It’s not just you, Spirit Airlines. It’s all of your kind. Every airline we have used has resulted in the same traumatic experience. Some people won’t understand my story and just as many won’t care. That’s ok, because my intent is not to gain pity, followers, or “likes”; rather, my intent is to make airlines aware of these faults that have caused an ungodly number of awful experiences for my family. Maybe once they are aware, steps can be taken to ensure others in similar situations will have a more pleasant experience. As I write this, here I sit at the terminal, anxious to get this over and done.
My family has been fortunate enough to fly nearly every spring break for as long as I can remember. I have a plethora of spring break memories– my grandparents’ winter house in Paisley, Daytona Beach, Disney World, and for the latter half of my life, Redington Shores on the Gulf side. Each year has been jam packed with laughter, family, friends, surf, sand and sun. The one downfall to every trip, other than the select few years we drove, has been the experience at the airport.
Yes, it saves SO much time and headache! Two hours compared to more than 18 hours!? Not to mention traffic, bathroom breaks, food and gas stops and the prolonged dread of having to return to reality (post-vacation blues is THE worst). Flying is definitely a convenience to us. The sad thing is we end up stressed out, anxious, and panicked before even leaving our home state of Michigan and long before heading back home from what we know as paradise. Isn’t going to always way more fun than coming back!?
We travel with a group of seven, but that has varied over the years. The one constant has been my sister, a 36- year old confined to a wheelchair. She is physically and mentally handicapped as a result of a tragic car accident at age three. She requires my mother’s care 24/7. You can imagine the level of tenacity required to care for an adult son/daughter and the toll it could take on the mind and body… especially after 33 years. Think about your physically exhausting 40 hours per week job, but make it all night and all day with no breaks in between. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine, at this point, how nice a warm, beach vacation sounds. If you live in Michigan, you hear me loud and clear, especially as we just emerged from a bitter winter. If you are a parent or caretaker of a special needs individual, I’m talking to you, too. My mom thinks about this trip months in advance, even though my sister’s requirements don’t change or magically become less demanding while we are away. But, vacation is vacation. I can’t forget to add how important the vacation is to my sister, as well. I believe tranquility comes to her easier at the beach than it does other places. You should see her smile in my recent photos of her sitting by the water or hear her squeals as we wheeled her out into some light waves!
At the airport, anxiety weighs on us as much as our luggage. What will happen this time? What will go wrong going through security? How many times will my sister get upset or scared because she doesn’t understand? Will these people be as pushy as the last time? Will her wheelchair get back to us unharmed this tim e? As excited as we are to get to where we’re going, tension remains high through the entire experience, until we leave the airport.
Anyone who knows my sister is likely to tell you she is a highly sensitive woman, both emotionally and physically. She cries and laughs intensely and takes more delight in socializing than anyone I know. However, she is peculiar about who touches her and who pushes her wheelchair, which is basically an extension of her body. She has grown accustomed to certain people over the years and has her defenses ready for everyone else. She will talk to you and give you as many hugs as you want, but she doesn’t enjoy people coming up spontaneously or unannounced, touching her. She also doesn’t like her feet messed with in any way, due to their extreme sensitivity. If her boundaries of comfort are crossed, she may cry, become tense, display agitation, yell, feel scared or feel violated. It is highly probable that her disapproval would be blatantly obvious, even without knowing her.
We all know airport security has been amped up since 9/11, causing stricter rules and regulations as to what can go through security and how thoroughly each traveler is checked. Since my sister can’t walk, her and my mom go to a separate checkpoint, where an employee does a physical pat down and through security check. Along with a full body check, there are times when they have had to remove her shoes, to swipe them for residue. This is protocol– I understand. What I could never figure out is why on Earth these employees think it is acceptable to walk up to my sister and just begin grabbing and prodding. Sure, sometimes they briefly start with, “Hello, I’m going to pat you down”. Or my favorite, “Is it ok if I pat you down?”, when they clearly have no Plan B in case she denies them access to her. Inevitably, it is the same story every time we go through security. They abruptly poke and prod and grab, all while my sister experiences anxiety, while begging and pleading with them in her own way.
It doesn’t end there, the discomfort and anxiety. Some how, some way, my sister needs to get on and off the aircraft. This is no simple feat, as she is about 100 lbs, much of which is dead weight, that requires you to carry and maneuver in an awkward position. I typically try to be the one to do the heavy lifting, since my dear mama isn’t getting any younger! If you’ve never had to carry someone onto an aircraft before, let me tell you how it works. You can single-handedly carry the passenger on board, as the aisle doesn’t allow for much maneuvering for one person, let alone an extra, helping hand. OR, you can use the provided aisle chair, which squeezes perfectly through the aisle to transport the passenger. (These have always been the options provided in my experience.)
Remember, my sister doesn’t like being touched, and she doesn’t tolerate sitting in hard seats or seats that don’t provide proper support. Imagine our dismay, just last week, when an employee abruptly took control of her wheelchair (equivalent to pulling your baby from your arms and walking away), then proceeded to cram her in an aisle chair, also known as a “straight-back”. My mom kept insisting– thanks, but no thanks! My sister kept yelling, “Ow!” and “Nooo!”. The man showed no sign of empathy or compassion as he proceeded grabbing and cramming, insisting we let him do everything. In fact, he said, “You’re fine”, to my sister! He clearly has no common sense.
There is a reason her wheelchair is designed specific to her body. The thing is…these people don’t take into consideration that perhaps she doesn’t want to be carried by a complete stranger. Perhaps she isn’t capable of sitting in this wretched straight-back chair that appears synonymous with a couple lightly cushioned two-by-fours. And perhaps she doesn’t employ the mentally of your average 36- year old. These people are working for a paycheck, and perhaps tips, nothing more.
I appreciate persistence, but not in this context. Not when my sister’s mother/caretaker is insisting she wants to do it the only way my sister will tolerate and the way that is more feasible for us. Why should we have to beg to handle our own business?? And why should we have to stress over the employees’ pushy attitudes?? Oh, and did I mention the dirty looks we get like we are the ones taking their child away?? Offering these services is courteous and is appreciated, but demanding compliance or rudely expressing disapproval when we refuse the assistance is a slap across the face. Afterwards, we are left to console my sister, which can be a task itself! It takes patience to calm her down and get her to relax (both mentally and physically).
Another common occurrence is that her chair has come back damaged… as in, the chair was fine when they took it to put it under the plane and wasn’t fine when it came up from under the plane once we landed. I know the flight gets bumpy, but I would be willing to bet the damages her wheelchair had sustained were the direct result of being mishandled by staff. I know this because I have witnessed it countless times, as they carelessly toss and jerk the chair around. This chair costs more than my car, and possibly my house, mind you! And it doesn’t seem to matter if we tell them one time or 100, “This wheelchair does not fold or break down in any way”, they always try to force it to fold and condense, typically breaking something in the process.
I have lived this story over and over, every spring break for as long as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong, we have come across some exceptional staff, including security, flight attendants and even pilots who have taken the time to be empathetic and ensure our comfort. Unfortunately, those who have the ability to demonstrate that these gestures are few and far between. Maybe it isn’t in the training manual, maybe it isn’t a familiar topic.
I just wish things were different. I wish my family could go on vacation without having some traumatic experience either at the airport or on the aircraft. I realize nothing can ever be perfect, not completely. I also realize our travels will be slightly different than most, because of our special needs loved one. However, it would be so nice if just once we could all breathe easier and relax a little, knowing we won’t be badgered or tampered with by strangers without an ounce of empathy and thoughtful communication first. Knowing we will be respected and our needs will be heard, rather than ignored.
My kids are starting to notice and, this past trip, they felt the tension, as well. In fact, my ten year old daughter now hates flying because of our unpleasant experience(s) this week. The saddest part just might be the fact that my parents just deal with this, because this is their normal.
This article is not to make anyone mad, or to demand everything always go our way. We are very realistic, sensible people and we know the challenges we are taking on when we book a vacation. My hope is that these words will reach people who do care and who appreciate how simple it would be to remedy these failures. To each of you, especially those working in customer service, take the time to demonstrate communication skills, including verbalizing and truly listening, and empathy. Treat people and their belongings as if they were yours to value and cherish. What if this was your mother, sister, son, or best friend? I know airports are busy and we are all in a rush, but I promise these simple steps will carry you far. And earn you a whole lot of gratitude from my lovely family! (Haha)! Until you’ve walked (or traveled, in this case) a mile in our shoes, you can never know what it is like, what we go through and experience regularly.