By Mark E. Smith
For the third time, U.S. Airways luggage handlers have dropped my power chair from around eight feet in the air (off of the top of the conveyor belt near the cargo door). Fortunately, that particular power chair is like a Timex watch: After two years of use, travel, and being dropped from the conveyor belt three times, it takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’!
But, not without battle scars, of course. I mean, when a 300-something-pound power chair falls from eight feet onto the pavement, bad things happen. This time, the power chair landed with such a blow that it actually twisted – not bent, but twisted – some seriously-stout metal structures, destroying an armrest and back cane. Still, the power seating system and power base are fine, ready for more flights (and drops). And, because I’m part of my own power chair company, yes, I am a bit more fortunate than others because I can piece it back together, cover up the gashed areas with black paint, and be off to the next event in real time. Still, in the moment, I’m as stuck as anyone would be at the airport with a smashed-up power chair – not a good feeling or scene.
However, here’s what I really don’t understand: A bunch of people saw my power chair fall off of the conveyor belt – clearly smashed-up – and no one acknowledged it, pretending that it never happened. This time, someone parked it, tweaked as heck, at the gate counter (rather than bringing it to the plane door like they should), and the gate agent came down to the plane door, simply telling me that they couldn’t bring my chair down because it wasn’t working. Duh – it took an 8-foot tumble to the tarmac!
I really appreciate the hard work that the luggage handlers perform – it’s back-breaking, in weather extremes, for not a lot of pay. I also understand that they’re not trained to handle mobility devices, nor is the equipment that they use designed for loading and transporting a big, heavy object like a power chair. However, on a deeper level, how have the airlines created a culture of no responsibility? Call me naïve, but where are accident reports and such? How can a company’s employees and procedures damage customer property without any sort of personnel accountability? Sure, a damage claim can be filled, but that doesn’t resolve the systemic issue of zero accountability among employees – they literally can destroy your property, and no one cares. And, the slight cynic in me wonders if the airlines have determined that it’s more cost effective to just pay an occasional claim than to train personnel and create procedures?
A portion of my career involves flying, and the highlights of my life have been traveling with my teenage daughter the past few years. So, despite a bad track record, and undoubtedly more challenges to come, the rewards of air travel far outweigh the risks and consequences.
Yet, I’d still feel better if I could just fly somewhere without worrying if I’ll be mobile when I land?