Experiencing American Airlines as a Person with Mobility Challenges

My wife, Christen, doesn't always have to be in a wheelchair, but it's also not uncommon. Between her Fibromyalgia, chronic migraines,  Chronic Epstein Barr, and hypermobility (to name a few), she needs a wheelchair often enough that we own one. Over the last fifteen months she's had to have three surgeries related to the ligament problem that causes her hypermobility, so we've made use of it even more than usual.

When your mobility is limited, travel can be difficult. But we love to travel. Living where we do, in the middle of nowhere, a trip to a city is a wonderful retreat for us. So instead of giving up on travel, we've tried to get better at navigating it. Unfortunately, the airlines make it hard. And our most recent trip with American Air is the worst we've experienced to date.

Learning the Tricks to Travel

The more we have struggled, the more tricks we've learned. The first is to plan ahead. Expect to get to the airport earlier than normal, don't make any tight connections, and most important of all – call the airline and explain your needs.

Also, traveling with your own wheelchair is harder. If we can avoid it we do. If we will really need it, we try to check it. Personal wheelchairs cause far more fuss at security checkpoints and the airline employees always seem especially inconvenienced when they have to handle it.

The good news is, airports have wheelchairs and people to assist in getting you from place to place. When it works well, our experience has been pretty good. Unfortunately, it often doesn't work well. There are a lot of times where things are a little rough. This trip seemed to be made of a collection of those times.

Starting Off Right

When I booked the tickets, I called and got our seats adjusted to make sure we sat by each other on all our flights. Since we were traveling to a conference in Nashville, my work was paying for my ticket and I was paying for hers. Unfortunately American Air doesn't have a great system for this. They can't link our records to show that we're traveling together but they can, and did, add notes to both reservations with the other record locator.

On November 27th, two days prior to leaving, I called American Air and explained that my wife was traveling with me and would need mobility assistance. They already had my record locator (my cell number is in their system as linked to my account), saw hers in the notes, and pulled it up. I told them that she would be able to walk onto the plane from the bottom of the jet bridge, but would need assistance getting there. I've found that it helps to be as explicit and descriptive as possible. I was told that her ticket had been noted for all four segments of the trip.

Boarding in Oklahoma City

We arrived at the Oklahoma City airport with plenty of time. It's a small airport, so Christen thought she might not need the wheelchair. We have TSA precheck, and even with her ankle brace needing special inspection we were through pretty quickly. No wheelchair made it much easier.

While the airport is small, we were departing from gate four, which is basically as far from the entrance as you can possibly get. I suggested we get the wheelchair now, but she still wanted to walk. I get it. Needing assistance doesn't feel good for her. Unfortunately, by the time we got to our gate, her knee had popped out of joint once and she was in pain.

After getting her seated, I went to speak to the person at the gate desk. Usually, if a person gets on the airplane with the assistance of a wheelchair, then one is waiting for them when they get off. This is important to understand, because the opposite is also true – if you get on the airplane without a wheelchair, there probably won't be one for you at the other end.

I explained that she should be on their list as needing assistance and that I wanted to make sure she'd get it at the other end. Communicating heavily seems to help, which is actually kind of unfortunate because if my wife were traveling alone this would make her extremely uncomfortable. However, her name was in fact on the list and the attendant made sure that the other end would know what she needed.

Everything seemed to be going well until we actually started to board. Her boarding pass was "wrong". We showed that the segment was the right one and we had opened it in the app. The problem turned out to be her seat assignment. They had changed it. They moved her to the bulkhead because it's "usually easier for people that need assistance". They did not move me.

I explained that we were traveling together and they said that it didn't show that. Unfortunately, that's kind of true. Their system sucks for this. But when I explained that there were notes on both records they said they don't check those. So I guess their workaround doesn't work.

Putting her in the bulkhead may have given her an extra few inches of leg room, but it also separated us which is annoying. She couldn't have her bag with her either, since it had to go into the overhead. This separated her from her medications should she need them (luckily she didn't) and from her support. It certainly wasn't ideal.

The First DFW Transition

When we landed in Dallas to change planes, there were wheelchairs waiting on the jetway at gate C30. Two of them had her name, which was confusing, but she just sat in the closest of the two. The two wheelchair operators proceeded to argue over who was supposed to take her, which was annoying but not my problem I suppose. The one that was triumphant by means of being closer to the plane, started to push her up the jetway. The other wheelchair operator, rather than wait and help another passenger (there were more that needed wheelchairs) left in a huff with an empty wheelchair.

I'm assuming it was because of the other wheelchair leaving unfilled, but our operator was in a hurry and proceeded to run (quite literally) to gate C24. He was weaving in and out of people, and since I was carrying the luggage I couldn't even keep up. Remember, we booked with plenty of time for connections. We weren't in a rush at all.

Luckily it was only six gates, so I didn't fall to terribly far behind. However, when I caught up to them he was trying to make her get out of the wheelchair and into a seat at the gate, for our flight that didn't leave for more than an hour. She was explaining to him that she needed to use the restroom but, being the kind of person that doesn't like to cause a scene, she was also getting out of the wheelchair.

I put a stop to that immediately. If she needed to use the restroom, we were going to need the use of the wheelchair to get there. He argued that he had to hurry back to get more people off our aircraft. I get it, he was in a cruddy spot because the other person had left. Still, that didn't seem like a good reason to deny use of the restroom, which seems like it would be a basic right.

Ultimately I convinced him to get another wheelchair and go back to the gate, leaving the wheelchair she was in for us to use to go to the restrooms, which were another four or five gates away. He grabbed his tablet and left, leaving behind his jacket and scarf and telling us he'd be back for them (keeping track of this person's clothes felt weird, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

Now, I don't mind pushing my wife around at all. Actually, I prefer it to having someone else do it. We went to the restroom and still had plenty of time before our flight started boarding. I used some of that time to write up our issue that I would submit to the American Airlines complaint department when we got to altitude and I connected to WiFi. I was definitely upset, and I'm sure it came through in my complaint.

When the flight boarded, the gate attendants paged for wheelchair assistance several times before eventually giving up and taking care of it themselves (there seems to be some regulation against me pushing her up or down the jetway). While I'm sure this annoying for them, their service was actually quite good.

Arriving in Nashville

When we arrived in Nashville there was no wheelchair when we deplaned. Christen had to stand on the jet bridge for quite a while. I worked my way back into the plane and asked the steward about it, and was told that there was no way for them to call up and tell them that a wheelchair was needed, so she would need to just wait until everyone deplaned and they could walk up there. But there was no place to sit. Standing there was physically bad for her and was causing her a lot of pain.

A pilot came down the jetway and I was able to explain to him the situation. He turned around immediately and went to take care of it. Just a couple minutes after he did, a manager came down and took care of us. The manager was fantastic, but the process was terrible. The flight was over 90 minutes. They should have been able to have a wheelchair there.

DFW Again – The Place of Never-Ending Frustration

Upon deplaning from the first leg of our return flight, we once again found ourselves standing on the jetway with nowhere to sit and no wheelchair. When the wheelchair finally arrived Christen was taken up and put into a cart that already had two elderly ladies in it. This wasn’t unexpected, as we were in terminal C and going to terminal A – at DFW that’s no short distance.

While the cart driver was gone (he had pitched in to help with another wheelchair), the older ladies flagged down a third woman who was also elderly and going to terminal A and had her get in the cart too. The cart was now full with two in the back seat, my wife and I in the middle, and one in the front. The driver was gone for a while and when he returned it was with another wheelchair going to terminal A.

Another cart should have been ordered.

Instead he asked the older ladies in the back to try to cram over and fit this third person in. It looked ridiculously uncomfortable and was completely unreasonable.

Then came the driving. I understand that navigating a cart through people at an airport like DFW, especially when horns are not allowed, is difficult. However, the speed and the swerving combined with my wife’s failing muscles due to having to stand on the jetway, meant that she likely would have fallen out several times had I not been there to physically hold her in. And believe it or not that’s not the worst part of the ride.

Experiencing Sexual Harassment – an Aside to the Story That Can't Be Left Out

Partway through terminal C he slowed dramatically next to a woman that was roughly his age and wearing a very nice top with open shoulders and a dipping back. He began to, of all things, try to offer her a ride!!! There was obviously no room and it was clear to everyone that he was loudly and obnoxiously hitting on this woman. She turned him down several times before exasperatedly saying “Come on! Give me a break man!”. It was sexual harassment, loud and in the open, by an airport or American Airlines employee (I'm not sure which) and it made every one of us uncomfortable. The older ladies behind us talked about it quietly for several minutes following.

Back to Our Other Story

When we arrived at our gate, our driver stopped and just said “Oklahoma City, this is your stop!”. But there was no wheelchair and he made no move to attempt to acquire one. We didn’t hitch a ride because it was faster or more convenient, we did it because my wife needed mobility assistance. I spotted an unused wheelchair at the gate next door, jogged to it, brought it back, and helped my wife out of the cart and into it. I grabbed our luggage and found a place near the gate to wait.

Boarding went relatively smoothly, even though there ended up being six wheelchairs. A couple people were making laps and taking everyone down. Kudos to the team there at gate A37, they handled it well.

The Final Frustration (of the Trip)

Upon landing at OKC, an announcement was made that those with wheelchairs would need to wait on the plane because the wheelchairs weren’t ready. I know it’s a short flight, but this is more than an hour after the line of six wheelchairs was at the gate in DFW, so there really wasn’t an excuse. Worse yet, it makes the disabled feel very awkward. My wife and I had a middle and aisle seat, which meant that we blocked in a poor man who was at the window.

Rather than keep him from his family and home, we had to get up, move a couple aisles and sit back down. If you've ever been on a plane as it empties, moving like that, especially if you aren't fast because your mobility is limited, causes a traffic jam and generally upsets the people behind you. It felt like having to scream out “I’M DISABLED AND I’M CAUSING PROBLEMS FOR PEOPLE”. It was terrible.

When a wheelchair did arrive, the service was good. The lady took us to the baggage claim and then left to go help someone else, which is completely acceptable.

Dealing with American Air

I updated my complaint to American Airlines each time we ran into issues along the way. On December 5th, I got a call from a customer service rep named Patti. Overall she listened fairly well and seemed to be taking pretty good notes based on the recap that she gave.

There were some frustrating parts. She kept saying that if a wheelchair wasn't available we just should have stayed on the plane. I had to explain several times that by the time you can see the jetway to see that there is no wheelchair, you're past all the seats and with people behind you also deplaning, you can't exactly turn around and get back on.

She also insisted that the seat change on our first flight was due to an aircraft swap, even though the people at the gate had specifically said otherwise.

Still, she ended the call by saying that they'd be doing an investigation. I was mostly satisfied with that, thinking that things could be fixed and improved.

The Unfortunate Reality

On December 10th, five days after my phone call with Patti, I received an E-Mail response. It was eight paragraphs that took me from happy to irate in the few minutes that it took to read it.

It appears that we had  an aircraft change, however the aircraft configuration was the same.

So as I had said, the change had nothing to do with the aircraft. Moving people's chosen seats because of mobility issues seems pretty unreasonable but she did say "sorry that you were inconvenienced", so my ire didn't flare right away.

We must rely on each passenger to self-identify any special service request to our employees at the time of travel. When a passenger requires special assistance getting to and from the gates, and airport, we recommend they request a Special Service Request (SSR) be completed which will enable our agents to more effectively assist them with their needs, however our passenger's still must let us know. Your spouse's reservation was documented (coded) that she needed wheelchair for distance only.

So apparently I'm the one to blame. Even though I called in advance and explained what we needed, and even though I repeatedly asked airline and airport employees for what we needed. I guess I was supposed to know what a Special Service Request (SSR) was, but they never mentioned one when I called or at any point along the way. And of course I was supposed to know their internal coding system so I could make sure that the employee I talked to coded it correctly.

My frustration was building. If these are things I needed to know and deal with, they could at least take responsibility for not telling me about them when I called days ahead of time.

We have investigated the issues you have brought to our attention and appreciate the opportunity to share with you the results of our investigation. Our report from Dallas confirms that your spouse was provided assistance (11/29/17 Oklahoma City-Dallas) at 11:44 a.m., taken to the restroom and dropped at the gate for Nashville

And I was officially angry. I know for 100% certain that she was NOT assisted to the restroom even though she asked to be several times. I had to step in and argue to keep access to a wheelchair so that I could take her to the restroom because their person wouldn't.

In an effort to restore your confidence in us, I have added 7,500 bonus miles to each of your AAdvantage® accounts.

Sure, that helps.

All of us here at American Airlines are committed to ensure that our customers with special needs have pleasant and trouble-free flights when traveling with us. Accordingly, we make every effort to provide information and assistance to our customers with special needs.

It sounds nice but it's so disingenuous that it feels like salt being rubbed in a cut. I'm not sure exactly what my next steps forward will be, but a few things seem apparent. First, based on the responses I've gotten from just a couple tweets and the few people I've told, this kind of experience is the norm, not the exception. Secondly, it seems like pushing for changes is going to be a long road…but I'm not ready to give up.

Update 2017-12-11

Another unsatisfying call with Patti. According to her they "have to go by the report" they received. However, the report is generated by her requesting information and the people at the airport asking those involved. How can that be reasonable? If the person says they didn't refuse to take her to the restroom then it must be true?





2 responses to “Experiencing American Airlines as a Person with Mobility Challenges”

  1. Mendel Avatar

    Wow. Beyond frustrating, and unfortunately doubtful this is different with any other airline. Is there a website with info on how accommodating particular carriers are for situations like these?

    1. Aaron D. Campbell Avatar

      Agreed. I wish it were as easy as switching carriers. Unfortunately I’m not aware of any such site, but I’m on the lookout.

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