Dear United Airlines,
I recently had the misfortune of booking a flight on your airline. Flight 844 to fly from Seattle, Washington to San Francisco, California from 11:51am-2pm on April 5, 2010. I say misfortune because the events of that flight have left such a poor taste in my mouth and horrible feelings in regards to the personnel working for you that I highly doubt myself or any of my friends, family, and acquaintances will every use your airlines again.
I'm a disabled woman and have been since suffering a spinal injury in June of 2004. I've flown on a handful of airlines when I've been required to make a trip longer than an hour by car, and more often than not, I've had to fly alone and met up with my other companions at our destination. Over this time, I've become familiar with the process someone like me has to go through when it comes time to fly. So upon arriving at the airport in Seattle on April 5, 2010 and finding no sky-caps on duty, a friend of mine and I went inside to the ticket counter to ask that a wheelchair be called. My friend had to leave to get back where we'd been staying in order to pack up, so she helped me put my stuff where I'd been told to wait and left.
After fifteen minutes, an elderly couple joined me and within five minutes, a wheelchair had come for that woman while I was still waiting. I gathered my stuff and went back to the counter to find out what was going on and to point out that my flight would be leaving soon. The woman assured me the wheelchair was on their way, so I went back to sit and wait. When two wheelchairs arrived, both of them passed me completely and went to another elderly couple. One of them was about to leave when the man told them he didn't need one, but I flagged him down and told him he was there for me.
After getting it verified that yes, he was there for me, we were off to the security point where I was dumped and left to make my way through on my own while the man pushing me went to the other end and stood watching. That was awkward and more than a little painful, especially since the exertion induced a hot flash, but I was more concerned with making my flight, so I did the best I could. Once we'd made it to the gate, he attempted to dump me off there, but I told the counter I couldn't make it down the ramp without that assistance and he had to stay. Unfortunately, he wasn't making it difficult to tell he wasn't thrilled with that, but he didn't openly complain where I could hear. Frankly, I didn't care about that so long as he got me to the plane, so instead I focused on telling the ticketing agents at the gate that I would need a wheelchair waiting for me in San Francisco. The ticketing agent assured me she was putting that note in for me and I was wheeled down to the plane.
The wheelchair left me off at the door and after making sure I had all of my belongings, he turned around and left. I boarded the plane and made my way back to my aisle seat where I set down my special seat cushion and lumbar brace before looking around for a flight attendant to help me put my luggage in the overhead compartment. The attendant standing in the front section of economy was a blonde woman probably in her late 40s-50s and I called her over to explain that I needed her assistance because I wasn't capable of lifting my luggage due to my disability. To my surprise, the attendant rejected my request while excusing it by saying: "If I helped everyone do that all day then MY back would be killing me by the end of the day!" I asked her how I was supposed to get my luggage stowed and her answer was: "You'll just have to wait for someone from your row to come back here and ask them to give you a hand." When I asked what would happen if no one would, her response to me was: "Well, normally a passenger is around to overhear something like this and they'll offer to help with it on their own. You'll just have to ask someone when they get back here." Then she turned back around and went up to the front seats where she waited to "assist" other passengers.
I was completely flabbergasted, but with no other option, I sat down to wait and pulled my carry-on suitcase as close as I could to try to get it out of the way of the aisle. As I'm sure you're aware, however, your aisles are considerably narrow and even my best efforts left half of even my small carry-on suitcase in the aisle. What's more, rather than help me, most of the passengers simply knocked into my suitcase and shoved past me on the way to their own seats. Every time they hit the suitcase, it in turn hit me and jarred my back more and more with each strike. The plane wasn't even half boarded and it already felt like the pain medication I'd taken less than a half hour prior to entering the airport had worn off as though I hadn't taken it at all. Finally, it was too much and I dropped my suitcase down into the aisle to stop the flow and ask one of the men passing me for help before he went looking for his seat. As he was lifting it, he asked me if I was all right and I told him about my injury. He apologized profusely for my condition and tried to make me feel better by assuring me I would be okay eventually. I doubt either of us believed it, but at that point, it was nice to hear that, even from a total stranger.
The flight itself was mostly uneventful, except for the screaming headache that started up even before take-off courtesy of a family with several young children sitting about three rows behind me. Adding that to the increasing pain in my back, I did something I don't normally do and asked for a Jack Daniels with my soft drink. The flight attendant gave me a disapproving look, but I was in too much pain and too aggravated at that point to bring myself to care or respond to it in any way. I put in my headphones, drank my whiskey and coke, and did my best to deal with it.
When we landed, the gentleman who'd helped me before actually called up to me from two rows back that he'd pull my carry-on down when he reached my row. I thanked him again for being so much help and he again tried to make me feel better by hoping I'd recover from my injury soon. With all my luggage in hand, I headed for the front of the plane and stepped out to see there was only one wheelchair. And, of course, that wheelchair was for the elderly woman who had been on the flight.
I told both the flight attendants as well as the wheelchair attendant that there were supposed to be two as I was also disabled and had specifically put in my request that there be one to meet me at the gate. The elderly woman was loaded up and taken away while they called to get another chair brought around for me and I was left waiting on the ramp. And while I am very much aware that the wheelchair service is provided through the airports or hired by outside services, it's still very much the responsibility of the airline to have one there when I've made it clear that I'm disabled and require one ahead of time.
After ten minutes of waiting, I turned to the United staff woman waiting to take one of the flight attendants to a surprise breathalyzer exam and asked her who I would need to speak with in order to file a complaint regarding all the issues I'd thus far experienced. She told me I had the option of either going online to file it or going to the United customer service desk in the airport to make the complaint in person. Originally I planned to go online after I arrived home to write my complaint, but after another ten minutes had passed without a wheelchair putting in an appearance, I changed my mind. With my back throbbing and my spine sending jolts of pain from the base all the way to the top of my head with every move I tried to make, there was no way I was going to let this go without informing your staff of what I'd gone through on this flight.
The wheelchair finally arrived and I asked the woman pushing me to take me to United's customer service where I waited my turn and informed the counter agent exactly what I'd been through. She listened to me, but told me that all I could do would be to either write a letter or speak with one of the supervisors. I told her I wanted to speak with a supervisor and handed over my ID and flight information and while she was typing and asked if I had a legitimate reason for the wheelchair, I even pulled out my disability placard. I asked if she needed to see the paperwork that went with it to verify that it was indeed my placard and that I really AM a disabled person rather than someone wandering around with a family member's because I run into that problem all the time. She told me that wouldn't be necessary and then asked again if I was sure I wanted to speak with a supervisor as it would likely take time for one of them to come down. I told her again that yes, I was sure. I would wait until the supervisor came down because this was a very serious issue to me.
She finally relented and called to ask for a supervisor to come down and motioned to the area next to customer service for me to wait. Rather than go there, however, the woman pushing my wheelchair just pushed me about three feet away and stopped to wait. From my position there, I was able to overhear the two calls made to the desk where the supervisor they called to come down couldn't make it and had passed the responsibility to a supervisor named Dina. In turn, Dina called down to the desk and asked if it was really necessary that she come down to speak with me. I'm sure they thought they were being discreet, but I was close enough to hear the customer service agent tell her it involved "a girl in a wheelchair waiting to make a complaint" and "no, she wants to speak with someone instead of going online." Apparently it as enough because after she hung up, she spoke up to me and told me Dina was on her way down and would be there soon.
Dina arrived a short time later and the conversation that followed was one if the most upsetting and frustrating ones I've experienced during my disabled "life." It was obvious to me from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult conversation when the first words she said to me were spoken in a very condescending and put-out tone: "They've already told me basically what you want, but why don't you tell me what happened?" Rather than say anything about her tone, I instead told her exactly what had happened from my first arrival to the airport in Seattle all the way down to my arrival at the customer service desk there at SFO. As it turned out, my gut-feeling that the conversation would not be pleasant were well and truly proven beyond any shadow of a doubt with the next words out of her mouth.
"I won't apologize for her actions and I'm not sorry for what happened to you. It's not in our contract to assist passengers with their luggage and we reserve the right to refuse assistance to anyone. If that's what you need, then perhaps in the future, you should make other travel arrangements."
If you think I don't remember exactly what was said to me, let me assure you that when you become disabled, there are certain things that happen or are said that burn themselves into your brain because they're so hurtful and upsetting that they do nothing but replay in your head over and over. Believe me, I remember everything Dina said to me and exactly the way she said it.
Things went downhill from there because I pointed out that being disabled, I required assistance and Dina said that I obviously should have asked the person pushing the wheelchair for me to come on and load my luggage. She even turned to the woman pushing me now and asked her if she'd every followed a passenger on board to assist them with luggage. The woman pushing me flat out said: "No, that's the stewardess' job." That seemed to take the wind out of Dina for a moment, but she recovered quickly and repeated again that she wasn't sorry for what happened to me.
This time, however, she added: "It's not actionable. She won't even get a slap on the wrist, so there's no recourse for you in this situation." I was getting more and more upset with every word she said and I asked her if that meant it really was company policy to depend on their other passengers to provide assistance to the disabled. Dina's answer was: "Normally another passenger will step in and help, yes. If you have troubles, you really should ask them." I was unaware that it was company policy to depend on complete strangers who are in no way affiliated with United to provide my disability assistance while I'm on your airline.
At this point, Dina was getting more and more irate with every question I asked regarding United's disability policies and my accusations of discriminating against me to the point of telling me I needed to make other travel arrangements. She accused me of not listening to anything she said, but I cut her off and told her that I understood her perfectly, she was only repeating herself. I repeated her words that I had "no recourse" and that the lack of help "wasn't actionable." In addition, I repeated that she'd said several times she wouldn't apologize and wasn't sorry for what happened to me because it "wasn't in their contract to provide assistance." All Dina said in answer to that was that I had the option of writing a letter which I told her I had every intention of doing since coming to file a complain in person turned out to be completely futile and a waste of time, energy, and emotional wellbeing. I also told her I'd be mentioning her and the fact that the combined actions of everyone I'd encountered from United had guaranteed I wouldn't be flying with you at any point in the future.
Dina quite literally turned up her nose at me at that point and said: "You, of course, have the option to choose who you want to fly with, but again, it's not in our contract. Besides, there's a note that says your bag was heavy." I cut her off before she could say more and asked her who it was that said that. She told me it would have had to be someone at the ticket counter in Seattle, and I flat out told her that was amazing considering that there wasn't a single, solitary person involved with United at either airport who'd laid a hand on my bag. Not one. So not only was I dealing with the immensely upsetting experience of being told it was my own fault I was in pain for not making arrangements to fly without luggage since I knew I was disabled and needed assistance, I was also dealing with having someone lie about the weight of my luggage in some sort of bizarre effort to explain their lack of help. I hope you're able to appreciate how much more this upset and angered me.
I took the information for where to write a letter of complaint and told Dina I was leaving since it was very clear I wouldn't be getting anything else that was useful. This made her angry again and she again accused me of not listening to her, so "this conversation is over." My response to her was: "You're right, it is over because all you've said to me is that even though I'm disabled, it's my responsibility to ask a random passenger to help me with my bag and hope they say yes, otherwise I'll get no help. Also, you won't apologize and you aren't sorry for what happened or that I'm in pain because it isn't in the flight attendants' contracts to assist me with my carry-on luggage. It's my fault for not making other arrangements knowing that I'm not able to lift anything heavier than a purse or laptop and I have no recourse beyond writing a letter of complaint. But you haven't done anything wrong, so I shouldn't expect an answer any different from the one you've given me."
Then I looked over my shoulder at the woman pushing my wheelchair and told her "I need to go." Thankfully, she seemed to understand just how much I didn't want to cry or yell, because she did indeed push me away immediately.
Originally, I had intended to take BART so I could save money getting home. My carry-on had wheels, so I would be able to push it onto the train so long as I only stayed on one level and one of my roommates would meet me at the station to take it from me and help me home. However, I was in so much pain and so close to just breaking down and sobbing that I changed my mind and asked to be pushed to the taxi area instead. It was a $45 ride home, but it was faster than BART and took me right to my house where one of my roommates was waiting outside to take my luggage from me and get it and me into the house.
I'd barely made it in before I was unloading everything that happened to me to their complete amazement. All of them put in their encouragement that I write this letter in addition to contacting the American Disabilities Association. And yes, they are also going to receive a copy of this letter as is Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement.
I might be 29 years old, I might have colored hair, and I might not be obviously disabled, but I am a legitimately disabled American citizen. Your airline had no right to treat me the way it did and your customer service supervisor was disturbingly rude to me in the face of my experience. I wasn't being unreasonable, I never swore, and I didn't raise my voice. I was trying my best to be polite and calm and I expected no less than the same courtesy in return. The fact that I didn't receive it and instead was made to feel as though I was just being lazy and irresponsible is beyond infuriating. I have to deal with Worker's Compensation and Disability about my age enough, the last thing I expected or needed was to have to deal with it from your airline when flying is already a painful enough experience.
Believe me when I say that neither myself nor anyone I know will be using your airline or affiliates in the future and if this is an example of the quality of your customer service, I doubt I'll be the last person making a complaint of this nature.
tl;dr (since it is a lot to read): Woman with a non-visible disability receives no help from airline staff. When she brings the issue to a supervisor, she is told that if she needed that kind of help, she should have made other arrangements and that none of the staff did anything wrong.