United Airlines: Disabled Customer Disservice Reaches New Heights in the Friendly Skies

Debbie says:

We’re overdue for a long, thoughtful Body Impolitic post, and you’ll get one in the next day or so. Meanwhile, here’s your weekly ration of outrage: Rachel W (evilpuppy)’s United Airlines flight last week.

Let’s make it a quiz:

You are a paid flight attendant for United Airlines, and a young disabled woman is brought to your airplane in a wheelchair (another part of her story). Do you:

1) Appreciate her business, take her at her word about her disability, and help her graciously when she asks for help putting her baggage in the overhead bin?
2) Distrust her because she doesn’t “look disabled,” but decide that you are, after all, an “attendant” and you might as well pretend to take her at her word?
3) Flatly refuse to help her with her luggage and tell her a passenger will probably help her sooner or later?

I boarded the plane and made my way back to my aisle seat where I set down my special seat cushion and lumbar brace before looking around for a flight attendant to help me put my luggage in the overhead compartment. The attendant standing in the front section of economy was a blonde woman probably in her late 40s-50s and I called her over to explain that I needed her assistance because I wasn’t capable of lifting my luggage due to my disability. To my surprise, the attendant rejected my request while excusing it by saying: “If I helped everyone do that all day then MY back would be killing me by the end of the day!” I asked her how I was supposed to get my luggage stowed and her answer was: “You’ll just have to wait for someone from your row to come back here and ask them to give you a hand.” When I asked what would happen if no one would, her response to me was: “Well, normally a passenger is around to overhear something like this and they’ll offer to help with it on their own. You’ll just have to ask someone when they get back here.” Then she turned back around and went up to the front seats where she waited to “assist” other passengers.

You are a passenger on a United Airlines flight. A woman has placed her bag as far out of the aisle as she can without putting it on her lap or in the overhead bin. Nonetheless, you can’t help but trip over it because the aisle is narrow, and when you trip on it, it hits her. Do you:

1) Apologize for the bag hitting her and ask if she needs help?
2) Glare at her and ask her why her bag is in the way, giving her an opportunity to tell you she needs help?
3) Walk on to find your seat?

I sat down to wait and pulled my carry-on suitcase as close as I could to try to get it out of the way of the aisle. As I’m sure you’re aware, however, your aisles are considerably narrow and even my best efforts left half of even my small carry-on suitcase in the aisle. What’s more, rather than help me, most of the passengers simply knocked into my suitcase and shoved past me on the way to their own seats. Every time they hit the suitcase, it in turn hit me and jarred my back more and more with each strike. The plane wasn’t even half boarded and it already felt like the pain medication I’d taken less than a half hour prior to entering the airport had worn off as though I hadn’t taken it at all.

Perhaps the only bright spot in the whole story is the piece about the genuinely friendly and sympathetic passenger who did finally help her … after she asked.

You are a supervisor for United Airlines at a destination airport, and a young disabled woman has come to make a complaint. Do you:

1) Listen closely to what she says and apologize for her difficulties as a passenger for your employer?
2) Give some lip service to the Americans with Disabilities Act and tell her that her next United flight will be better, even if you don’t believe a word she’s saying?
3) Tell her the whole thing was her fault, and she doesn’t have to fly your airline if she wants unreasonable things like help lifting her baggage over her head?

It was obvious to me from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult conversation when the first words she said to me were spoken in a very condescending and put-out tone: “They’ve already told me basically what you want, but why don’t you tell me what happened?” Rather than say anything about her tone, I instead told her exactly what had happened from my first arrival to the airport in Seattle all the way down to my arrival at the customer service desk there at SFO. As it turned out, my gut-feeling that the conversation would not be pleasant were well and truly proven beyond any shadow of a doubt with the next words out of her mouth.

“I won’t apologize for her actions and I’m not sorry for what happened to you. It’s not in our contract to assist passengers with their luggage and we reserve the right to refuse assistance to anyone. If that’s what you need, then perhaps in the future, you should make other travel arrangements.”

[She told me] that I had the option of writing a letter which I told her I had every intention of doing since coming to file a complain in person turned out to be completely futile and a waste of time, energy, and emotional wellbeing. I also told her I’d be mentioning her and the fact that the combined actions of everyone I’d encountered from United had guaranteed I wouldn’t be flying with you at any point in the future.

Dina quite literally turned up her nose at me at that point and said: “You, of course, have the option to choose who you want to fly with, but again, it’s not in our contract. Besides, there’s a note that says your bag was heavy.” I cut her off before she could say more and asked her who it was that said that. She told me it would have had to be someone at the ticket counter in Seattle, and I flat out told her that was amazing considering that there wasn’t a single, solitary person involved with United at either airport who’d laid a hand on my bag. Not one. So not only was I dealing with the immensely upsetting experience of being told it was my own fault I was in pain for not making arrangements to fly without luggage since I knew I was disabled and needed assistance, I was also dealing with having someone lie about the weight of my luggage in some sort of bizarre effort to explain their lack of help.

You can completely leave all disability politics aside. You can leave basic politeness aside. You can leave any kind of sympathy, fellow-feeling, or “there but for the grace of [whatever I believe in] go I” aside. You still have to contend with the bottom line of consumer capitalism: customers may not be always right, but they pay your salaries.

There are 711 comments on this blog entry right now. I haven’t taken the time to do more than skim the first few, but I assure you that most of them are not defending United Airlines. Both the flight attendant and the supervisor could well lose their jobs over this one: Rachel is taking it everywhere public that she can, and it’s just not going to sound good on the evening news.

We’d all love to live in a world where people do the right things for the right reasons (see sympathy, fellow-feeling, etc. two paragraphs up). But at an absolute minimum, people should do the right things for the wrong reasons, like it’s more trouble to put up with the shitstorm afterward than to lift Rachel’s bag into the overhead bins.

If jonquil hadn’t posted this, I wouldn’t know about it yet. So pass the word yourselves; let’s make it a household word that this particular set of United Airlines employees showed themselves in the worst possible light.

6 thoughts on “United Airlines: Disabled Customer Disservice Reaches New Heights in the Friendly Skies

  1. I also don’t have time to read the 700-odd postings but am curious about the legal issues of access in this story. I am also fine with people doing the right thing because doing otherwise is illegal.

    I’m struck, also, by the apparent willingness of United to help out obviously old people but treating Rachel W. as they did.

    Ideally, everybody who needs help gets it, whether they are old, disabled, have a child, or just need a hand.

  2. What a horrible experience! It’s good that it’s being spread in the media, and that legal action is part of the discussion.

    Lisa, you make a good point about legality/illegality making a difference in the reactions of corporations and their employees. We live in an age of loopholes.

    However, even if something is not illegal, getting a lawyers involved or threatening to do so can sometimes result in a belated improvement in customer service. I make a point of carbon copying my lawyer on matters in dispute for one reason–it makes companies sit up and take notice.

    Even if the person making the complaint has no firm legal grounds for a lawsuit, if they file one the company would need to get their own lawyer(s) to address the issue. It can be more cost-effective for them to keep the lawyers out of the loop and just address the customer’s issues.

    1. Lynne, I used to know a lawyer (long since deceased) who offered his friends “when ever you want, put a notice of a carbon copy to me, attorney at law on any letter. Just send me a copy if you do that.” I took him up on it, too.

      I didn’t write about the legalities, because I know airline disability law is complicated and I don’t understand it. This is not the same as not thinking it’s important.

  3. What pisses me off most about reading this (being a disabled solo United flyer myself), is the double standard. See, my disability is VISIBLE, but I do not need help stowing my carry-on. The staff, however, always INSISTS on helping me, even when I refuse and state that I prefer no help.
    So let’s help the people who don’t ask for it (because I mean, just look at us…we must need it and we just dont know how to ask for it)…but let’s not help people who DO ask for help, however they appear.
    Grr. wtf
    It feels like it’s not even a disability issue, it’s a customer service issue. Service should be given to ANYONE who asks for it.

  4. Wow… i hope this was settled and my first thought was that i hope you went to the PRESIDENT or who the heck ever is the highest up person at the airline & spoke with them!!! There’s no way those women did what they were supposed to, if they worked for me, they’d be fired. I flew for the first time since becoming disabled (so this was also my first flight with TSA, which was almost not terrible) with Delta this summer and they were amazing. I don’t look disabled either, i have Fibromyalgia, but no one questioned me. They were so friendly, didn’t feel sorry for me, made sure i had bathroom breaks, everything that had me terrified to travel before. i hope if i ever have a chance to fly again, i will do all i can to fly with them – right now their tix are so expensive for me so i am gathering info. Why can’t people just treat each other DECENTLY, now matter disabled or not? This world would be so much nicer. :(

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