I am a frequent flyer. I have chosen Delta and their SkyTeam members as my airline of choice, flying over 75,000 miles a year with them (internationally and domestically).
I also use a wheelchair due to a genetic skeletal disorder. I’ve been dealing with my condition for over 30 years and know my limitations and capabilities well. My sister has a similar genetic disorder but is able to walk short distances. She brings a wheelchair with her when traveling. Because we’ve dealt with this our entire lives, we know how and when to request assistance at airports.
In most cases, I do not need assistance boarding a plane as I have some use of my legs that allows me to easily get on the aircraft without an aisle chair. In addition, I do not require a pusher or someone to escort me through the airport. Because of my independence, I do not request assistance when booking my flights or checking in, and usually tell the gate agents that I do not need the airlines help. The SkyTeam is usually very respectful of my wishes.
However, today I experienced the most discriminatory, disrespectful behavior from AirFrance on my flight from Casablanca to Paris. Twenty-four hours before departure, my family and I (a group of five) checked in online, knowing that we wanted to get seats next to each other. Natalie and I were able to check in but we were not able to select seats like the others in my group. We assumed it was because of the international flight and just planned to arrive at the airport early to get seats together.
We were the first passengers to arrive at the airport that morning. We weren’t checking luggage and used the self-serve kiosk to get our boarding pass. Natalie and I were not able to get our boarding passes but instead received a ‘ticket’ that told us that we needed to check in at the counter. We approached the counter, me seated in my wheelchair and Natalie standing behind her wheelchair.
I laid my passport and ‘ticket’ on the counter. The woman did not acknowledge me and just reviewed my documents handing back a boarding pass with an assigned seat. I asked if I could change my seat to be seated with my group. She glanced at her screen for a few moments and said, “No.”
When I asked why, she responded with, “I cannot change your seat because you are in a wheelchair.”
I explained that I did not need assistance, nor did I request it. It had to have somehow gotten marked on my itinerary by an attendant on my way into Casablanca. She said that there was nothing she could do. Because I was in a wheelchair, I was required to stay in my assigned seat. She was also unwilling to change any of the seats in my group so we could be closer to each other.
She asked if I had luggage and I said, “Nothing to check.” She walked around the counter, glanced at my carry on bag as though she was annoyed, and forcefully put a tag on it.
My mom, standing behind me, asked, “Why don’t I have to have a tag on my carry on bags?”
“Because you don’t use a wheelchair,” she responded, and went back behind the counter, dismissing any confusion or frustration we had.
She proceeded with grabbing Natalie’s passport and ‘ticket.’ Natalie asked if she was allowed to change her seat, assuming she would get the same response. But, the flight attendant said, “Yes, I can change your seat.”
“Why can you change my seat but you cannot change my sister’s?” Natalie asked.
“Because you don’t need assistance on the aircraft. You are standing now.”
I chimed in, “I just told you that I do not need assistance on the aircraft! I can board by myself!”
But she did not listen to a word I was saying. I could have been screaming at the top of my lungs and she wouldn’t have heard anything coming out of my mouth. It was as though my wheelchair took away my voice and any human rights I had. The rest of my group, including Natalie, were assigned seats six rows behind me. I was the only one that wasn’t allowed to be seated with my group.
After clearing security, I was looking for a Departures Board to find our gate assignment when an airline employee stopped me. He asked, “Madam, are you flying AirFrance?”
“Yes, I am,” and looked at him confused as to why he was stopping me.
“Where is your assistance? Do you know where you’re going?”
“I don’t need assistance, and yes, I know where I am going. I just checked the board and I am going to C15.”
“Madam, you need assistance!”
I just propelled myself away quickly. I couldn’t stand the thought of another AirFrance employee stopping me, demanding that I get assistance because I used a wheelchair. I am probably more capable than most people on this planet.
After we found our gate, we spoke with the gate agent who informed us that the flight was full and that he couldn’t change my seat either. We explained that we would like to be seated next to each other and he responded, “I cannot change her seat because she would be in a window seat. She cannot have a window seat because she is in a wheelchair.”
This is not true. I always choose the window seat when it’s available. We pleaded for another 10 minutes or so with no luck. I was forced to ‘sit in the back of the bus.’
The flight was beginning to board, and I was told to wait to the side. “Why can’t I board?” I asked.
“Because you need assistance. The assistance is coming.”
“I DO NOT NEED ASSISTANCE!” We had told a dozen people at this point.
They took our boarding passes reluctantly and let us board. My mom was at the tail end of our group and stopped to talk to the flight attendant. She explained what had happened and informed the flight attendant that we were going to try to switch seats with the person next to our group so we could be together. The flight attendant understood and helped us with the switch. After a dozen people, we had finally found the one AirFrance employee we needed all along.
Today exemplifies the exact reasons I don’t request assistance and ask that my ticket not be marked as ‘disabled.’ The disabled should not be treated differently, regardless if they need assistance or not. I am deeply troubled with the way I was treated today.
I understand that airlines have a huge responsibility for our safety, and there are not enough words to be said about what they do for us. I also understand that making sure I get the seat that I want is, and should be, at the bottom of their list. But no one should ever, ever be told that they cannot have a seat because they use a wheelchair.