Infuriated flyer. That would be me. I arrived in Midwestern Megapolis, U.S.A. yesterday for a nine day “vacation” that will include such exciting events as visits with Esteemed Medical Professionals, trips to the post office to ship long over due birthday gifts, and helping a downsizing Senior Citizen mother (and fellow EDS-er) sift through endless boxes of a lifetime’s worth of accumulated Stuff (or as I like to refer to it, a self-professed strict Non-Stuff person, junk). All of this promises to be rather boring really, and I hadn’t really planned on mentioning it on the blog, eager as I am to add a few more posts illustrated posts about Tbilisi. But…
I accepted my trip from Moscow to the Midwestern Megapolis to go fairly smoothly. And minus the fact that I had to get myself up and into a cab at 2.30 am Moscow time, things started off pretty darn well. I flew via London, and the first leg of the journey from Moscow to Heathrow was with British Midland International (BMI), which has apparently just opened a code share agreement with United. I warmly recommend BMI. Not only were the staff super polite, but interior of their fleet is designed like the interiors of American fleets used to be in the 1970s and 80s. Roomy comfortable seats with good back support and generous leg room. Excellent food. Frequent offerings of water and juice. And a better than average duty free catalog. And. Most importantly, the staff gave me no trouble whatsoever about the Evil Aid. They didn’t even bat an eye as I stashed it in the overhead bin, where, incidentally, it usually fits safely and unobtrusively, unless of course, you are flying United…But I’m getting to that. So sleep depravation and associated body aches aside, when I arrived at Heathrow, I was in a pretty good mood. I was actual able to get some work done in the airport lounge while I waited out my three hour layover. And to add a little additional icing to the cake, when my gate was posted I didn’t even have to flag down or wait for, in the designated “For passengers with special needs” waiting area, a golf cart with a flashing lamp. One just happened to be passing as I exited the lounge and immediately offered me a lift. A side note to Aided Mobilizers who find themselves at Heathrow: Avail yourself to the available golf cart and wheelchair shuttle services, especially if you have luggage. The distances in the terminals are GREAT. And while the surfaces are smooth, but not slick, and well ramped, walking to and fro can be difficult and exhausting.
When I did arrive at the United gate for my transatlantic flight, the British gate agents continued to maintain a high level of customer service. There was only one minor element of confusion. When I inquired about pre-boarding, I said I had an ‘assistive device.’ The British agent looked a bit confused and said, “Hang on. Are you the passenger with the sleep apnea? The one with the CPAP machine?” And I, equally confused, said with a wave of the Evil Aid, “Uh. No. I just have this.” “Oh,” she replied, still looking confused. “Sorry,” I said. “Assistive device is American for this.” Again with a wave of the Aid. And then she gave a good natured chuckle. “Ha ha. Well in Britain we aren’t so sophisticated. We just call it a crutch.” And she made sure to point out the priority seating and informed me that I should definitely sit there, since it was closest to the boarding area.
Funny how things that get off to such a good start can turn so sour so quickly…
I boarded the plane, more or less without incident. (Although there was some unwelcome commentary from another pre-boarding passenger…Could be a whole other post…) I stashed my bag and the Evil Aid in the overhead bin, although not without some difficulty. In an effort to squeeze more and more passengers into its increasingly cramped steerage class seats, United has also placed extra dividers into its overhead bins. This means that it is difficult to fit even the most modern, most undersized carry-on bags into the hold, never mind a forearm crutch. But I managed. Because, you know, I’m used to it. If there is any one skill that using a mobility aid augments, it is the ability to improvise in the face of even the worst design flaws. I was just getting settled into my seat when dowdy American fight attendant with an authoritarian voice toddled over to me. “No no no,” she said firmly. “This cannot stay in the overhead bin. My goodness. It might fall out and hit someone on the head. It will just have to go behind the seats in the last row.” And with one swift gesture she filched my aid and made off toward the back of the plane. Without any apology. Without any further explanation. I HAD to protest. “Excuse me. But what am I supposed to do if I need it??” “Well,” she fumed impatiently (After all, didn’t I understand that I was the guilty party in this situation? I mean, I’d had the nerve to brazenly try to make use of the available storage for the thing I need to walk properly…) “You can ring the call button, and I’ll bring it to you.” Great. So now I get to draw even MORE attention to myself. “And what about when we land.” “Weeeeeeel,” she intoned impatiently, as if she were speaking to a petulant two year old. “We will bring it to you.” And with that, she made off with the Evil Aid. Still no apology. And certainly no compensation.
I have mentioned before in this space that when you rely on a mobility aid, that aid more or less becomes an artificial appendage of your own body. You may be able to go without it at times, but you still feel you need to know where it is ALL OF THE TIME. You get nervous without it near. So having someone remove it, without asking, to an unknown location is a kind of violation. And. It makes you feel unnecessarily vulnerable.
What did I do next? I swallowed it. Like a good girl who doesn’t want to get in trouble with the teacher, I just mumbled an uncertain “Uh. Ok.” It was only when the triumphant flight attendant disappeared, absconded Aid in hand, from view that my anxiety set in. What if I DID need my aid while in-flight? How would I get to the ladies room? Obviously, I’d have to ring the flight attendant call button and put in a request for my OWN mobility aid. But, did I really want another interaction with the Absconding Stewardess? Everything about her had been so accusatory, as if my presence, as a disabled person, was ruining her entire day. At this point, I was exhausted, achy, and just generally physically uncomfortable. All I wanted was to get home. I did not want to put up any more unpleasantness, I foolishly decided not to bother her. Not to pursue the subject. Not tough it out. I limited myself to one loo trip, precariously teetering down the aisle and holding onto seat backs as the plane soared along its course. And then finally, finally we landed. I hoped against hope that the Aid Absconder would remember, as promised to deliver my crutch so that like everyone else on board, I might be able to actually get up and walk off the plane. Silly me. Of course she forgot. Of course she didn’t communicate the issue to any of the other flight attendants. Of course she had already left the cabin. So I sat. And I sat. And I apologized to the lady from South Dakota, who occupied the window seat next to me, and who was, by default, trapped by my aid-less self. I jabbed at the call button, but of course, since we had landed the flight attendant call system had already been turned off. The last passengers from the very back were beginning to file out when we heard the first guffaws, instigated by a middle-aged male passenger, “He he. Hey. Looks like someone left their crutch back here. Must not really need it. Heh heh heh.” An over-coifed blonde flight attendant joined in the amusement, “Ha ha ha ha. Right. Wonder who this belongs to? Ha ha ha. Was it here before? The whole flight?” I heard and saw all this. I stood up, at this point so exasperated that I little began waving my hands in the air to get Over-Coifed’s attention. And now perfectly irritated, I yelled, “That is MY crutch. Can I have it back NOW?” Over-coifed responded, by making mocking gestures back at me, and saying in a make-whine, “But I didn’t know you needed it?” At this point her slightly kinder colleague grabbed the Evil Aid from its spot behind the last row of seats and made her way to me as quickly as possible, and said awkwardly and uncertainly, “Uh. Excuse me. Is this yours?” “Yes!” I retorted grabbing the Aid and storming off the plane as fast as my gimpy body would carry me. Feeling enraged, humiliated, and worse, defeated.
I should have thought of something witty to say back. But better, I should have demanded to speak with the head flight attendant right then and their. I should have lodged and immediate, enraged but logical, and very formal complaint. But again, foolishly, I didn’t. I was too exhausted, too upset, and in too much pain. I just wanted off the aircraft and to hell with the assholes. But. I am not done. I before the weekend is out, I plan of filing a formal complaint with United Airlines, both electronically and on official letterhead via snail mail. I will send my story to both their customer service department and their C.E.O. If anyone out there has additional ideas about how to make this sort of complain campaign as effective as possible, please do not hesitate to contact me. Yes this happened to me, but it is WAY more than personal. Ableist. Discriminatory. Humiliating. And just down right not okay.
“Come fly the UNFRIENDLY skies…”