Sunday, January 6, 2013

Flying with wheels: Bay Area edition

United Airlines wheelchair tag. Top is pink with black lettering that says "United Special Handling" with a white bottom with black text reading "wheelchair weight, location of key/switch" and blank lines.
The pink & white wheelchair tag for United
This is one of the blog posts that's been stuck in the queue for over a month because of my ongoing medical issues, mainly related to my spine.  Enjoy and happy new year!

Some of you may remember my first airline trek with my wheelchair (part 1 with US Airways and part 2 with United).  The resolution of the mild fiasco with United was a $50 discount for my next flight, so I decided to use the discount for my trip to the National Women's Studies Association meeting (I'm co-chair of an interest group in the organization, so I'm required to attend).  I didn't really want to fly United again, but the combined cheaper fare plus discount made it the most financially feasible option.

To make the trip more fiscally feasible, I ended up taking one of my non-academic friends with me to split hotel costs.  She'd not been to the Bay Area, and I wasn't getting funding from my university to attend the conference, so I ended up having some help getting around with my luggage.  I tend to pack light, but I also tend to buy several books from vendors at conferences which can quickly undo the "light" packing!

Anyhow, our first flight was scheduled to leave for San Francisco around 6am.  I was sleep deprived and lacking any caffeine, so I was really hoping that I would manage to get to San Francisco relatively accosted.  I was wrong.

One of the gate crew decided to treat me like a child.  She came up to me before pre-boarding and asked me if I needed any assistance getting on the flight.  I told her no thanks, told her that I didn't need an aisle chair  showed her my cane, and explained that I would roll myself down the jetway, park the chair at the end, then use the cane along with rails & seats to get me to my space.  She kept repeating that the jetway is steep and how they usually roll people down backwards because of it (I did my Minnesota-nice face to keep from saying something uncouth).  She insisted that she walk backwards in front of me, making me worry about her falling backwards, hands outstretched like I was going to go rolling out of control.  She said in a panicky tone "where are the brakes on that?"  I told her that there aren't any and I use my hands to control my speed.  She finally gets out of my way at the end, I whip the chair around to get out, and she looks flabbergasted.  The only kind reply I can imagine is "I play wheelchair basketball."  My friend and I get my cushion & fold my seat down, and find our seats.

Thankfully, the flight attendant was awesome.  She commented on my spin, asked me if I needed anything, and made sure my cane was properly stowed so I could get it easily & safely.  I love it when I'm treated like an adult!

The flight to Washington, D.C. took about an hour and I scheduled an hour and a half layover to make sure we had adequate time to grab some breakfast since our light from D.C. to San Francisco would take 6 hours.  I was a little nervous about the flight since I think the longest continual flight I've ever had was a bit under 5 hours.  Thankfully, we pre-boarded the plane without any real problems or really anything of circumstance happening.


Our trek back involved a red-eye from San Francisco back to the east coast with a layover at Washington Dulles.  We arrived to the airport too early, but that gave me a chance to wander the airport (and accidentally lose the souvenir sweatshirt I bought for my partner along the way).  I decided to check my main carry-on bag because I was tired and hurting, and really didn't want to burden my friend with the now-book-filled bag.

Once the pre-boarding time got closer, one of the gate attendants came up to me and asked if I needed assistance.  I did the my usual routine: showed my cane, explained I didn't need an aisle chair to get from the jetway to my seat on the plane, would roll myself down the jetway, and hobble to my seat.  He looked at me incredulously and began to use a "little kid" voice on me.  I kept myself from rolling my eyes, but repeated myself more firmly.  He looked to my friend as if she were my caretaker (who is incredibly shy and wouldn't make eye contact with him), then back to me when she didn't respond.

He left but came back about ten minutes later asking me again if I needed help.  I'm exhausted, annoyed, and really on my last nerve (and last spoon).  I again show him my cane and tell him I'm rolling down the jetway.  He continues the baby talk when I get my ticket scanned, but thankfully doesn't walk down the jetway backwards in front of me (I may have told him off, or threatened to run him over...I was cranky).  I get to the bottom, and he wants to help fold my rigid wheelchair...which doesn't fold.  I get the seat back pushed down and make sure the wheels are locked, repeating that the frame doesn't fold and board the plane.

Thankfully, the flight itself was uneventful.  I slept on-and-off through most of it, due to a combination of the overnight flight and pain medication.

When we landed in D.C., we thought we had enough time for a fairly lazy meander to our next gate, but found out we were completely wrong.  To get from our landing gate to the connecting flight, we had to go up and down and around the airport, necessitating NINE elevator rides (it would have been seven if one of the elevators was properly marked, but we had to go back up and down one because the signage in that elevator was incorrect).  We ended up missing pre-boarding for the flight, but managed to get there with enough time to spare.  Since boarding was already in progress, I didn't have to deal with any weird overly-helpfulness from the gate crew (which was a blessing because of how tired and cranky I was!).

The last flight was pretty uneventful, and my chair arrived to me unscathed through all four flights.  I wouldn't say that I'm a United fan, the repeated treatment as a child by United employees will still make me look to other airlines before I fly with them again.

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