Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Jamaica 2013, #5: Flights - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

2013 02 300 Other than the bad and the ugly parts, the flying experience was pretty darn good.

The Good

Every time I boarded or disembarked from an airplane the transfers went well – whether they were from wheelchair to aisle chair or from aisle chair to airplane seat. USAir employees were pleasant and helpful. In every case, there was a wheelchair waiting for me as I exited the airplanes.

When we realized that my iBot wheelchair had been damaged on the return flight from Jamaica, John at USAir promptly worked with my wheelchair vendor to pay for repairs. They took full responsibility.

These are the things that went well.

Oh, and Kim’s cosmopolitan on the flight down to Jamaica went well too. See photo on the right.

The Bad

On major trips like this I like to bring two power wheelchairs, my iBot for obvious reasons and also an inexpensive backup power wheelchair, see photo below. Despite all of its wonderful features, the iBot battery charge system is less than ideal. So it helps to have another wheelchair that I can use for a couple hours here and there at the resort while the iBot is charging. I always let the airline know ahead of time that I am bringing two wheelchairs.

images Our Jamaican vacation began at the Portland, Maine airport, only a 10 minute drive from our house. When we arrived at the USAir ticket counter the agents quickly and correctly deduced that the wet cell batteries from my backup wheelchair needed to be packed independently into special airline boxes. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the boxes. So Tom, Diane, and I went ahead of Kim and made our way through security to the gate. Even though we arrived two hours before our departure time, Kim made it to the gate only a few minutes before preboarding started. Advice for USAir – train your ticket agents better on dealing with wheelchair batteries.

Five days later we reluctantly reported back to the airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica, to return to Portland, Maine via Charlotte. If the ticket counter agents in Portland were confounded by the sudden appearance of a wheelchair in their midst, their compatriots in Jamaica were even more so. They sent us pushing the wheelchair all around the airport before finally deciding what they wanted to do with it. And like the agents in Portland, it took them forever to find the boxes for my wet cell batteries.

Despite arriving at the Montego Bay airport three hours before our flight, we made it to the gate with only a few minutes to spare before preboarding started.

These are the things that went badly.

The Ugly

On the way home, when our flight from Charlotte landed in Portland I was met at the airplane exit by an airport employee with a wheelchair. He pushed me to the baggage claim area where we found all of our bags promptly. We looked around for the wheelchairs but didn’t see them.

We found the USAir baggage employee, and Kim asked her where my wheelchairs were. She talked to some people on the radio, made a phone call or two, and finally deduced that my wheelchairs were not in Portland. They hadn’t made the flight from Charlotte. I had laid my eyes on both chairs in Charlotte, so I knew they weren’t left in Jamaica.

2010 04 03 Of course I was surprised and disappointed and expressed as much to the USAir employee, in a calm but firm manner. She looked at all of our claim tickets and filled out a report for missing “luggage.” She gave me a 1-800 phone number to check on the status of my chairs the next day.

I explained to the USAir baggage employee that I would need to take the airport wheelchair that I was sitting in with me. How else would I get home? She said something to the effect of, “I can’t allow you to do that. I am a USAir employee, and that is an airport wheelchair.” She made this point more than once while trying to reach somebody who could authorize my request.

My brother had stood by silently the entire time but could withstand the indignity no longer. In no uncertain terms he explained to the USAir employee, who was an essentially nice lady left alone in a difficult situation late at night, that her position was absurd.

Tom is very protective of his little brother, and I appreciate that.

Kim wisely suggested that Tom go fetch the wheelchair van from the parking garage and bring it up to the curb. I calmly said to the USAir employee, “You need to know that as soon as my brother arrives at the curb with our van I WILL be taking this wheelchair home. You can tell your boss that you tried to stop me.”

Finally she understood, and became resigned to this fact.

By the next day, Sunday, both wheelchairs had been located. My backup wheelchair was at the Portland airport and my iBot wheelchair was in Philadelphia (Philadelphia?). It was due in on a flight that day, but the flight was canceled because of weather, and the iBot didn’t make it to Portland until Monday. It was at this point that John, from USAir’s corporate office, contacted me to let me know that there was apparent damage to the iBot. He sent me some photos and indicated that USAir would take care of the repairs, which they did. On Monday evening after work, Kim retrieved both wheelchairs.

So, my 48 hour separation from my wheelchairs finally ended. The iBot, however, was unusable. I called the company that repairs iBots, and they indicated that the soonest they could be at my house was the following Monday. So I ended up without my iBot wheelchair for a total of nine days. That was not good.

2010 04 04 Lucky for me, I own three power wheelchairs, and had left one at home. In fact, while I was still at the airport Saturday night interfacing with the USAir baggage person (who, I remind you, was a nice lady), I posted the following status on Facebook:
Sometimes people ask me, "Mitch, why do you have 3 wheelchairs?" Answer: in case USAir loses 2 of them.
I received many “likes”, supportive comments, and suggestions.

After the repairs were finally completed on the iBot, John and I got to the issue of compensation for our significant inconvenience. I told John that I wanted an explanation of how they had misplaced my wheelchairs. His account didn’t add up. The layover in Charlotte had been too short to successfully transfer the wheelchairs. Really? It was three hours. I cannot imagine how baggage handlers could think that misplacing big, power wheelchairs would not be disastrous for the wheelchair user – me. Every USAir employee that I met face-to-face I liked. But it was these invisible, behind-the-scenes employees who screwed me.

I indicated to John that in order to be satisfied I required compensation of two vouchers for round-trip flights, one for Kim and one for me. After a couple weeks of back-and-forth negotiation, we received four $300 vouchers. But we can only use one voucher per person per flight. So, yes, we did get $1200 worth of compensation, which is approximately the value of two round-trip tickets. But, in order to actually realize this benefit we will need to fly twice with USAir in the next year. Even then, we will have to pay approximately $300 per flight out of our own pocket, assuming we book $600 flights. I am not satisfied with this resolution, but it was made clear to me that I would get no more. If losing two wheelchairs belonging to one passenger isn’t enough to earn a round-trip flight, I wonder what is. Perhaps my concept of fairness was unreasonable in this situation. What do you think?

We appreciate that our vacation would have been literally ruined if this had happened on the way down instead of on the way home – just lucky I guess.

These are the things that went, well, ugly.

To be continued...

Other posts in this series:

Jamaica 2013, #1: Hello Paradise
Jamaica 2013, #2: The Good Stuff
Jamaica 2013, #3: Challenges
Jamaica 2013, #4: Taking the iBot to Jamaica
Jamaica 2013, #5: Flights - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Jamaica 2013, #6: Final Thoughts


  1. That's a scary situation! My scooter got 'lost' on my flight back from Ireland, but I didn't need it as you do.
    Wish I had known Mr. iBot had a layover in Philly -- I live twenty minutes away and could have visited him!
    Glad your trip went somewhat well.


  2. So glad you had a nice time on your trip!

    In my opinion, there is NO excuse for USAir losing your wheelchairs. What if you hadn't had a third? I think their 4 $300 vouchers suck!! Two free airline passes that you can use together would make this difficult situation MUCH better. Ugh.

  3. Muff,

    I told the iBot that the next time he finds himself in Philly to give you a call :-)


    I'm glad you agree with me. But, alas…

  4. Mitch, this is a sad tail of lost articles, the absolute worst! How do you loose 2 power chairs!??? So glad you had a spare at home and yes although the front line staff is usually very nice and competent it is usually the unseen that are incompetent because they hire people with no education etc. for these jobs.
    I am so glad that we never had to experience anything like this with my late wife who was also PP.
    The 4 tickets is a disgrace!! They just want you to make more flights with them. I would press this matter even further and go as high in the chain as you can.
    Hope your next trip is less eventful!!

  5. Nightmare material.....The kind of thing one might worry about aloud ahead of time and people would say, "Don't be SILLY!" Really wish it hadn't happened to you.....Ginny

  6. Tim,

    I scratch my head when I try to think about those baggage handlers simply allowing my two power wheelchairs to miss a flight, when they had three hours to make the exchange.


    Truth is stranger than fiction!