George A. Crockett, Jr. is seated in a wheelchair in front of a body of water.George A. Crockett, Jr.

Graduation Situation

I am a paraplegic disabled veteran with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) who uses an electric wheelchair for mobility. My airline story with Southwest Airlines began with a planned trip to attend my daughter’s Graduation up at Sonoma State University on May 20, 2017 with my wife and 2 grandchildren ages 4 and 5. When we arrived at Ontario International Airport on Thursday May 18 parking was wonderful for my accessible van.

Then on to check in which was a piece of cake along with TSA. Me and my family just breezed on thru. I stayed in my electric chair until boarding first with my family. Southwest had about 3 gentlemen there to help me board. Which was wonderful. Then the first issue came when they transferred me from my electric wheelchair to their little tiny aisle wheelchair with those horrible Velcro straps. I am not a large man but I am not a tiny guy either. Just middle of the road and that aisle chair was uncomfortable and just outdated with Velcro straps that did not do their job to keep me in.

The aisle transfer chair was very hard for the 3 guys yes, I said 3 guys to maneuver me in. Once we got to the first row of seats down the aisle there was a small raised section on the floor that prevented them from going in farther then the 1st row. So, the 1st row aisle seat is where there transferred me to.

So now there I sat in the first row aisle seat with my wife and grandkids seated in the 2nd row over. Now granted I had my seat belt on but for someone with my disability and limited upper body control any little disturbance such as takeoff and landing of the plane, I was falling forward. Thank God, my wife was there to catch me each time. She would lean forward from her seat and put her arm out to catch me.

When we arrived at the Oakland International Airport my only thoughts were please let my wheelchair be in one piece when they bring it to me. Well that was wishful thinking. Upon arrival, there was no one there to help me transfer to the aisle chair but the flight attendant and my wife. The plane had emptied out, and there I sat as my wife and the flight attendant tried to transfer me to another tiny out dated aisle wheelchair just to get a couple of feet out of the plane. They were struggling so bad, that the pilot came out and assisted them with the transfer.

By now my wheelchair finally made to the gate. It had been about 30 minutes. It was in totally disarray. Lights are blinking everywhere on it. The Southwest guy who bought the chair was trying to help get it to turn on. But no luck. They finally just transfer me to the chair put in manual mode and the Southwest guy wheeled me out into the lobby and just left. Myself and my wife with my 2 grandkids eventually figured out how to get some of the lights to go away. But not all. Just enough to make my chair work on limited capacity.

I forgot to mention when they rolled me to the lobby there were passengers waiting to board the plane we had just gotten off of. So of course, they all looked a little upset due to me holding up their flight. So, by the time we finally made to our hotel and quick inspection of my chair. Multiple pieces had been broken or missing from my chair.

Now onto my return flight home. Departing from Oakland International, check in was OK, but TSA was a nightmare. They pretty much pulled me aside and scanned my wheelchair like I was carrying a bomb or something. First, they wanted me to get out of the chair. But I told them that was not possible. So after about 15-20-minute inspection of my chair they let me pass. Now onto boarding, they did not have anyone to help get me get into the aisle chair. So, a phone call was made and 15-20 mins later someone showed to help if you want to call it that. Another painful transfer experience. Thank God, my wife was there to help. When we arrived back in Ontario they had 3 big strong guys waiting on me. One in front for the transfer one in the back and one on the side. My wheelchair showed up rather quickly with lights blinking again. But this time we were ready that is my wife and me. We got the chair to work again in limited capacity. Just wanted to get out of the airport and get home call the VA and have my chair repaired.

The moral of the story is we had a fabulous time at the graduation with my daughter getting her bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. But never again will I travel with my electric wheelchair. I hope and pray I never need to fly again because my experience was not pleasant at all. Southwest really needs some intensive training on assisting disabled passengers and their electric wheelchairs. Those aisle chairs need to be replaced with something else. It is 2017 there should be a better way.

George A Crockett Jr
USAF – Disabled Veteran