Patrick on Amtrak for a DC flightPatrick on Amtrak for a DC flight

Follow the Rules, Still Treated Poorly

My son Patrick, who needs a wheelchair for mobility and has limited strength, participated in a drug study from January to July of 2016 that required weekly travel to Baltimore, MD from our home in Maine and returning home on the same day. Our encounters with airline staff were often good, yet when they were not, those experiences were horrible. On two occasions, the first in Baltimore and the second in Washington, DC, my request for pre-boarding was mishandled and my son treated poorly by airline staff. The following is a description of those experiences. The names of the airline staff are removed for privacy, yet the airline consumer affairs contact remains due to the nature of the correspondences.

Baltimore 2/12/16
We arrived at the airport over an hour prior to boarding. There was no agent at the gate at the time of our arrival. When the agent arrived, I approached her after allowing her time to get settled and spoke with her about our desire to pre-board and asked about what arrangements were in place to help us due to the aircraft (Dash-8) being too short to use the jet bridge. Her response was terse and condescending. She said everything was in place. I said there was no ramp and she responded that if special services had been contacted, it would be handled and I should take a seat. I took a seat with a view of the aircraft and was close to the podium.

Another gate agent, who had helped us in the past arrived, acknowledged my son and me and went out to check the aircraft or perform other duties. A short time later an airline supervisor approached the gate area. Listening to the exchange among staff, it soon became apparent that there was no ramp available. There were many phone calls and discussion among the staff. Near the boarding time, the second gate agent stood near the podium and told Patrick and me that American’s ramp was unavailable and they were sourcing one from Delta. The first agent stated this was “TMI”.

About 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure, the first agent began boarding passengers ignoring my son and me. A clerk from special services arrived and stood nearby, yet no one spoke with my son or me. Once all passengers were boarded, a truck arrived pulling a portable ramp to the aircraft. At this point I was beyond concerned.

The man from special services asked the agents about us and she stated we never came up to be boarded. I was incredulous; there was no call for pre-boarding. The clerk came over to where we were seated and told us to follow him to board.

We were directed to a service elevator and brought down to the tarmac. My son was still in his manual wheelchair. Patrick wanted me to push him up the ramp and board him from his chair fearing he would be injured in the aisle chair due to his condition, yet the ramp was too narrow. I was forced to transfer him on the tarmac onto an aisle chair, in view of passengers. I held his limbs in position as the straps were fastened and the special services person and I pulled him up the ramp. The aisle chair was brought onto the plane and he was bumped against the passengers who had already boarded. I had to lift my son off the aisle chair to his seat while everyone watched. It upsetting for me and humiliating for Patrick.

I filed a complaint with American the next day using their online form. I provided as much detail as the form allowed. On March 19th an investigator from their special services department called seeking confirmation of the incident and asked me for a statement. The man who called apologized for the behavior of the gate agent and told me they would investigate further.

As a follow up to my compliant, I received a letter, via e-mail, from Christy Garden. In the letter she outlines the gate agent’s unprofessionalism, states American Airlines believes in providing appropriate service including ramps, yet because in that situation their ramp was unavailable and that they borrowed a ramp, they were unable to provide pre-boarding and were not in violation of the law. I received Ms. Garden’s letter one week after our second incident with the same carrier outlined below.

Washington 4/12/2016
Because of Patrick and my experience in Baltimore, I looked at alternative arrangements for return flights to Portland. I learned that taking a train from Baltimore to Washington, DC gave us enough time to take the Metro to the airport and make an afternoon flight to Maine.

After clearing TSA screening, Patrick and I arrived at Gate 38 at 2PM. As we approached the agent, to discuss our boarding routine an announcement was made concerning flight 5414 to Portland being moved to Gate 34. I told her that was our flight and we needed time to pre-board. Her exact response was “That sucks”. Her statement seemed to be a crass way of recognizing she knew our changing terminals would not be easy. I mention this primarily to establish a time line. The agent picked up her phone and called someone concerning our need to move from Terminal C to Terminal B. I said we needed assistance quickly in order to pre-board. At this point she began walking away. I asked where she was going and was told she had to leave to take care of that flight.
Approximately 10 minutes passed before another gate agent arrived to work the new flight at that gate. Once he logged into the computer, I told him of our circumstances. He made a series of calls while my son and I waited nearby. I checked my watch frequently realizing our request to pre-board would not be honored. Two people from Special Services came to the gate at 2:35PM. One clerk was escorting a woman who used a wheelchair and another woman traveling with her and there was a second agent who I presume was sent to help Patrick. It took another 15 minutes to get from Terminal C using the elevator near Gate 35X, board a bus with a ramp and have the wheelchair secured, be driven across the tarmac to Terminal B, take an elevator up to the gate area and arrive at Gate 34. We arrived at Gate 34 at 2:50 with most of the passenger already boarded. From behind the podium, Wanda explained she was unable to hold boarding. I told her it was her obligation, yet received no response.
A second gate agent, heard the exchange and approached Patrick and me offering to help. This agent had helped us board before and said she trusted I could get Patrick on, yet she wanted to help. She cleared a path through the tangle of final passengers trying to board. Patrick didn’t want others to see me lifting him down the aisle, so agreed to use the aisle chair despite the discomfort. The agent held the wheelchair as I transferred Patrick. The Velcro straps which hold a user’s legs were completely worn and useless. As she pulled the aisle chair into the plane, I held Patrick’s legs in place trying to avoid his hitting seats and passengers. Again, Patrick was bumped and bruised going down the aisle as passengers watched from their seats. I transferred him into his seat and thanked the agent for her help. She apologized several times and I thanked her for her consideration.

I also reported this incident to American using their online web form. No one called to investigate. I received another letter via e-mail from Christy Garden concerning this incident. In her letter she dismisses our experience as being less than a “pleasurable experience”. She claims their records showed we were delayed 20 minutes in changing terminals. If this was true, we would have been in the gate area before the time pre-boarding is typically offered. She outlined how gate changes occur and stated they were “unable” to hold the flight. Ms. Garden writes no violation of federal regulation occurred. As a gesture of goodwill, airline miles were added to my son and my frequent flier program accounts. It was not the resolution I was anticipating.

I responded to Ms. Garden’s e-mail protesting her version of the delay, timeline and failure to pre-board. Her reply was that she was “disappointed” I was “still upset with us (American Airlines)”. Her response was inadequate and condescending.

Additional background. My wife and I had two sons affected by muscular dystrophy and traveled frequently with them. Our first flights were when they were walking, yet we continued flying with them after they needed to use wheelchairs for mobility. When our oldest son was still alive, beginning about 2000, we traveled two to four times annually with our sons. We developed an efficient routine boarding and deplaning and were often complimented by airline staff. We seldom required assistance from special services and avoided delaying others. We are mindful of other passengers, boarding quickly and waiting patiently for others to leave before taking our sons off at the end of each flight.

Patrick was taking part in a drug study that required weekly air travel to Baltimore beginning the second week of January, 2016. Most flights were largely uneventful. We understand delays, irritable staff and passengers. I am saddened that my son was subjected to such humiliating experiences in these two incidents. What frustrates me more is the airlines denial of responsibility and downplaying the incidents. It appears to be a cultural attitude with American which I find unacceptable.

My complaints were investigated by the Department of Transportation. Their determination was the airline violated the ACAA in not providing pre-boarding for the flight originating in Baltimore. They didn’t find a pre-boarding violation for the second incident concerning the flight originating in Washington, DC, yet did find a violation by the airline not providing timely connecting assistance. The outcome is American Airlines was sent letters of warning concerning these incidents and I was informed they are limited to issuing cease and desist orders and assessing fines not to exceed $32,140 per violation. Seeking further monetary damages is left to me pursuing a private legal action based on private contract rights or on civil rights statutes that provide for a private right of action. Those of us with disabled family members or who are disabled are left wondering what value there is in the ACAA when clear violations are answered with a letter and advice to seek remediation by ourselves. It hardly seems like justice is served.

Brian Denger, ME