by Anne Spiselman
PHOTO: MICHAEL J CARTER
Airline: American Airlines
Flights: AA810; AA1179
Routes: Chicago O’Hare International (IATA: ORD/ICAO: KORD)–Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA/KDCA); DCA–ORD
Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas Super 80 (MD-80)
Departure times: 1335; 1210 (1250 actual)
Arrival times: 1625 (1600 actual); 1320 (1335 actual)
Passenger: Anne Spiselman
Self-service kiosks may outnumber actual agents at American’s Terminal 3 domestic check-in at ORD, but that does not necessarily make the lines any shorter. Ordinarily you would expect advance online check-in and curbside luggage service to reduce the crowds. Even though I never check luggage as a rule, I usually check-in with a real person because I have to ask for a wheelchair, and that seems to be the only way to do it. Or almost. This time, it looked like the wait in line was going to be more than half an hour—too long for me to stand up—so I found a very nice agent named Sherry, explained the problem, and she helped my fellow traveller, Fred, and me to check in at a self-serve kiosk, as well as calling for a wheelchair. I sat on a seat—there are four in all—reserved for those awaiting wheelchairs, and one arrived in about ten minutes; a shorter wait than usual.
Prospect Airport Services runs the wheelchair program at O’Hare, and most of its employees are from eastern Europe and speak enough English to manage. Mine took us through the bustling security area, where I had to relinquish my purse and coat, which went through the X-ray machine with my suitcase, while I explained to TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents (who are not always well-informed) that their rules (posted online) say that people with disabilities do not have to remove their shoes but rather can have them tested for explosives with a swipe. I was patted down by hand by a very considerate agent who explained everything she was doing, and my boots were tested, after which I was reunited with my belongings and we proceeded to the gate. The Prospect pusher left us there, taking the wheelchair with her and advising us to tell the gate agent at boarding time that I needed one to take me to the airplane—information contained ‘in the paperwork’ from the time I bought my ticket.
ALL PHOTOS: FREDRIC SWANSON
We were early for the flight, but when the gate agent came on duty, I explained I needed a wheelchair to pre-board. She said she couldn’t promise anything. There was a wheelchair in the boarding area, so I asked if someone from AA could take me to the airplane if the Prospect employee didn’t show up. She said the gate agents are not allowed to do that. (This hasn’t been my experience on several past occasions when Prospect personnel failed to show up.) On the other hand, she did call far enough in advance, and Prospect indeed arrived promptly, so I was able to pre-board. In general, boarding proceeded smoothly on the fairly full flight.
We pushed off about five minutes early, and the entire flight was one of the smoothest I have been on, including takeoff and landing. The cabin temperature was reasonably comfortable, although I kept my coat on. The crew made all the requisite announcements, and told us that overhead bins on the three-seat side of the cabin were now large enough for us to put ‘rollies’ in wheels first.
Coach drinks service started about 20 minutes into the flight. Along with a choice of coffee, tea, juices, or alcoholic beverages ($5), we received little packets of snack mix (pretzels, honey roasted sesame sticks, cheddar corn bites).
The only ‘snafu’ occurred after we landed and reached the gate at DCA. wheelchair was waiting in the Jetway—without anyone to push it. We chatted with the pilot for a while, but he had to leave, so the pilot arriving to take over the airplane wheeled me up the boarding bridge to the waiting area, promising that a wheelchair pusher would be there. Still no one! My friend Fred finally pushed me and our luggage out to meet the friend who was picking us up.
The chaotic scene, the day after a big storm, at DCA’s American Airlines check-in at Terminal B made O’Hare seem a stroll in the park by comparison. Snaking lines everywhere, with self-service kiosks scattered here and there, so it was hard to know where to go. Also, a bank of luggage X-ray machines near the entrance, with a sign saying you had to check in first, was totally confusing—especially because the security area was somewhere else entirely.
Given an hour-long line (at least), I went to look for a supervisor, who was able to help (after taking care of two other people) in pretty much the same way Sherry did at ORD. No designated wheelchair waiting area here, though, so the wheelchair pusher who arrived in a few minutes roamed around until we found her. (The wheelchair said ‘Continental Airlines’.) We discovered that the only place to sit was a few tables at the Starbucks coffee concession. The security process went smoothly, though the person who patted me down wasn’t as considerate as at ORD. Because I wasn’t with my suitcase, I couldn’t remove my quart-size plastic bag of little containers of shampoo, etc, but no-one asked about it. This particular rule seems to operate on the honor system, because I wasn’t asked at ORD, either.
We reached the gate early enough to observe the AA agents check-in and board the previous flight, and I noticed that they failed to make the legally required pre-boarding announcement, even though the flight had an unaccompanied minor on it, as well as a family with toddlers and stroller, all of whom should have been allowed to pre-board. So, when the same agents returned to duty for our flight, I told one I needed to pre-board. She was surly and resentful, barely managing a reply. But when the time came, the other agent boarded me in the wheelchair that had been left with me by the person who pushed me to the gate.
When I asked her about this, she said that the airport’s wheelchair service only took people to the gate, and it was AA’s responsibility to board them onto the airplane—very different from the policy at O’Hare.
From my vantage point on the aircraft—which wasn’t as clean as it should have been—boarding in general seemed slow and inefficient, with the flight attendants offering little or no help to find room for carry-on bags on the packed flight. This probably contributed to the delayed departure, although once we pushed back, the taxi was short and we were cleared for takeoff right away, in fact sooner than the pilot thought we would be, judging by his announcement.
Our pilot said he would try to make up some of the lost time by going faster, and he may have done so, because we arrived only 15 minutes late, and time in the air seemed less than the announced 2hr 10min. It was a smooth ride, too.
The flight was listed on AA’s website with the symbol for food and $$, and because it was at lunchtime, I expected we would have an opportunity to buy some sort of picnic-style lunch, such as sandwiches. Well, first class had a full free lunch (beef enchilada or an entrée salad, I think, with green salad and dessert), but the rest of us could buy a choice of only four snacks, among them a cookie and M&Ms. The cost: $3 each. Because these items were available for purchase, we didn’t even receive the snack mix served for free on the outbound flight. I call it ‘adding insult to injury’.
Before we landed, I reminded a flight attendant that I needed a wheelchair (I always do this), and she simply said, “OK,” while another one told me it was “in the paperwork.” But when we reached the gate—guess what?—no wheelchair, for me or the other passenger who had requested one. The FA called, but she and the rest of the crew left before a wheelchair arrived. Her parting words: “I’ll ask up top about it.” The new crew and cleaners were onboard before the wheelchair finally came, and then the petite Prospect employee could barely push the oversize chair up the Jetway.
American Airlines did better in the air than on the ground. Both flights were smooth and generally well run, though ORD–DCA was the more pleasant of the two. DCA–ORD lost points for not serving the free snack mix and for not having better for-sale food at lunchtime. Also, it was late.
On neither flight did anyone check on my wheelchair without being asked, or reassure me that I would have one when needed, or tell me whether to stay in my seat or come up front at deplaning time.
The main problems were on the ground, however. If I had been travelling alone, I would have been stranded. The companies responsible for wheelchair transport at the airports are mostly to blame, but AA personnel did not follow through (a flight attendant should have remained with me on the airplane until a wheelchair came), nor did they show much sensitivity or sympathy. The failure to make the required pre-boarding announcement at DCA—and the agent’s sullen response when I mentioned it—epitomized the lack of concern. That airport didn’t seem to function as well as ORD, either. For example, the ladies room was still dirty when it reopened immediately after having been closed for 20 minutes for cleaning.
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