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Stan BrownStan Brown (Constantino Schillebeeckx Photography)

Experience with Southwest Airlines on August 22, 2011

In September 2011, I submitted a letter to Southwest Airlines on my bad experience with a August 22, 2011, flight (#262) from St. Louis to Houston. I also submitted the same complaint with the Department of Transportation alleging violation of the Air Carrier Access Act. The Department of Transportation investigated my allegations and substantiated violations of the Air Carrier Access Act. However, the Department informed me their finding was not the basis for a civil action and only if there were substantial other substantiating complaints from other disabled fliers, would the Department take any administrative action. I never heard anymore concerning the complaint or any administrative action being taken over my experience. The following is the subject of the complaint and my experience:

Upon arrival at the St. Louis gate for flight #262 on August 22, I informed the agent I would need at least three able-bodied individuals plus a “lift kit” that Southwest uses which includes a transfer sling. When I got to the door of the plane on the jetway, Southwest staff were there, but when I asked about the lift kit I was informed that they didn’t have any lift kits at that particular gate to transfer me to the aisle chair. I said I needed the sling for a safe transfer. A staff member looked at his watch and said “don’t worry, we can handle you.” They then proceeded to try to lift me, but couldn’t do so because the headrest on my power wheelchair makes it almost impossible to lift from the back. Frustrated, staff called for and we received within five minutes, a lift kit with a sling. With the assistance of my attendant, the sling was placed under me and my top was secured with the straps. My legs were not secured, not strapped in, and I objected but we quickly were “on the way” to my seat. I was transferred safely to the seat.

Once I was on my aisle chair I did not see or hear the instructions my attendant gave to the crew/staff in St. Louis that was taking my power wheelchair to the cargo hold of the plane. I especially chose my particular power wheelchair because the back of the chair will fold forward to fit in the opening of the cargo hold of a Boeing 737. My attendant told me she specifically showed the Southwest staff how to work the brakes of the chair as well as how to fold the back of the chair down, so it would fit upright in the cargo hold of the plane.

When we arrived at Hobby Airport in Houston, there was a delay waiting for my power wheelchair before I could transfer off the plane. I was finally told my power wheelchair was there so I consented to getting on the aisle chair and was pushed outside. I immediately saw that the back of my wheelchair was separated from the wheelchair seat. Southwest staff at the gate told me they were missing some parts to reassemble the back to the wheelchair. I was wheeled up the jetway to the gate in the aisle chair and remained there for about 45 minutes while Southwest staff from different sections tried to put together the back of my wheelchair to the seat of the wheelchair with substitute bolts, washers, and lots of duct tape. It was reassembled as best it could be I suppose, but not very securely because the appropriate washers/nuts were not available to secure the bolts holding both sides of the back into the seat. I commend Southwest staff at Hobby for being as courteous and helpful as possible. They repeatedly apologized for the condition of my chair. A day later, a technician at the Paralyzed Veterans of America convention I was attending properly repaired the back in a secure fashion. Southwest at Hobby had secured a contract repair vendor who was supposed to arrive at noon on August 23, but instead called at 1:30 PM to tell me they were on their way. The chair had already been repaired.

Sitting on the aisle chair for probably an hour all together, put me at grave risk of receiving a “pressure sore” because I was unable to tilt or recline to take the pressure off my backside. I am dismayed Southwest did not want to use the transfer equipment and I am also dismayed my legs were not properly secured on the aisle chair in St. Louis. In the end, I was thankfully not injured, but I believe Southwest staff in St. Louis did not comply with provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act in my transfer or in transporting my wheelchair.

Stanley Brown, MO