October 24, 2006

Crisscrossing the USA

Speaking at the SeniorNet 20th Anniversary Conference in Arlington, VA provided an unexpectedly rich opportunity to review travel accessibility. Jetting directly to Internet Librarian extended the adventure. On to speak at AARP's Life @ 50+ on Thursday.

After recent flights on Delta’s Canadair aircraft outfitted with rock-hard seat cushions it was a relief to fly United (with a Roho cushion under me!) In my experience, United was one of the slower airlines to catch on 20+ years ago to accommodating disabled passengers with dignity. They won my loyalty with their improvements over time. However on this trip, on both flights, I was ignored by the flight attendants on landing and left to establish social dominance on my own with the SWAT-like teams of passenger helpers that descend on disabled travelers who are still waiting onboard 20 to 30 minutes after the first passengers have deplaned.

Developing a rapport and communicating with the hired hands that the airlines use to schlep passengers in and out in the narrow airplane aisle wheelchairs can be an art. It reminds me of my childhood dream of bring an interpreter for the UN. I offended a Sudanese man when I guessed that he was Ethiopian, pleased a team of Somalis when I picked up some of their conversation and guessed correctly, and felt the familiar powerlessness on another flight as a Filipino man – with questionable management skills – explained to an Arabic speaking trainee how to strap in “that crippled man.” All are doing their best but clearly battling the handicaps of undertraining, overscheduling, and overcoming poor aircraft design such as armrests that do not lift out of the way and aisle widths with zero tolerance for error.

Other than having my wallet stolen by the United Airlines employee who carried my backpack into the cabin and the crew in Sydney that wanted to pass me across the gap between the jetway and the airplane – strapped to a narrow aisle chair – getting on and off a commercial flight has become about as routine and uneventful as loading any other piece of luggage.

Posted by rollingrains at October 24, 2006 04:33 PM