Wheely bad flights

This past Friday I flew on American up to Philly for my aunt’s funeral. It was too expensive for Brad to come, too, so I flew alone with my service dog Hestia and my wheelchair. I’m going to tell you about my not-so-great travel experiences, which includes how my wheelchair ended up in pieces—with major parts still unaccounted for today!

Loopy line logistics

Brad dropped us off at the airport at 11 for my 1PM flight.

I went to one line to check in. They told me to go to the main check-in line. I waited there and they told me they have a special check in just for people with wheelchairs so I had to go there. Check in took a while but not too long. They assured me that the reason they were going through all these new check-in procedures where I had to give loads of information about my chair was to prevent chairs from being damaged. I said I was very much on board with this!

Then we went to security. For some reason they were limiting the number of wheelchairs, so even though everyone in the main line was getting through in 5 min it took me 20 min to get through the line. It took me 30 min to go through the pinballing check in so I was starting to worry. 

Finally it was my turn and it took 10 min but was easy. I stayed in my chair. My bag was searched because Hestia’s food was in a freezer bag, and they only allow freezer packs if they are completely frozen, so they had to feel it to see if it was thawed or solid. 

I was feeling really proud of myself for navigating so well and handling everything so well. I used my friend Karin’s method of looping my left arm through my suitcase arm handle and holding onto Hestia’s seatbelt with my left hand.  My suitcase has four spinning wheels, so it can go along on the floor next to me.

Needing relief from the relief area

We had an hour before departure so I went to take Hestia to the relief area. They took down the nice one in the hallway and only had ones in small closet/rooms available. Hestia wouldn’t go!  It was pretty nasty with bad smells and chemicals. I had to wipe her paws afterward. 

A worrisome Wendy’s

I still needed lunch, so I went to Wendy’s which had a huge line. I got all the way up there and after I ordered, the way to get out was too narrow for my wheelchair to fit through, let alone my suitcase, too! The walking folks had to turn sideways to get out.   So they had to make everyone move to let me out.  Who knows what the line designer was thinking!

Barely boarding

I got my food and zoomed to the gate. It was now 12:30. The flight was boarding in 4 min!  I got in line behind the other two wheelchair users. 

At this point I was feeling like I was owning this trip! I was so independent in my wheelchair and able to do everything in the airport I needed to by myself. I was feeling on top of the world!

We went down the jetway, and at the bottom I started taking things off my chair, etc. It was too much for me to hold with my cushion and basket and Hestia and my suitcase. So I had to ask other passengers for help. 

I finally got on and sat down and realized I forgot my battery!!!!!!!  So I had to race past everyone to get it right before they wheeled my chair away. I was able to talk with the person who took my chair and explain how to use the brakes and show her the sign I taped to my chair explaining exactly how to stow it in the aircraft (the manufacturer makes this sign and tells you to tape it to your chair!).

A case of the canine-created coughies

Then I sat down and prepared for the flight.

Then someone sat next to me who was allergic to dogs!!!!!!  She asked to be moved but it was a full flight.

So like 15 min pass and her allergy must be a contact allergy (not just inhalation), because even with her mask on she’s itching and coughing. Finally they make another announcement asking for volunteers, so I hold Hestia up and say they get petting privileges if they sit next to me. Finally one person agrees to sit next to me. 

Are we there yet?

So I think we’re all set and it’s 1 pm. Time for departure!  

Only we start getting notifications that our flight is delayed. At first I think no big deal. Another 15 min or so and we’ll be in the air. But apparently there were big storms in Philly and they weren’t letting anyone take off who was going there. Every 15 minutes we’d get another notification that our flight was delayed another 15 minutes.

After an hour of this, the pilot got on the intercom and said people could leave the plane if they wanted to, but it’d only be another 15 minutes. Two hours passed of this! I was starting to get worried because Hestia last peed at 10:30AM before we left the house! But at 3PM we pushed away from the gate and started taxiing. I was very happy!

Then suddenly we stopped… The pilot got on the intercom and said that someone forgot to file some paperwork, so it’d just be a few more minutes. 30 minutes later, we finally started moving again. So we were stuck on the tarmac for 2.5 hours!

Luckily the flight took off fine and we were up, up, and away. There was no beverage or snack service, though, because of the turbulence. I was thirsty, but figured I could get something when we landed. After all, I had my independence in the form of my wheelchair!

Dude, where’s my chair?

We touched down, and I looked at my AirTag and saw that my wheelchair was still with us on the plane. So I sat there waiting for everyone else to get off the plane before I exited. Finally the last person got off, and my wheelchair was still showing as being right around the plane. So I got off and asked where my chair was. No one could tell me! So they told me to sit down at the gate and they’d look into it.

By now it’s 5PM, which means Hestia has been holding it for 6.5 hours. Six hours is normally the max that I make her go between potty breaks. And my wheelchair still hasn’t moved! So I start getting nervous, and start chatting with the people around me waiting for flights about what is going on.

Finally someone comes over at about 5:05 and tells me that my wheelchair has been damaged. They said they’d have someone bring it up to show me. I try telling myself that it’s probably just some minor damage—like maybe an arm panel popped off and just needs to be popped back on. And I start texting Brad and others to tell them what’s going on.

Uh…where’s the rest of it? And why is that wheel dangling?

At 5:10, my wheelchair arrived. Well, I’ll let the video speak for itself:

Below is a picture. Basically the entire seat is missing and one wheel has been torn off.

I nearly burst out in tears when I saw my chair, or what was left of it. The people around me were shocked. The supervisor who was there with me was so upset for me. I knew if I started crying, I’d not be able to stop. So I held Hestia close and started furiously texting. I knew if I could keep my brain and body busy, I could keep the tears at bay.

So at the same time I was texting Brad, Sabrina, Jude, my family group chat, and Brad’s mom, dad, and aunt.

The supervisor said he’d get a wheelchair attendant to push me down to baggage claim to file a claim about my wheelchair being damaged. So I sat there texting, breathing, holding Hestia, and talking with the people around me who were super supportive (one man had a daughter with a wheelchair and a service dog, and he was extra kind to me).

Every five minutes, the supervisor would get on his phone and tell people to hurry up, but there was apparently no one available to help me. He kept apologizing to me over and over again. He was very, very nice.

Hestia’s heroic hold

As the time went on, I kept worrying more and more about Hestia not having a chance to potty. Plus my cousin Drew had been waiting at baggage claim for me for nearly an hour!

Finally at 5:37, a wheelchair pusher showed up. I told him to take me to a service animal relief area right away, as it had been over 7 hours since Hestia had a bathroom break. Luckily she was able to hold it until we got there.

Then we headed to baggage claim. It took about 20 minutes for me to file a claim with them.

Making do with a situation of poo

Since it was Friday night, I knew they wouldn’t be able to have a rental chair as specialized as I need (a portable power wheelchair) for me the next day. I was only in town until Sunday, so I didn’t think it was possible for them to get me a chair before I had to leave. Luckily my cousin was able to arrange for me to borrow a wheelchair from the hotel where we were staying. It was a manual chair, but at least it was something.

I filed a claim, and had to wait for Global Repair Group to call me, which they did as we were on our way to the car! That was fast! They were very polite and professional, and understood my need for a portable power wheelchair as my rental chair. Nothing could be assessed on my broken chair until Monday when the assessors were working.

We headed to the hotel, and I had a great evening with my family. Some of them I hadn’t seen for 10 years!

The next morning, Global Repair Group texted me that they were unable to find a portable power wheelchair for me, and could I accept a portable scooter instead. While I could get the scooter in and out of the trunk of the van, the problem is that it is hard to hold a dog and drive a scooter at the same time. So I really wanted a wheelchair so I could get around like I’m used to.

I texted them back that Scootaround rents portable power wheelchairs—they even rent out the same wheelchair I have! GRG texted back that Scootaround is their competition, so they can’t rent from them. But through a long text exchange, we worked out that if I rented from Scootaround, they would reimburse me.

Memorable for the wrong reasons

During all this going on, I’m hanging out with family at my aunt’s memorial service (which was very nice), and supporting my family members. I really enjoyed getting to see my family, but I kept having to take time away from them to deal with the wheelchair situation.

Finally Sunday morning I was able to call Scootaround to arrange for a rental. The woman there was super nice and looked at all the rental facilities they have near me, but none of them carry the Whill. Through several phone calls, we figured out that one place had a Lightrider Envy listed on their stock list, which is a worse quality chair, but is doable as it is a portable power wheelchair. She said she’d have them call me on Monday.

Security charges ahead

Sunday afternoon, I head back to the airport. They said they’d put my damaged chair back on the flight home with me so an assessor in Charlotte could look at it on Monday.

I checked in and got wheelchair service to my gate, which was at practically the opposite end of the airport. We went through security at the terminal I checked in at. I still had my wheelchair cushion, battery, and basket from my chair that didn’t fit in my suitcase, so my cousin had given me a large tote bag to hold them. Inside that tote bag, I also had my tote bag with things i wanted during the flight—including my phone charger.

The wheelchair attendant put everything on the belt, and I walked through security. As I was walking through, the TSA agent said there were too many bags inside of bags, and everything of mine needed to come out of bags. So the attendant took care of that, since I was already through security. When it came through, we tried to get everything back together, but we must’ve missed my cell phone charger.

From security, it was about a 15-minute walk to another terminal (the very end of another terminal!) to get to my gate. The attendant dropped me off and left. I went to get out my charger, since my phone was at 25%… but it was gone! I realized what must’ve happened and had a small panic attack.

I had 2 hours to wait at the gate, plus a 1.5 hour flight, and my only source of entertainment was my phone. Plus I still needed to be able to have battery power to contact Brad when I got to Charlotte.

Gouging over charging

I asked the people sitting around me if anyone had a charger I could borrow, but no one did. Finally someone told me that there was a shop right next to our gate that sold electronics.

So I carried all my stuff over there (difficult with a suitcase and one HUGE tote bag that kept hitting Hestia on the head!), and asked. They said they sold them! It would just be a matter of $95!!!!!!!! I said oh, I can’t afford that, and turned to walk away. The man said, wait, I can sell it to you for $49! I didn’t even know it was possible to haggle at an airport, so I was not prepared for haggling.

But that was too much anyway, so I just said no and started to walk away. So the man said “$39, last offer”. If I had been prepared for haggling, I think I could have gotten him down to $29. But as it was, I agreed to $39. $39 is still robbery for a cell phone charger, but at least it’s better robbery than $95! So I paid for the charger and decided I would not be buying myself any dinner!

I went to two outlets that didn’t work before finding space at a table with an outlet. There I sat for an hour, charging my phone.

Seriously, where’s my chair?

Then we got on the plane and had an uneventful flight home. Well, it was uneventful except for the fact that I can tell by the AirTag that my wheelchair didn’t make it on the plane.

I made it home safely last night (Sunday). This morning, three days after my wheelchair was destroyed, GRG called me to tell me that they weren’t sure where my chair was (I told them it was at the Philly airport, thanks to my AirTag), but that they would have an assessor look at it today. They will call me tomorrow to tell me what the assessor said. They also asked if I had had any luck renting a portable power wheelchair on my own. At the time, Scootaround hadn’t called me back yet, so I said I’d let them know.

This afternoon, Scootaround called me. The woman there was super nice! She said she had got in touch with three of the places that might be able to provide me a chair, and none of them had a Whill for me. The place that had the Lightrider Envy had reservations for that chair, so they couldn’t rent it out to me. They had another one, but it is currently broken. There is one more place she was waiting for a call back from, but it doesn’t look good for me being able to rent a portable power wheelchair.

She said she’d call me back tonight and let me know for sure.

If they are unable to find one for me, then I’ll have to take the portable scooter that GRG offered me. Ugh. It is so much more difficult to drive a scooter, especially while holding a dog, and they are so much less maneuverable. But if that’s my only option, I guess I have to take it.

This system must change

The funny thing is that American sent me a survey for how my flight was, and boy did I fill that thing out! I gave them a 0 on a 10 point scale for how much I’d recommend them based on my experience this flight. I hope they do something about it!

The really sad thing is that this kind of thing isn’t even uncommon. Wheelchairs get report-worthy damage every 1 out of 25 times, and there are so many horrible airline mess-ups that it’s clear wheelchairs are treated just like smashable, expendable luggage. We’re just glad it was my chair and not Brad’s. We don’t want to be another Engracia Figueroa story (rest in power).

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