise me.

I've been to Denmark, France, Greece, Spain, Australia, America, Tenerife, Norway and Ireland (and to St Lucia when I  was mere months old).  I've also briefly been in Switzerland, Thailand and Singapore on my way to other places.  Not all by plane but up until recent years I have flown a lot - no real reason why I didn't fly for a few years it just happened.

And I've had some good experiences travelling.  I've even had one or two that you might call "great".  I've had some not so good experiences travelling and I had one truly terrible experience.

The comments thread over on Kathryn's post is an interesting read too and well worth the time.  If you'll scroll down you'll see I wrote about my experiences and how we handle the whole plane and a wheelchair thing.  I also mentioned that I had a bad experience with United airlines but that writing the gory details would fill the entire comments page.  So earlier today I e-mailed it to Kathryn at her request.

We've both agreed that it needs sharing so I'm copying the body of the e-mail below and she's going to put it on her blog as well.
Hi Kathryn,

One key point before the story - this happened in 1999 so they may have changed substantially since then (but I doubt it)

We flew to Washington for five days; I can't remember the flight out really so I think it must have been unremarkable.  But then Heathrow are pretty good.  I was 17 and with my family and I was kinda shy at that time.  At that time I only had a manual chair and we took it with us.

So we had our holiday and it was good but my main memory is of the flight home it was THAT bad.  Arrived at the airport (think it's called Dulles?) and checked in.  The girl on the check in desk didn't give us tags for my chair and didn't seem to understand that we were taking it and wanted to gate check it - "oh she's taking it with her is she?" sounding surprised.  Then she flapped around for ages trying to figure out what to do.  Eventually she gave us a form entitled "notification of powerchair transport" and asked the key question can you disconnect the battery?  My parents and I were like "it's a manual chair" and she asked what that was.  told her that you push and she literally went "What! No battery?"  Her next question was "what's wrong with her? has she broken her leg?" at that point in time it was before I reached my assertive open OK-ness and that was TOUGH for me.

Finally cleared check in and thought the ineptness was over.  Did all the usual airport stuff.  Security was as it always is - a quick search for me as I set off the metal detectors but they always ask first about if there is somewhere you have pain or can't be touched if they don't i tell them.  All fine.

Get to the gate and give them this bright pink "powerchair" form.  Surprise, surprise it's wrong and gets ripped up.  I think they might have gotten us something else, i can't remember.

Normally when I preboard and I'm with family (when alone I get the staff to help me thru the airport) I either get called by name to board or I get "if you have requested preboard..."  this time it was "will the HANDICAPPED girl and her family come to board"  it's always been disabled in the UK for my entire life.  so hearing myself described as handicapped was really really tough

Get on the plane.  There were the five us of.  I was 17, my brother would have been about 13 (3 and half years younger than me) and my sister 10 ish (7 years younger) and my parents.  I needed to sit with at least one of my parents and mum was not about to let a 10 year old sit alone yet they had put us all in separate rows far apart.  Much discussion involved and they rearranged the seating so we were all roughly together but with me and mum a few rows ahead.  The crew promised that if we needed my dad to help get me to the loo they would get him or they would help themselves.  We had also asked to be near the loo but they put me in a "special" seat as far as you could get from it.  I believe it was suggested that I might not need to go but given it's an 8 hour flight that's ridiculous!!!

Next came the problem that we were in someone elses seats - we had a woman crew member next to us telling everyone "sorry we had to put a handicapped girl and her family in these seats sorry" yeah, tell the whole bloody plane why don't you?!

Flight takes off and then we wanted to get me to the loo.  So we were trying to figure out how to flip the side arm rest (the special feature on my seat was that the armrest in the aisle flipped for lateral transfer - which I don't do but which helps because I can't do cramped seats on planes for in and out and usually have bulkhead seats).  Called the crew and they didn't know either.  they literally spent like half an hour trying to do it and were joking about breaking it.  Fine when it was just a comfort break but in an emergency that could have been fatal.  They didn't seem to appreciate how serious it COULD have been.

Several hours later and it's time to the loo again.  Asked one of the crew to either get my dad or help us.  She'll just go do such and such then help us and we said fine.  She forgot.  Eventually 40 mins passed and it went from "i'll need to go soon lets give them some warning" to "yes now please rather desperate"  Called the crew again and insisted on help then and there. all sorted and fine but then the head woman came along and told us it was fine for us to help but they needed warning not "help me and help me now".  At that point in time some rather harsh words were said as mum somewhat calmly but assertively pointed out that we had and had been forgotten and that the way we had been treated ever since arriving at the airport and onboard was not acceptable.

I have vague memories that they then gave my mum a complimentary bottle of wine and that the people who'd had to be moved got upgraded.  But nothing for me the one who suffered all the indignity and embarassment.

Got to heathrow and to british people who can cope with disability (my not being a big fan of america and disability stems from this trip and the way i was treated).  Huge relief that it's over.  But not quite the end of the story.

Dad wrote a letter of complaint which ended up being about five pages long.  They didn't reply and a couple of months later he sent it again with a covering letter asking why no reply.  No response to that either.

So not only did they traumatise me and ruin my trip - they didn't care.

Would I come back to America?  Yes, maybe.  I'd like to go to New York.  But I'd be very very hesistant to actually do so.  And I certainly wouldn't fly with United.

Hope this hasn't frightened you too much.  If you want to post this on your blog so others can read it that's fine  Thinking about it, it's maybe useful for others to know and you have a huge discussion going over there.  Or I'll stick it on mine it you want.

Love, Emma xx

As I said above, this happened in 1999 and they may very well have changed since then.  I've neither flown United or returned to America since.  And it really is substantially worse than anything else I've ever experienced flying or traveling full stop.  I wouldn't want reading this to put anyone off of what can be a very fun and very worthwhile experience... the traveling that is, I wouldn't wish the United experience on anyone!


Shiloh said...

You shouldn't base your opinion of America on one bad experience, Emma.

sarah said...

ditto shiloh. i went to america in 96 and had the best experience disability wise!


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