Monday, July 16, 2012

Flying with wheels, part 2

This is part 2 of a two part blog post.  To read the first piece, click here and read about some fantastic customer service!.

Our flight back home was on July 10th in the late morning, which was ideal because we would only hit the tail end of rush hour traffic from my parents' house to the airport.  Our drive was going to take a bit over an hour, not including filling up the tank on the rental car, so I made sure to give us some extra time.

We drop off our rental car early, making it to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) a little shy of two hours early.  We were flying through United Airlines.  I'd checked us in online, but couldn't find any way to let them know that I'm using a wheelchair.  Because of this, we waited in line at the ticket counter to see if we needed to get a tag for my wheelchair like I did through US Airways.  While we were in line, I found out that I'd rolled through a mysterious brown substance that was not only on my tire but on my arm....thankfully it was pudding, but it's not fun to be trapped in a line with pudding on your arm (I don't have arm rests, so I have the bad habit of draping my arms on my tires).

We sat in line for a good while, grumbling about the line length and wishing I could have found information on their webpage to see how they prefer to handle wheelchairs.  We finally get to the front of the line (about thirty minutes waiting), and I tell the clerk that I've checked in online but needed to know how to best help them with my wheelchair.  He looks at me like I'm asking the dumbest question on the planet and tells me that the gate clerk will check it.

I roll away, peeved that I just waited a half an hour to get treated badly.  We get told to go over to a different checkpoint because they had a special gate for wheelchairs (because apparently I am the sum of my adaptive equipment, but that's a different story).  We zoom over to the security check, attempt to find some sort of signage that would point us to this special "wheelchair line," then get pulled out of the main line to go in a special entrance that ought to have gotten us through security.  If it was actually faster, I think we would have missed our flight in a standard line because this "special treatment" took a long while.

A green, fist-sized twenty-sided die, also known as a D20. This got me stuck at security.
The "d20 of terrorism"
Once we actually got to our turn through the security gate, I asked the TSA agent if it would be faster to manually search me or to go through the machinery.  I wasn't having the best of balance days, so I figured giving them an option might make things go smoother.  So they opted for the pat-down, which was really thorough it was almost intimate (to quote someone from a Facebook group I'm on, shouting "second base! third base!" would have felt appropriate).  While it was uncomfortable and really left me standing longer than I would have with their Star Trek-like scanner, my baggage was having even more issues.  My carry-on bag had my wheelchair wheel locks and a fist-sized twenty sided die (in geek parlance, a D20).  The agent, having never seen wheel locks nor a die that was that size or shape, opened my bag to get a closer look...including a really thorough analysis of what the SO and I have dubbed the "d20 of terrorism."

Pink and white tag that reads "United Special handling, Wheelchair Weight" with lines for wheelchair description
United's wheelchair tag
By the time we get through security, it's past the boarding time.  Most airlines allow passengers with disabilities to board first, but now we've missed this pre-boarding.  Since the only assistance I really need is to make sure that my chair gets gate-checked without getting damaged, this isn't the worst thing in the world but is still problematic because I need to get the chair tagged for gate checking.  I roll up to the gate, tell the clerk I need to check the chair but not an aisle chair, and the poor attendant looks confused.  She eventually gets me this pink "special handling tag" that gets my name, destination, and flight number on it but without any description on it other than the preprinted "wheelchair" tag.  The clerk offers to have our carry-on luggage checked for free, which we take because my SO has been juggling almost all of our bags minus what I can strap to my chair. 

I zoom down the jetway, thanking online check-in for getting seats close to the front of the plane.  I waited for the person grabbing gate checked luggage to show him how to fold the seat back down and to tell him that the frame itself does not fold.  We board the plane without much fanfare, and have a decent (albeit slightly delayed) flight to O'Hare Airport in Chicago (ORD).

We leave the plane and have to wait in the jetway for my chair to arrive.  I really wish that the flight attendant would have done what the wonderful one would have done on our trip to MN so I wouldn't have had to wait in a horde of people for my wheelchair while wobbly.  It would have been nice to not have to try to maneuver around all the people waiting for their own checked luggage.

Once my chair arrives, I do a quick check of the chair for damage then scurry and pray that we can get to our next gate in time.  We couldn't find a clerk at the counter to ask where our next gate was or to call for a motorized cart, and we didn't spot a cart to flag down ourselves.  We frantically looked for a United arrival/departure screen, found our gate, and realized that we needed to hussle.  Thankfully O'Hare didn't have carpet in that section of the airport so we essentially ran to our next gate (with me hollering "wheelchair on your left" to keep people from either getting in our way or hitting me in the head with luggage (it happened in Charlotte, so I'm acutely aware of the hazard of being waist-height to most folks).

We find that our gate is in this strange section that is on a lower level with a somewhat hidden elevator (sometimes this is an advantage because hordes of currently able bodied folks aren't clogging the only way I can use to get to another level).  I weave through people to get to the gate and find that the flight hasn't begun boarding yet.  Hooray!  The gate attendant asks if I can climb stairs as they aren't using a jetway.  I show him the cane and say yes.  A few minutes later, we're the only ones to get pre-boarded, so we follow an employee out to the tarmac.  This employee has my SO load the wheelchair into the gate check luggage cart (a bit odd, but ok).  I climb the stairs and we get seated right by the conveyor belt that's loading luggage into the plane.

I thought it would be neat to watch our stuff get loaded into the plane (I wanted to work for an airline when I was a kid), but it ended up being a nerve-wracking experience when I saw the luggage handler with my chair.  She plops the chair half onto the conveyor, half hanging off the conveyor.  It's shifting from the belt trying to move it up while she's looking the other way having a conversation.  She eventually puts it all the way on the belt, not gently, and definitely hitting the metal side rails of the conveyor.  I cringe at the potential damage of my chair, but there's nothing I can do about it.

Thankfully the flight attendant was awesome.  She told us that she was the in-flight entertainment and would try to make the safety demonstration as entertaining as possible...and fulfilled her promise.  I was so amused that I made sure I caught her name so I would have something positive to tell United about my flight experience. 

Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived at GSO with our bodies a bit beat up from the hurry up and wait pace that flying seems to have these days.  We left the plane, waited for my chair, and got up the jetway before I took a look at my chair.  One of my handrims had a nick in it, and one of the bars underneath the chair was scuffed up.  Crap.  Since there wasn't a gate attendant to talk to, we headed to the baggage claim to get our bags.

We wait and wait, and watch our fellow passengers get their bags.  I start getting panicky as both my keys and my medications are in that bag (we weren't expecting to check them, so I didn't think anything of it).  We figure out that our bags were lost, I make sure the SO has my spare car keys, and we wait at the lost luggage counter.  Thankfully the employee was courteous (which was great since I couldn't even wait in the actual office with my wheelchair because it was too small (with a counter that was too high to see over).  She explained that we were the third group to have lost luggage from our flight from O'Hare and they would call us when the luggage was found.  I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of having to drive back to the airport when they found it, but I smiled and thanked her.

We went home and I put my SO on phone duty since I was exhausted and needed to make the last bit of pain medication last just in case the luggage would take more than a few hours to procure.  If I remember correctly, they called around 11pm saying that they found our luggage and it would be delivered between midnight and two a.m.  Since he's a night owl, staying up isn't usually a problem for him, so he waited for the delivery.  They arrived around 3am with our luggage, but I'm not sure if it was a United representative or the airport, but I'm glad that our luggage was found.

This flight was not a nightmare, but not something I'd like to repeat ever again.  I was so angry about the handling of my chair that I couldn't bring myself to calling United directly, but I am sending this link to their customer service department.  I'm afraid that if I called I would get upset with the representative about the damage to my chair, and as someone who spends most of her work hours on the phone I didn't want to get angry at someone who wasn't responsible for the damage.

Long story short, my experience with them has really made me upset.  I fly multiple times a year for both work as a scholar and trips to see family and friends across the country.  I rely on that wheelchair to give me mobility that I've lost with my spine injury, so having it damaged in transit was frightening and frustrating.


  1. I hope you will tell us if you get a response from United Airlines - or did I miss it further up the blog?

    1. Sadly, the only response I received from United was the form letter that stated that they received my complaint. I was hoping that I would have at least received an apology, but from what I've heard, this is pretty standard service with United.