How United Sky West Killed Grandma’s Christmas
Or – Disabled Passengers Beware!
This past holiday may be the last family Christmas with Grandma in Colorado thanks to United Sky West. With Grandma living near Peoria, IL and family in Denver, CO we know that we are fortunate to have one direct flight a day between those cities and pay premium price fares for these flights. Since Grandpa died nearly 14 years ago, Grandma and her son, Bob, have been traveling to Colorado to be with family for the holidays. Bob is mentally handicapped but is mobile and can travel unaccompanied from departure gate to arrival gate. Grandma, at age 85, walks more slowly and needs a wheelchair to navigate long concourses. She is also deaf. With family gate passes and direct flights, we have been able to celebrate the holidays together.
This year the warm weather in Denver made it easy to navigate to and from the airport. We congratulated ourselves that the departure back to Peoria was scheduled one day before the first real storm of the season brought snow to the Denver area. We checked flight status, drove 53 miles to the airport, checked luggage, got an escort gate pass, ordered a wheelchair, and then began the arduous process of getting two handicapped people through security. With that accomplished we headed to the gate to wait and watched people come into the boarding area talking about a mechanical problem with their Sioux Falls flight. Just as the Peoria plane was to begin boarding the flight was cancelled without explanation but we suspect that the Peoria plane was commandeered for the Sioux Falls flight. There were no weather problems at either location and we were simply told to go to customer service to rebook or get a hotel voucher since this was the one and only flight out and it was 7:30 pm.
Customer service lines stretched past three gates down the concourse and seldom moved. I called customer service on my cell phone from the line and rebooked Grandma and Bob for the next direct flight the next night. I then tried to get information about their bags. Both had placed their medication in their checked bags. Yes, we know that is not a good idea but when everything looked so positive we try to lighten what they have to carry with them. We were told to go to the baggage claim area. With no wheelchairs at the gate, we walked slowly back down the concourses and to the train to baggage claim. Agents located their bags through the computer and confirmed they were “downstairs”. We were also told that they were very busy and if we really wanted the bags the wait could be up to 4 hours. Since it was well after 8:30 pm and the stress of the cancelled plans was taking its toll on Grandma we made the choice to leave the bags and get Grandma and Bob home to bed after another 53 mile drive.
The next day the forecasted snow storm arrived. However, the Peoria flight schedule remained on time so once again we packed Grandma and Bob up and drove through snow and ice another 53 miles. Once again, we got a gate pass, a wheelchair, and navigated through security. The TSA inspector remembered us from the prior night and said he hoped we got out this time. The regional jet gate area was jammed with passengers. We finally found seats for Grandma and Bob while I checked the flight status every 5 minutes. Once again, about 10 minutes prior to the boarding time, the flight was cancelled without explanation.
My immediate call to customer service connected me with someone who spoke highly accented English (assumedly from some place in India) and who had to spell most of the words he was trying to say to me. He stated there were no available flights the next day and he would re-book for two days out. I asked if we could get the bags from baggage claim but he placed me on hold for over 20 minutes and then stated something about a destination. Once again we made our way with two exhausted and frustrated disabled people to baggage claim where we were told the bags were already in Peoria. Grandma could not understand how her bags could get home but she couldn’t. And she was not a happy camper!
After driving another hour through a snowstorm and settling both passengers back in bed, we ran to the store for toiletries and clothing to hold them for the next few days. I also checked email and the bookings to confirm they had been booked on another flight out as I had been told. But there was no booking listed. So I called customer service again and this time reached someone who actually did book them on a flight in 2 days and sent me an email confirmation but there were no seats assigned. She pointed out it was Sky West, not United, that was involved and then cheerfully asked how my experience with the call and service was. I could only say, “You really don’t want to ask that question right now.”
On the fourth day after their scheduled flight, we repeated the process of packing a small bag with their newly acquired emergency wardrobe, driving another 53 miles to the airport, getting a gate pass, wheelchair, and getting these handicapped passengers through security. This time the gate was the farthest out possible and the waiting area was again crammed with people. We finally secured a seat for Grandma and Bob to wait while I stood in line to get a seat assignment. Originally, both passenger records showed special needs but after three re-booked flights apparently that information did not transmit because the first seats offered to these 2 people with disabilities was the exit row. After an hour we had received the seat assignments and waited with cautious optimism. Struggling through the crowd we finally kissed Grandma and Bob goodbye as they headed out the jet-way and on to the plane. We waited until the plane was in the air before we felt we could breathe a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, the saga does not end here. A brother was meeting Grandma and Bob at the airport in Peoria. He attempted to retrieve their bags (that had been in Peoria for 3 days) as soon as he reached the airport so they would not have to wait so long once they got in. He was told they could not be released unless Grandma and Bob were actually present. So he waited just outside the security gate.
The flight arrived in Peoria where there is jet-way capability but for some reason they parked the plane on the tarmac at 10:30 at night and made passengers walk down icy steps to the dark and icy pavement. This alone was a challenge for Grandma and Bob but as they were heading toward the terminal, Bob tripped on something in the dark and fell and cut his hand bleeding in three places. There was no one to help. Grandma asked one of the people working on baggage if someone could help them and was told that they would have to wait (in 15 degree temperatures in the dark) for an ambulance if they wanted any help. Instead, they struggled into the airport. Once inside the building there was no one to help and after walking through the secure area they met my brother. Seeing Bob’s bleeding hand and his distraught mother, he immediately tried to find a bandage for Bob’s hand. No one was around to help. He finally found a desk agent that provided a Band-Aid. Getting the luggage required another half hour wait for these tired and abused passengers. Finally, the last trip that took 9 hours door-to-door came to an unhappy end. Grandma says, based on this experience, she must be too old or disabled to travel.
It would be cruel to put any passenger through this ordeal three times. To put two people with disabilities through this nightmare is unforgiveable. The lesson to all travelers – buyer beware. You cannot trust the airlines to get you where you are going within a reasonable time frame. Have a lot of money and other resources available any time you fly because if there is trouble they will blame the weather and you are on your own. The lesson to travelers with disabilities – don’t trust the airlines to accommodate you. Without your personal advocate you could be stranded without mercy or resources.