Monday, October 3, 2016

Flying With a Service Animal?

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My blog posts are seldom personal but this one will be. I would not have been writing anything so personal if it hadn't been for one particular press release, pitching me on how American Airlines has a program for Service Dogs and service animals. Good topic. How does it become personal? I'll give you a bit of backstory...

In 2001 my Volvo was rear-ended by a truck and totaled. I was carried out on a board and taken to a less-than-stellar hospital's ER. End result: back pain for the rest of my life. I thought that was enough but several years ago I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, which is quite painful. I am not telling you this to complain. Plenty of people have worse things happen. I am telling you because it explains my recent flight.

I was perfectly fine when I brought Aimee home for my mother about 13 years ago. Sure, I had back pain but it was nothing like it is now with the addition of fibromyalgia. Aimee was a treasure. I got her for my mother but I often traveled with her. She helped me get through my mother's death and we bonded so closely it's impossible to describe. When cancer took her from me on April 13th, I was devastated. I usually wait a good length of time before getting another 4-legged but this time I couldn't. The house was too quiet. Chartreux breeder, Nancy Dionne, had a little girl who had amazingly finished her championship in only one show. She spayed her and as soon as she was sufficiently recovered, she sent Paris to me. She was 16 months old at the time.  Now 18 months old, we were about to embark on our first major trip together, accompanied by my chosen sister, Sue.

The woman who sent the press release had no way of knowing when she sent it that Sue, Paris and I were already booked on an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles, with Paris traveling as my comfort animal. I was determined to go and see friends, despite the inevitable pain that comes from sitting. I deliberately book an approximation of the American Flights out and back to Boston that I always took years ago when I did celebrity profiles for a wide range of publications.

Paris was in Aimee's SturdiBag that always fit perfectly under the seat, conforming to the space but not collapsing on her. I had spoken with American's Disability Travelers' department. At first they couldn't promise us bulkhead seats and wanted me to stand at the counter and wait to ask at the airport. I explained that I couldn't do that and could they please get a supervisor to approve the change. i waited on the phone while he did exactly that. He also gave me the number for TSA so I could explain that I was traveling disabled and with a comfort cat. I had all of the appropriate paperwork for Paris. I had also ordered wheel chairs for Sue and me at the airport. Sue also has Fibromyalgia among other issues.  We were so happy and excited to be going on this trip where I would see old and new friends.

On Friday, September 16, 2016, Sue and I were wheeled down the jetway to our flight, American Airlines #166 departing Boston at 9:15 a.m.  The flight attendants were always so wonderful, the plane was comfortable, it was super! Note the past tense. We were rolled down the jetway and left at the doorway to the plane.  Flight attendants were lined up saying hello. They saw that we were disabled. Sue walked on first. She was walking up and down looking for our row which surely had leg room. A flight attendant asked her what she was looking for. She said "8E"  I had told her that I was promised leg room and poor Sue couldn't find that. The flight attendant looked as if she had no time and not a bit of pleasantness about her. She told Sue, "Back that way and the number are on the arm." Sue has flown enough to certainly know that. Sue put Paris, in her carrier, on the seat and put her bag up above. She said she has never had so little help.

 The flight attendant when I boarded told me I wouldn't make it down the aisle with my walker. She also told me I was in Row 8. The row behind bulkhead. Sue had Paris in her carrier as well as her own bag. I had my bag. Holding onto setbacks to go down an aisle is not very stable. The aisles are so appallingly narrow because the planes have been reconfigured. Instead of 3 seats on one side of the aisle and 2 on the other, they now have pushed 3 seats in on each side. They have also shoved more rows in, giving far less leg room. There is absolutely no space to had.

By the time I made my way carefully down the aisle, I squeezed into my window seat and put Paris's SturdiBag on my lap. The same bag in which Aimee always traveled easily with plenty of room under the seat. There wasn't even room for me to put her down on the floor because the rows are so crammed together. Sue could barely get her purse under the seat.  Mine had to go up above. Which created another problem. 

The flight attended told me to put the cat under the seat. I said I couldn't. She kept arguing with me. I said I know it was supposed to go under seat as an airline regulation but I quite literally had no room put it down from my lap. She was quite testy. I'd never experienced a crew like this one. Completely unhelpful and not even pleasant. I don''t care how lousy your job is, you have to at least pretend to be pleasant to the public. She finally had me send Paris in her carrier down the row, across Sue and to some stranger in the aisle seat and then she put the carrier on the floor and started shoving it through back to me as if there weren't a living breathing sentient being inside.  I was appalled.

That was not the end of it. Crammed into our little seats for the cross-country flight, we couldn't even get up to use the loo.  I was afraid one or both of us would throw a blood clot since we couldn't move our legs. That was dangerous.  When the flight attendant came around to sell snack boxes, I was ready to buy one for each of us. My bag was still up above and the flight attendant wouldn't take it down so I could pay; she moved on.  That meant that Sue and I were crammed into that plane for about 6 hours with no food, no snack, no ability to get up.  The only thing they did was throw a tiny packet of biscuits at us and a drink. Disgusting.

Sue had to make 3 trips up from her seat out to the wheelchair when we finally landed in order to get everything to the front that had come on board with us.  Thankfully, wheelchairs were waiting.

This is how American Airlines treats disabled passengers flying with service animals? And they wanted me to publicize it as a good thing?  Dear readers I have never told you anything but the truth. Now you have my experience, along with my sister's, of flying from Boston to Los Angeles on American Airlines, disabled and with a service animal.  

We were both relieved when the flight was over.


Gordon Brice said...

Oh dear! What a shocking experience for you all and not a good start to your trip. I'm afraid good customer service is sadly lacking these days, in spite of rising costs. I hope the initial bad experience did not spoil the rest of your much overdue trip and you were able to enjoy meeting up with both "old" and new friends......and the return flight was a much more pleasant one.
It is good that you have issued this blog, as it will serve as a warning to others travelling under the same circumstances. I suppose it is too much to hope for that the airline, should they become aware of your blog, will take the necessary steps to ensure improvement of what is totally unacceptable sevice by their representatives. If you have not already done so, perhaps you should forward a copy of your blog to their head office, or issue a formal complaint

Di said...

Oh, what a rotten experience! Stories like yours (and many others')are the reasons I never, ever want to fly anywhere again. Ever! I hope things got better after you got off the plane!!

Chartreux said...

I am so sorry the three of you had such poor treatment on your flight to LA. Some flight attendents think they are the queens of the sky and make traveling so difficult for even the general public who do not need assistance.
Airlines have aisle chairs to help a person move from the jetway to their seat. You sit on it, get buckled in, and the kind helpers roll you back to your airplane seat and then help you transfer and put your bags where you would like them. I have used an aisle chair many times on Alaska Airlines.
Airlines also have Conflict Resolution Officers (CRO) who are supposed to be available at all airports, 24/7, to help resolve disabled travelers issues. I found this contact information for American Airlines, ask for the CRO!
"How to contact American's disability team
Call us if you had a special-assistance issue on a previous trip

I am so sorry the outbound trip was awful but I hope the rest of the trip went well. I love seeing all of the photos of Paris. :-)

Jim said...

This was a most unfortunate experience, Darlene. I wish to add my concern with the way you and Paris and Sue were treated.

I spent 31 years working for Delta Air Lines, and I can tell you your current experience is all too common. Where air travel used to be such a pleasant experience, times have changed drastically, with every bit of seat space squeezed too tightly. Airlines have become bus lines, and the TSA snafu's at airports only add to the passenger's perils.

When I retired, I stopped flying on Delta, even though I could travel for free. Cramped in a middle seat with no leg room and not even arm-rest space dampened my "need" to fly. I drive, which I understand is not possible for you. You have no alternative; even AMTRAK is packed with small spaces.

Sorry for your miserable trip. Complain loudly. This blog is one good way.

You and other disabled passengers deserve so much better than you have been given.

Darlene said...

Hi Gordon, Thank you for your nice comments. It was a lousy way to start a long-anticipated trip.I had a wonderful time seeing as many friends as possible while in L.A. After we returned we spent three days in Maine - quite a difference in climate and scenery. I did tag American Airlines on this post on Twitter. I will write another post about the return flight which had a decided better crew but was every bit as cramped, except we did have bulkhead seats. I'm glad I went but I wish American Airlines hadn't turned it into a miserable experience. I have been a travel writer so I do know how things are supposed to happen. This was inexcusable.

Darlene said...

Hi Di,

Things eventually got better and I was able to see many old friends and new. I'm only sorry I didn't book a longer stay in California.

Darlene said...

Hi Nancy,
Thank you for the phone number. I don't think there was room for one of those chairs because the aisle was unbelievably narrow. Calling it an aisle is giving it too much credit. :-( The flight back was good but still cramped. At least there were some nice flight attendants on board. The first crew should be taken off flights and retrained. We should have been offered those chairs. We weren't.
I have much newer pictures of Paris that I am saving for Facebook. ;-) I think you'll like them.

Darlene said...

Jim, I was really astonished that they are trying to advertise their treatment of people with service animals as so wonderful. It was pure dumb luck that I was flying with them and I thought about not writing anything but then I realized that the traveling, disabled public needs to know the truth.

It is my understanding that the airlines are no longer in the red and yet they won't budge an inch to make it even slightly comfortable for passengers. I've had more room in a Greyhound but to NYC! Sardine cans probably have more room. And the price of sending through bags is nothing short of obscene. It was a horrible experience. The nastiness of that flight crew certainly did nothing to enhance it.

rescuegal said...

I can assure your readers, that this experience on our American Flight from Boston to LA played out exactly as you have written here. I haven't flown with American for many years and I hope to not have to fly with them again for many years. This crew was not only rude, but provided little if any service to the passengers--unlike my many flights on Southwest where I'm always met with friendly, gracious, helpful staff. I have flown a lot throughout the years and it used to be a fun, relaxing thing to do. Not so anymore. So when the flight crew is unpleasant and unwilling to help the disabled passengers, it is like adding insult to injury.

World of Animals, Inc said...

Thanks for sharing this post with us. It was very interesting to read about a flight with a service animal. We are happy the trip went well after it was over. Have a fantastic rest of your day.
World of Animals