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Accessibility issues

September 11, 2010

In this day and age, with the American Disability Act, I didn’t think we’d run into some of the problems we encountered. United Airlines was extremely disappointing in accessibility. First, I’ll rant about them; feel free to skip ahead!

The flights:

On the flight from Syracuse, Mom had to climb high steps into the plane, after everyone else had boarded.

Washington Dulles contracts out their wheelchair service to a private company, with wheelchair valets that meet you at the plane, take you to the next gate, and dump you. Mom couldn’t stay in the wheelchair while waiting for the next flight. When I asked what we were supposed to do if she needed to go to the bathroom, I received a shrug.

I went to the United customer service counter in Dulles to complain about the stairs and the wheelchair situation. The agent told me that I should have told them when making the reservation that Mom was handicapped. When I said I told them she used a wheelchair, it then became that I should have told them she couldn’t walk at all, or they would assume she could climb steps. The agent assured me that she would note on our other flights that she wasn’t able to climb stairs. As for the wheelchair, she assured me that a chair would be called when it was time to board the flight from Seattle.

Once the gate agents opened the counters at the gate, I told both of them that we would need a wheelchair for boarding, and was assured one would be there. Lo and behold, they started pre-boarding, and no chair. When I finally got their attention, they motioned for me to come up to board. We can’t, there’s no chair, I told them. One of them impatiently said, “What? You didn’t get a chair?” Um, that’s your job, moron. By the time a chair finally came, the plane was half boarded, and we kept getting pushed by the impatient people still waiting to board and being slowed by Mom’s progress.

The Seattle airport has the same contract wheelchair transport. When we arrived, we got terrific service and a friendly attendant who stayed with us through baggage claim and up to the local shuttles area.

Arriving at the Seattle airport for our flight back home, however, was another story. The United terminal was as crowded as any air terminal at Christmas, just mobs and mobs of people. There was a designated area for wheelchair passengers to wait for the transport chairs. We waited for over an hour for a chair. Thankfully, we had plenty of time. Several of the other passengers weren’t as lucky, and one lady wound up missing her flight.

We were again dumped at the gate by the transport valet, and the gate agent likely grew terribly sick of me, as I made sure several times that she would be calling for a chair for boarding. She did, repeatedly, but there was obviously a shortage of wheelchairs at SeaTac. As it got closer to boarding time, I went trolling through the terminal until I found a valet, and laid claim to him.

When we got Washington Dulles and were dumped at the gate, I again made a beeline to the gate agent as soon as possible. Was she able to climb stairs? he asked, since this was again a smaller plane. When I said no, he told me I should have mentioned that on the reservation. Thanks, numerous United representatives who assured me this was noted. This agent was on the ball:  he called for a ramp and he made sure a wheelchair was there before boarding. When we got to the ramp, though, we discovered it wasn’t a normal ramp, but was very narrow, and the wheelchair wouldn’t fit up it. So Mom again had to walk up a long ramp into the plane. I complained to the flight attendant that it was senseless to have a ramp that a chair couldn’t use, and she informed me that I should have requested a narrow aisle chair since it was a narrow ramp. Okay, I guess passengers are supposed to know which ramps are being used and what kind of wheelchairs are available.

The hotel:

I had reserved a handicapped-accessible room at Springhill Suites. Big bathroom, definitely big enough for a wheelchair if needed. Slightly raised toilet with grab bars. And a regular tub shower with no seat and no grab bars. Additionally, there was a jetted tub in the corner of the bedroom: weird. When I asked at the front desk, they replied that not all handicapped rooms had handicapped showers. Okaaay. She did offer to move us to another room, but we were dog-tired by this time. No shower for Mom that night.

The cruise:

Overall, having a wheelchair on a cruise is a breeze. The crew was wonderful, and available to push the wheelchair up and down ramps when we docked – a good thing, since several of them were fairly steep! We tendered in Sitka, and they were very patient and helpful as Mom made her way down and up the steps (they were normal stair steps, the same height as household steps, so she could do them).

One note: if your person in a wheelchair has pain issues, there is a fair amount of jostling around despite best efforts. There’s lots of thresholds to go over, including regular thresholds in the hallways, where you wouldn’t expect them. Mom was fine with it, but it would be a different story for a chair-bound cancer patient, for instance.

The one blight was the whale watching excursion. It was billed as handicapped accessible, which it was – except for getting into the bus to take us to the excursion boat. It was a Partridge Family-style school bus, with a first step that was over 12″ high. I asked the driver if he had one of those bus stools for make the first step shorter. He didn’t. Mom thought she could do it, so she tried, with me pushing her up from behind. Unfortunately, she fell upward, landing on a knee and scraping her leg bloody in the process.

The driver ended up borrowing a step from another charter driver; Mom was able to get on, and I did some first-aid. I later complained to the shore excursions manager, and she said the drivers aren’t supposed to have step stools for liability reasons. When I said she would need to refund our next excursion because it really wasn’t handicapped accessible, she suddenly changed her tune and called ahead to make sure all the drivers had stools. She also couldn’t understand when I noted that saying that there were steps wasn’t enough, but the height of the steps need to mentioned, as well. Mom can climb ordinary household steps, but bus and airplane steps are often twice a high.

  1. Pam permalink

    Well, nothing burns my butter more than rude people who are stupid too. I can’t believe the audacity of these workers to keep putting the blame back on you. Gee, if you’re asking for a wheelchair, isn’t it obvious that if the person has a hard time walking–enough to need a wheelchair–that they also would have difficulty climbing stairs? DUH! You’re supposed to magically know that you need to specify this in advance? Should you have also specified that she is unable to dance the salsa, rock climb and fly the plane, too? As you can see, I’d be in jail right now for slapping each one of these ignoramuses.

    In your complaint, you might want to reference the Air Carrier Access Act that is part of the American’s with Disabilities Act and that you’re not at all shy about filing a complaint with the ADA about how you were treated (see: Or you could make a “Why United Airlines Sucks” Facebook page and alert the media about it after it goes viral. Hee, hee, I like that one.

    Or you could be like Dave Carroll and write a song about it and post it on YouTube. It’s actually a really good song and the video is hilarious:
    One scene shows him sitting on the tarmac playing a guitar with a broken neck. He wrote a 2nd and 3rd song about it that are also pretty funny.

    At the very least, you should post these complaints on Yelp at:

  2. Pam permalink

    I can just see that Partridge Family excursion bus….”Hello World, here’s the song that we’re singing, c’mon get—(CRASH)—not so happy.”

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