Stan BrownStan Brown (Constantino Schillebeeckx Photography)

June 2009 Experience with American Airlines

On November 23, 2009, I filed a detailed complaint with the Department of Transportation concerning my disastrous flight with American Airlines in June of 2009. I had several problems on a 2007 flight with American Airlines, but the 2009 experience was even worse. The details of the experience are below:

1. In early May of 2009, I called the American Airlines disability assistance office. I informed the airlines of my needs and requirement for bulkhead seating. And I also emphasized my need to have two strong individuals to do my transfers. I am assigned seat 7A both going on flight 1056 on June 21 returning on flight 521 on June 27. I’m assured competent people will be there to assist me.

2. Transferring me from my power wheelchair at the door of the plane, onto the aisle chair, goes without a problem at the St. Louis airport on June 21. The two assistants pushing the manual chair down the aisle (pulling me backwards) get me to my bulkhead seat without a problem. The accompanying woman, who I believe to be the American Airlines gate person in charge, comes with us and insists I be put in the row directly behind my assigned seat because the aisle arm rest will come up (it doesn’t in the bulkhead seat). I try to tell the American Airlines employee the next row, (8), does not offer enough space for personnel to safely transfer me. Nevertheless, staff lift me off the aisle chair, get my bottom in the seat (8A), and then discover they are unable because there is not enough room, to get my legs between the edge of the seat and the seat in front. The personnel then have to dangerously get me out of the airline seat I am only partially in, and back on the aisle chair. I am then transferred without incident into the bulkhead row, seat 7A.

3. I arrived at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia about 2:30 PM EST. As is customary, I am the last one to leave the plane. A female and a male American Airlines representative come to my seat and tell me my wheelchair is now on the jet way by the door of the plane. Both individuals have American Airlines uniforms. The man with slight build takes one look at me, and says that he will be unable to lift me. The female staff person says she will get her cousin. In a few minutes, two men in what I believe were grounds crew or baggage crew jumpsuits, with reflective vests, come to my seat and ask the American Airlines staff person what needs to be done. I don’t know if the two new workers were American Airlines employees or contract employees. The two workers actually lift me up and get me on the aisle seat without a problem; they also pushed me in the aisle chair through the plane and out the front door without incident. One of the workers and my attendant work on my power wheelchair to get it in position for me to transfer. I’m watching them when I notice the other grounds crew worker unstrapped the crossing belts on my chest. He is walking away as I immediately lose balance and the aisle chair with me in it toggles over on my right side.

4. Passengers waiting to board the plane are lined up in the getaway and see the event. American Airlines staff immediately asked me if I’m okay. My response was and continued to be I didn’t really know because I have no feeling below my breast line. My fear of course is broken bones, rather than delay the flight with me waiting for an ambulance, I let the same two workers put the chair and me upright and then transfer me to my power wheelchair which was not functioning properly.

5. At the airport gate desk, I am met by an American Airlines Customer Service Manager. She asked me several times if anything hurts and how I feel. I continued to explain I didn’t know because of my paralysis. I said I needed to get x-rayed to see if anything was broken. She asked if I would get my luggage transported by the PVA person with an accessible van who was picking me up. I said although I was afraid of later trying to catch up to my wheelchair and luggage, I would prefer to go by ambulance, stabilized on a stretcher, in case anything was broken. My attendant and I gave the Customer Service Manager our hotel information hoping to get our luggage directed to the nearby Arlington hotel. We also asked to have my power wheelchair delivered to the Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, where I was going to the emergency room. The Customer Service Manager responded that she was going off duty soon, but would do what she could. She further wrote on the back of her business card the name and number of the American Airlines person to call for follow-up.

6. I arrived by ambulance at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington at 4:10 PM. My attending emergency room nurse wrote my arrival and departure times on the initial reports I was given when I eventually left the emergency room. My x-rays revealed no new fractures. I am done with tests and discharged at 6:30 PM, June 21, 2009.

7. At 5 PM my attendant and I started calling the American Airlines numbers and names we were given. At 7:45 PM we finally reached an employee who said he saw my wheelchair loaded from the cargo area, headed for the hospital 10 minutes earlier. At 9:28 PM I reached the same employee and he said he would check on the wheelchair and luggage. I call my hotel to find out that no luggage has been delivered. At 10:20 PM I reach the employee again and he says he doesn’t know what happened to the chair, but will call me back. My wheelchair arrives about 11:15 PM. I received no luggage until 6:30 PM on June 22 and then only two of three bags. I received my third bag on June 23 in the early afternoon.

8. From June 22, 2009 and thereafter for about two weeks, I suffered with painful autonomic dysreflexia episodes several times a day. My blood pressure raises and I get a pounding headache. In addition to being extremely painful, there is a stroke risk. Going over sidewalk bumps in the wheelchair would often create an episode. Episodes would at times wake me up in the middle of the night. In my opinion the pain came from my bruises and/or my digestive tract being shaken or compressed. I had a colonoscopy on June 30, 2009, where not much remarkable was noticed other than that my colon had collapsed some.

9. On the return trip to St. Louis on June 27, 2009, while taking me in the aisle chair from the plane to the jet way, one of the wheels on the aisle chair breaks off. American Airlines personnel struggled to move the aisle chair and me down the airplane aisle, maneuver around the cabin galley, and out the door.

10. The Virginia Hospital advised me to do a follow-up x-ray upon my return to St. Louis. I did so on July 2, 2009, at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center. VA x-rays also showed no new fractures. While being transferred to the x-ray table I believe I got a skin tear near my tailbone. I spent the next two weeks in bed waiting for it to heal.

I finally received a response from the Department of Transportation that my allegations had been substantiated but there is nothing further to be done unless there were enough substantiated complaints from other disabled passengers against American Airlines, for the Department of Transportation to take administrative action. I am unaware of any administrative action taken against American Airlines during that time frame.

Stanley Brown, MO