The Friendly Skies

I was really impressed by the way I was being treated by the airports and airlines as I made my way down to San Francisco to visit my son. I’d been looking forward to the trip for three months, the anticipation growing with each passing day.

Traveling as a disabled person can be problematic, especially when you have to use a powered chair to have mobility. Such was the case for me thanks to deterioration of my clavicle and shoulder joints. Wheeling myself any distance greater than 100 or so feet produced excruciating pain. This distance was shortened if I was traveling on an incline. I made a three page laminated guide that showed handlers at the airports how to pop the chair apart into 4 light pieces and taped it to the base of the scooter. Security at each airport took me to the front of the line and made the security check comfortable and feeling no humiliation. I was able to drive my scooter right to the door of the airplane where I was met by handlers who quickly disassembled the scooter and packed it away in the cargo section last so it would be the first to come out. When I got to Portland where I had to change planes, my chair was assembled and waiting for me when I was helped from the aircraft -and I was helped first!

I scooted over to my next gate and the process repeated with United as it was with Alaska Airlines. I was helped to my seat in the second row of the left side of the plane. The airplane took off and I was on my way to the second and final leg of my trip. I would be seeing my son in around three hours.

About halfway through the trip, the man sitting in front of my reclined his seat. He did it in a violent motion that slammed the fold out tray into my hips and placed a fair amount of pressure on my knees. Had I been a regular traveler this would have been annoying, but suffering cancer made it really painful. The lady who was sitting to my left saw it all happen and could see, I guess, the suffering in my face. She reached between the seats and tapped the guy’s shoulder and told him he was hurting the man behind him and asked if he could bring his seat upright long enough to fold away the tray and position my legs so they wouldn’t be so painfully crushed.  The guy totally ignored her except to press himself backwards just a bit harder.

It hurt to the point I was starting to sweat and feel nausea. The woman next to me again spoke to the man, saying he was physically hurting me. “Fuck you, lady.” he snarled. “I paid for my seat and I’m using it.” The woman pressed the attendant call button and the attendant made her way to our row and started to ask how she could help. She immediately saw the problem and moved forward to address the man in front of me.

“Sir, I’ll have to ask you to bring your seat to the full upright position. The angle of your seat is physically damaging the gentleman behind you.” she said.

“I guess that’s his problem then. Like I told the nosy chick next to him I paid for my seat and I’m going to use it. Now leave me alone.” Another flight attendant, a young man, arrived and reiterated the need for the man to release his seat “just long enough to afford the passenger behind him some relief.” The guy shook out a newspaper and studiously ignored him.

At this point the woman attendant moved forward and used the aircraft intercom to speak with the Captain, who almost instantly came into the cabin from the cockpit. He strode up to the difficult passenger and addressed him firmly. “Stand up!” he commanded.  A second later a burly man appeared at the Captain’s side and showed his badge to the obnoxious passenger.

“You have been given a lawful command by the Captain of this aircraft. You will comply or you will be arrested and restrained on federal charges.”

“Over some goddam cripple who demands special treatment? ”

“Okay, now we’re looking at a hate crime since you chose to disparage a particular class of individual.” said the Marshal. “Last warning, partner. Get up.”

The man made a production of getting up and leaning his hand on the headrest, shoved the chair even further backwards. Almost too quick to see, the man found himself in handcuffs and being led to the back of the plane. The Captain quickly released the seat, relieving me of the pressure. The feeling of relief spread through me in a rush. “I’m so sorry about this, Sir. I have some paperwork you can fill out to make an injury claim against the airline.”

“No, no paperwork.” I said. “It’s not United’s fault that some people are jerks.”

“Well, this jerk will be arrested. He violated a laundry list of federal offenses and will be taken into custody when we arrive in San Francisco. In the meantime, we have some available seats up front in Business Class. We don’t have first class on this ship but we can make you more comfortable and get you some more legroom.”

“Can she come?” I asked, indicating the lady next to me. The Captain said ‘of course’ and then helped me up to the very front of the aircraft.  The next hour and forty minutes of flight were very pleasant and went quickly, chatting with the kind lady who’d tried to intercede for me. She was from Portland and was flying to San Francisco to meet a few old college friends for the weekend.

The wheels screeched as the plane touched down and it seemed like we taxied for miles to get to the terminal. We finally came to a halt and the flight attendants were Johnny-on-the-Spot to help me off. There at the door was my scooter, assembled and ready to go. I scratched my head thinking they must have teleported it from the baggage section (or maybe Portland). Through the jetway window I saw two dark vehicles with red and blue light bars and figured they were there for Mr. Obnoxious. I drove my scooter up the ramp and at the gate I was handed a manila folder by a United representative.

She explained that it was an incident report that would be used by  law enforcement and asked that I fill it out as clearly and fully as I could, explaining what happened. She said my co-passenger, the flight attendants and captain would be filling out similar pages. “Because in our travel environment it can be difficult to collect the people involved in the level of prosecution my incident was categorized,” and so they used statements rather than having people come from all over to testify. “But as a statement, please have it notarized and then drop it in the mail. The postage is prepaid.”

“Hey dad!” I looked over and beyond the plastic security wall stood my son, waving. I shoved the papers between my back and the seat back, thanked the woman and scooted as fast as I could out of the security area.