It used to be pretty easy for people to tell I grew up a privileged man. My Mommy went to Harvard, my Daddy went to Yale, I was admitted to Mensa when I was 4 – and we were rich.
Now that I’m in a wheelchair people don’t make that assumption the same way they used to. I’m so far from rich now it isn’t even funny.
On Tuesday,July 25th I took JetBlue Flight #207 from Portland (PWM) to New York City (JFK). We landed at 6:03 PM (late) and taxied to Gate 19.
I was in seat 2A, which puts me by the window in the almost front row.
When I fly I use my own wheelchair – and just in case you aren’t familiar with how that works you pass off your assistive device for storage at the end of the jetway – you get it back in the same place.
So as I was sitting in my seat waiting for everyone to get off I spot a big burly mountain of a man heading for the jetway stairs. He was coming from the belly area of the plane.
On top of his left shoulder was my wheelchair.
Slung over his right shoulder was another wheelchair.
With his right hand he was pushing a stroller up the stairs.
So that’s three things at one time – and I watched as he climbed the stairs, smashing my wheelchair into the sidewall as he took each labored step.
I made a noise. I called the flight attendant DJ. I spoke to the people who were running the transfer wheelchair (the super narrow goes up the aisle thing) about it.
No one responded or seemed to understand quite what was happening.
So finally I get to my chair – and I find it has a cracked receiver, a ripped push wheel grip cover, and the brakes are just totally fucked up.
I kept trying to not scream and remind myself this was an accident and I’m on JetBlue – I’m gonna be ok.
So I get to the end of the Jetbridge and ask what I should do.
Jose says “go to baggage claim and fill out a form”.
I reply: “are you kidding me?”, “could you please come with me to where I need to go and introduce me to someone there?”.
And then he did exactly that. When we got to the baggage office he asked “who is the lead” but I guess they weren’t home right then, so I ended up in line.
If you have never lost a bag you might not know that the “lost and damaged bag” office is a pretty dreaded spot in the airport. Everyone in the room has a problem, full of stress and short tempers – and customer service people with very very thick skins.
So the first thing that happens with baggage man is that he starts taking pictures of my busted chair and asking questions about what it is worth and how old it is and all the usual stuff they’d ask you if they bent your golf club or something.
I was quite unprepared for this experience. It felt like an emotional beating.
I told him I was upset – and unhappy – and that I was not a piece of broken baggage.
He assured me and told me that JetBlue has a great partnership with a company called Global and they would take care of everything.
I breathed a sigh of relief and felt like I was with JetBlue again.
Then he handed me the phone so I could talk to global – I was very glad to speak to someone who might know what a wheelchair actually was and how to talk to me in a polite fashion about what was happening.
Nope. Not at all.
It was a call center type person who said to me – I shit you not – “You wheelchair people usually like your own equipment so we do the best we can to get you matching replacements you can use while we keep/repair your chair.”
I asked how long she had worked there. I asked if she had ever helped a disabled person before – neither question ended up with good answers.
Then she told me she could send a technician and that’d be about 4 hours or so until they could maybe get there. I asked if these technicians were certified by my medical device manufacturer Drive.
“No. Well some of them have some certifications.”
I then informed her there was no way I was going to let some guy from NJ with a roll of duct tape try to fix my chair and that I was not in fact “you people”.
So then I asked the baggage guy for a manager. Loudly. See my previous comment about being a privileged man.
I’ll bet I’m a difficult customer, I know I’m demanding – and I also know I’m the exact same way as I was before I ended up in a wheelchair.
I’m not meek, I’m not shy, and I don’t tend to defer to people. I was a CEO that sold his tech company for millions of dollars and I act like it.
I think that contributes to why people react to me in a wheelchair the way they do – I’m supposed to not be a hurry, I’m supposed to defer to them, I’m supposed to smile at them when they talk to me in a baby voice and ask if I need help. (no I’m not kidding, that happens every day in NYC). If I say “fuck you” they physically twitch/freakout – and people sure didn’t do that before I was physically disabled.
So then I got Marilyn Motisi who is a JetBlue customer service supervisor.
She quickly got me back to the JetBlue I know and love – she apologized, she told me to “let it out” when I apologized for my foul language, and she correctly promised (without lying) to do what she could to make it right. I was impressed.
She explained that the guy that actually carried my chair worked for JFK and not her. She explained that she thought maybe Global shouldn’t work with JetBlue anymore since they talked to me that way.
Only later did I come to understand that she also made a huge mistake and needs training (more on that later) – but she did make me feel better.
The next morning Global called me and pretended nothing had gone wrong. They had a repair to process and I told them to fuck off.
Then I called JetBlue about the emails they were sending me.
I am a human person and not baggage.
So I called the West Coast and elevated to a supervisor and she decided to let me know this:
“I worked on that contract with Global. They are good people and they are certified. JetBlue follows the ADA you know.”
I asked where she went to law school and cautioned her about making legal conclusions. This also turned out later to be ironic as airlines are not in fact subject to the ADA but regulated under the ACAA (air carrier access act) via the department of transportation.
Now I did start the conversation by telling the baggage supervisor I thought it was barbaric to send disabled people to the lost baggage desk as they were not emotionally prepared to deal with injured people and we aren’t bags you know.
I’m sure that pissed her off – and she fired back both barrels. She ended the conversation by telling me they’d “get back to me”.
So off to social media I go stomping – facebook, twitter, instagram, linkedin – I hit them all.
I think my first post was something like “fuck you @jetblue”.
When they slowly and painfully responded they also told me to go to baggage claim. It wasn’t cool at all.
So then I finally did some of my own research to find out what to do next – and I found out about CRO’s.
A CRO is a Complaint Resolution Official and the ACCA (air carrier access act) requires that one be present at all airports. Here is what it says:
Airlines must make available specially-trained “complaints resolution officials” to respond to complaints from passengers and must also respond to written complaints. A DOT enforcement mechanism is also available.
So I do some more digging and find this page on the JetBlue site.
Holy Cow – JetBlue indeed has these CRO people so I give them a call.
Sarah (JetBlue #10940) was quite simply awesome.
She profoundly apologized. She gave me a full refund on the ticket. She gave me credit for future travel in the same amount. She helped me file a complaint with the department of transportation so we could put the whole incident on the record and use existing systems to hold companies accountable. She asked what else she could do for me.
I told her she could be more popular and well known.
I told her she could put up a sign in the lost bag office to let people with disabilities know she existed. I told her my whole story and told her that no one at JetBlue among the dozen plus people I spoke with ever mentioned that she existed or was available to help me.
So now I am on a quest to change the policy of the department of transportation. I think if a disabled person has damaged assistive equipment the CRO should be required to appear. That’s something that I think we can all make happen. I hope that if you are reading this you’ll help me.
Sarah did share with me that the person on duty at JFK as CRO that night was named Paul and she had no idea why no one sent me to him. I sure do hope she is working to be more popular and well known in her company.
So finally here is the other thing I’m going to do and I hope you will too: inform every disabled person I see in the airport about the CRO and how they are there to help us deal with things when we need to encounter ignorant humans.
The DOT sent me a great letter, here it is.