We travel a bit, not as much as others, but enough to have learned our way around the airport. We know that we generally do not have to wait in long lines, because there are separate procedures for people with wheelchairs or scooters. Most airlines are happy to have you use the shorter business or first class lines at the ticket counter, and airport security has a special handling line for us as well. We don’t wait for ½ hour in a long line at security, but make up for it in getting put back together (belt, shoes, etc.) after our personal (very) screening by polite, serious screeners looking for who-knows-what under the scooter seat.
When traveling with a scooter or personal wheelchair you have two choices:
1. Check your mobility assistance through to your destination, and get a wheelchair ride from specially trained (I hope) airline/airport employees.
2. Use your own mobility device right up to the door of the airplane, and gate-check your scooter or chair.
The putative advantage of the first alternative is that the device gets special handling. The disadvantages are that 1) it takes time to go to the special handling baggage check-in, 2) you lose independent mobility while waiting at the gate, and 3) if you are not on a direct flight, you need to get a wheelchair assist at the intermediate airport as well. But the wheelchair-assist staff are usually friendly and accommodating—be sure to give them a nice tip. I have no statistics regarding scooter or chair damage using each mode of check-through.
The big advantages of gate-checking your scooter or chair is continuity of mobility. You have your device until you get on the airplane, and it is usually waiting for you at the door when you get off the plane. There are exceptions, especially on small planes or when you disembark to the tarmac, not an elevated gangway to the airport. While always being the last one off the plane is a pain, it gives the staff time to get your hardware or wheelchair chauffer to the right place.
However, stuff happens.
Last November Laura and I travelled to the NMSS National Convention in Chicago. Laura had been the year before and wanted me to accompany her this time. She was a panelist at one of the breakout sessions on Social Networking as a Fund Raising Tool, and she needed some arm candy. We should have taken it as an omen when the Continental gate staff were flummoxed by the idea that one could ride the scooter all the way to the plane before the baggage handlers stowed it on the plane. They had never heard of such a thing, but a few phone calls and consultations seemed to relieve their angst. No problem.
After an uneventful flight (the kind we like) we got an assist from a willing, tall fellow passenger to get our one carry-on bag (we travel light) down from the overhead compartment, and waited for the plane to empty. I made my way to the front of the plane while Laura went to make sure the scooter was set up and operational. It seemed OK, but when I tried to use it, it became clear that the lever that acts as a forward/backward control was separated from its fulcrum. The control mechanism was cracked and not operational. The crew helped us acquire a wheelchair ride and assisted with pushing the dead scooter to the baggage claim area where we met the Continental/United baggage claim trouble shooter on duty that shift, Ms. Bray.
After recording our basic information (name, address, flight, hat size), inspecting the damage and taking our statement, Ms. Bray was convinced that my scooter really was functioning before being committed to their tender care, and then not working when we arrived in The Windy City. Her actions at that point are best summed up in an e-mail I sent to Continental once we returned home:
This note is in commendation of the service provided by RoseAnn Bray at O'Hare airport.
On 11/10/2010 my travel scooter was damaged after being gate-checked at Newark Airport. Ms. Bray represented Continental very professionally arranging for a replacement scooter for our three day stay, and managing the timely repair of my scooter before we returned to Newark on 11/12. She took a personal interest in making all this happen, and kept us informed of progress at every step. The result is that I returned to Newark with a fully functional scooter.
Thank you Ms. Bray. Baggage management at O'Hare probably deserves some credit as well for having a polite, efficient, well-trained staff.
I love people who take pride in doing their jobs well. I love people who take personal responsibility for a task and see it through to completion. And I love the surprised responses I get when I point out the job well done to someone who should know about it. You can practically feel the writer of this response beaming at her computer as she typed:
Dear Mr. Cohen:
Thank you for your e-mail correspondence regarding the handling of your damaged assistive device. It is nice to learn you received a service that was above and beyond your expectations, and Ms. Bray was able to prevent your vacation from being interrupted. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your commendations.
One of Continental's primary goals is to have the highest standards of excellence exemplified through our service and employees. We are very proud of our employees who reflect true concern for accommodating your individual needs. In the service industry, nothing is more important than the impression we make with you, our customer.
It is unusual when people take time to write about something good and I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness in doing so. Your comments have been submitted into our corporate monthly Customer Care report so that your commendation will be shared with Ms. Bray and her supervisor. We are proud to have received your acknowledgement of this outstanding performance.
Complaint Resolution Official (CRO)
Disability Specialist - Corporate Customer Care
The fact that good people doing their jobs with pride every day is good for the company, good for the economy, and good for the country. No, I don’t think that is in any way hyperbole. While this is in no way limited to the USA, it has always been part of our work ethic. Where this attitude has flagged, it needs to be encouraged in every way possible in both the private and the public sectors.
We will be going to spend a weekend at Jazz Fest soon. We will have one-stop flight arrangements through Atlanta. I’m not sure if we will gate-check the scooter this time, or perhaps just check it through to New Orleans and get wheelchair assistance along the way. We’ll see.
12 February 2011