Does Delta Airline Do Disabled? Not according to the DOT – or Me

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/bribri/

Over five years ago, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).  For those who don’t know what RA is, it’s an auto-immune disorder similar to Lupus or Psoriasis and it can be painful, especially during travel; especially at the end of the trip, when you’re running on not enough sleep.  Over the years since my diagnosis, I’ve had to change medications several times due to the progression of my illness.  At one time, I had to quit travel writing altogether due to the pain that comes with RA and flare-ups (since finding Cimzia, I’m back at it!).

I tell you that to tell you this:

Recently, I flew on Delta Airlines, which has LONG been my airline of choice (30 years?) and I am a member of their Skymiles program have been for more years than I can remember.  I know there are groups out there dedicated to their hatred of Delta but I’ve never suffered a moment of angst on one of their flights, and I fly on them a lot, being a travel writer.  I simply couldn’t understand just WHY people hated Delta so much.  Once, I flew on another airline; the trip was SO bad (fraught with delays and I ended up getting home in the middle of the night instead of my comfortable mid-afternoon) I felt it was karma for my disloyalty and I deserved it.  I even wrote a letter of apology to Delta, telling them I would never cheat on them again.

This changed two weeks ago and it was so huge to me, a person with a disability (and it takes a LOT for me to admit that at all to my family, much less on a public forum such as this), I’m compelled to share the story given the tepid response I received from Delta Airlines.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/skewgee/

Towards the beginning of this year, Delta Airlines added a new level of comfort for their coach passengers called Economy Comfort (EC).  The premise of EC is more leg room, more room to recline without being in the lap of the person behind you and it’s in the first four rows of coach seating, thus, you are one of the first to deplane.  Like so much else in the airline industry, it carries an extra fee per leg and the cost depends on the length of the trip.  When I flew to Ohio on this trip, the leg from Tucson to Atlanta was $59, the leg from Atlanta to Dayton was $39; this is in addition to paying more fees if you wish to reserve an aisle or window seat at check-in.

As I said earlier, it’s been a while since I’ve flown due to the nature of my illness (and other reasons, which I won’t go into here since it’s not germane) so I was surprised to see this option when I performed my online check-in.  I asked about it on my first leg of my trip and had it explained to me by an FA.  To be honest, I LOVED the idea; now, I’m not so sure.

As a person with a disability, I was told years ago by Delta that disabled seats were “first come, first served” and had to be requested at the gate up to one hour before take-off.  Seems since February 2011, when Delta was fined $2,000,000 by the Department of Transportation for their apathy towards their handicapped patrons, things have changed.

It now seems Delta has a handicapped help line where special seating and disabled assistance can be obtained.  I didn’t know this had been made available and Delta doesn’t seem to have gone out of its way to make sure people were aware of this special line BEFORE they needed help.  (And for those who are wondering, the number for disability assistance from Delta, such as requesting special seating, is 404-209-3434 – they can’t even give us a toll-free number…)  I searched the website for more information about this and found no mention of it anywhere on the site (and if you find it, post a comment letting others know).

Image provided by http://www.flickr.com/photos/russelljbennett/

On my flight back from Dayton (DAY) the two legs of the trip were DAY to Atlanta (ATL), then ATL to Tucson (TUS).  On the first leg, I inquired at the gate regarding handicapped seating.  I was also VERY clear I didn’t want someone bumped from the EC seating since they had paid additional funds to sit there.  As the EC seating was full, I was offered an aisle seat and, to me, this was an acceptable compromise; I accepted it gladly and sat down to await my flight.  Just before boarding, I was called to the gate where I was told an EC passenger had been upgraded to First and a seat was now available.  No muss, no fuss, just good customer service.  THIS is the Delta I’m used to seeing when I fly and THIS is why I’ve been so loyal to them for three decades or so.

HOWEVER – my trip fell apart in Atlanta, Delta’s main hub.

After all the problems, while on the ATL to TUS leg, I signed into my GoGo Inflight account and sent the following e-mail (after locating the e-mail addresses of upper management from Chris Elliott’s On Your Side wiki) and sent the following e-mail – subject line: No “Customer Care” for the handicapped?  I’ll let my first e-mail tell the story (though there is a bit more than is in the e-mail and I’ll touch on that afterward):

I am writing this missive from one of your airplanes, having taken a trip to DAY from TUS.  To better assist you in locating my trip itinerary, my Delta frequent flyer number is xxxxxxxxxx. 

I have rheumatoid arthritis.  I have had it for several years now and, for the most part, I haven’t needed to rely on any special privileges.  However, particularly at the end of the trip, I might request for my flight “handicapped” seating, affording more leg room, allowing me to stretch out my legs and flex my major joints.  

I had taken a lengthy period of time off my job as a travel writer for personal reasons and only recently began flying again.  This was my first flight on one of your planes that had been retrofitted for the new line of seating.  As such, I was unaware Delta Airlines had done away with their handicapped seating in favor of “Economy Comfort” seats requiring passengers to pay additional funds in order to sit in them.  At one time, the first row (bulkhead) were held for potential handicapped passengers and, up to an hour before the flight was to take off, I could request of the agent at the gate a seat change and be accommodated, provided no one had taken then. 

Today, taking off out of Dayton, OH, (DAY) I was accommodated as an “Economy Comfort” seat was empty due to an upgrade to First Class by another passenger.  Had I not taken the seat, it would have flown empty.  For the second leg of my trip out of Atlanta (Gate E30), my requests for handicapped accommodation were met with lies, subterfuge and out-right apathy.  I attempted to make my request early enough so the gate agent was aware handicapped seating was needed.  I was told only a supervisor could approve this change (DAY didn’t need one, why does ATL?  The right thing to do is the right thing to do, and a supervisor shouldn’t be needed to tell everyone the right thing to do) but the supervisor, the mystery person who was supervisor over gates 26 through 31, never showed and I’m positive he/she was intentionally waiting for the flight to take off either forcing me to miss my flight or take the seat I was given and keep my mouth shut.  The gate agent made repeated attempts to get the supervisor to come to the gate and she was told either “I’m coming” or was ignored for over 20 minutes, and then some. 

On the plane, I tried to let all the Fas know I needed handicapped accommodation and I was told several times, “Hang on…”  There were three “Economy Comfort” seats flying empty on this flight and I was told by the head FA that “Delta’s policy” is to not allow passengers sit in those seats for any reason.  I can see where the integrity of “paid seats” is FAR more important to you than a disabled person. 

I have to ask…When did the Federal government make it okay to no longer accommodate the handicapped?  And when did it get so difficult for Delta and its employees to do the right thing?  Do you prefer handicapped people simply not fly your airline?  I’m  more than willing to change my loyalty., if this is the case.  I didn’t ask for Rheumatoid Arthritis but you guys sure resent my having it.  So sorry my disability is causing your company so many problems…

Now the additional information:

In Atlanta, I waited while the plane loaded and once everyone (but me) was on, I told the gate agent I didn’t think it was prudent for me to wait any longer, I needed to get on my flight.

When I got on the plane, as soon as I was crossing the “threshold” from First Class to Coach, I saw three empty bulkhead EC seats and turned around to ask the Flight Attendant standing behind me if I could have one of those empty seats as I was handicapped and sure could use it. The response was, “Wait until we’re at altitude and remind me.”

There’s simply no leg room if you’re taller than 5’5″. Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/endymion120/

Thus, I get in my seat in row 14, put on my seatbelt and as soon as we’re at altitude, the beverage cart starts rolling. I decided to wait until the FAs get to me since they are now blocking access to the very seat I’m requesting (well, one of three seats that are flying empty). When the FAs get to my row, I am asked my drink order, I give it and then I ask the FA serving me if it’s possible for me to move to one of the empty bulkhead seats because I’m now in a great deal of pain. Once again, I’m told, “Wait.”

By the time the beverage service is done, we’re about two hours into a three-and-a-half hour flight and I’m in pain.  I walked to the back of the plane so I could stretch my legs and flex my knees and ankles.  My plan was to remain there until the end of the flight; I simply couldn’t stay cramped up in my seat any longer.  Add to this a seatmate who insisted on sleeping on my shoulder, no matter HOW many times I woke them and asked them to lean the other way.  An FA asked me, as I stood in the back, if I needed anything?  I told her, yes, I did; I needed one of the empty bulkhead seats because my RA was in bad enough shape I didn’t think I could take any more of the cramped seat I was in.  I followed that up with telling her I had requested handicapped seating and was denied.  I should probably mention at this point, I’m just over six feet tall.  Even on a good day, I’m uncomfortable.

This is where the fun began.  I’m putting her response on it’s own line because I simply couldn’t believe this is what she came up with…

“But, you don’t look handicapped.”

My response to this was that handicapped persons don’t have a club or wear a t-shirt.  I then asked her what a handicapped person “should” look like so I can make sure to work towards that the next time I fly Delta.  Her response?  Again, this one gets a line all by itself…

Is this what I’m supposed to look like? A stick figure sitting on an incredibly large wheel? Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/twicepix/

“Delta has NEVER accommodated handicapped passengers.”

Really?  Even though Federal law mandates it?  Even though we have the Department of Transportation edict 14 CFR Part 382 that says you MUST accommodate disabled passengers?  Really?

After having the head FA come to “try to resolve” the issue (and she started her condescending “discussion” with, “Per Delta policy…”), I resigned myself to being in a great deal of pain and, since we were nearly to Tucson, I settled in.  And, this has to be said, we ALL know were I to say much more about it, the airline and the FAs would have made certain I was greeted at the gate by either an air marshal or the Tucson police.  This is the “go to” resolution for all flight crew now, even if you’re not causing a problem.  Much like beleaguered teachers once sent students to the principals office, now FAs call law enforcement and passengers are left to pick up their lives as a “trouble maker” for airlines.

With the head FA watching, I hit “send” on my e-mail and by 7:30 AM the next day, my phone was ringing and it was Delta.  I spent a lengthy period of time on the phone with a representative from Delta who seemed genuinely concerned about what happened to me.  She followed our conversation up with an e-mail (and if you’d like to read the complete exchange, please see this web page) that left me less than pleased with the result.

As I read the results of Delta’s investigation, what I saw didn’t anger me as much as it saddened me.  In the end, the FAs involved told Delta either they did everything they could or wouldn’t acknowledge being involved, professing to know nothing about it.  I was offered a pat on the head and a $100 travel voucher.  To be honest, it’s as I said in my e-mail to them, I’m not one to ask for remuneration when something like this happens, but I’m also not one to turn it down when it comes my way.  I don’t know what IS enough in this situation, but this sure ain’t it.  I’m one of those who feels, I’m not sure what’s enough but I’ll know it when I see it.

What makes me the saddest of all is: I am not one person.  There are hundreds of thousands of people like me in the same situation, daily.  Rheumatoid Arthritis is a debilitating illness that robs sufferers of things others take for granted, such as walking the dog around the block, shaking hands with a new acquaintance, standing up from the couch…  With the advances of RA treatments these last ten years, there are some remarkable stories of people getting out of their wheelchairs and enjoying life.  So, no, RA sufferers don’t always “look” disabled; but we are.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vasenka/

Were I to be unable to travel due to my RA, I don’t know I’d even want to get out of bed.  I love to travel.  It occurs to me, Southwest Airlines is expanding their routes and fleet.  They’re a big carrier out of Tucson.  Maybe it’s time to make the switch?

And let’s just add insult to injury, I looked at my Delta FF account last night; the miles for the trip weren’t put on my account so I got no credit for the nearly 5,000 miles I flew.  To make it worse, at some point, when I stood up on the plane, my Ohio State t-shirt was torn on the seat in front of me.  Delta didn’t even offer to replace THAT!

Last evening I e-mailed my response to Delta, and it can be seen on this web page; I’m still waiting for a response.  I’m sure I’ll hear the sound of crickets coming from Atlanta for a long time to come.

I’m curious – what do you think of this?  Was I offered enough compensation?

UPDATE: After this story ran, I received an e-mail from Delta expressing their concern that they, too, felt what they offered wasn’t enough.  They have offered to replace my Ohio State t-shirt AND are sending me a gift basket.  In my opinion, that’s class and this is why I love Delta as much as I do.  However, Delta Airlines doesn’t seem to understand JUST how important this, or any, Ohio State t-shirt is.  That’s okay, not being Buckeyes, and I can forgive that.  BUT-if you’re a Buckeye, I’m sure you were aghast, as I was, to learn the shirt was ruined.  They might be in a bit of trouble, right now, with the NCAA, but they’re still MY team and I love them in spite of it.  I love the Scarlet & Grey and if they can’t quite wrap their heads around it, well, they’re not from Ohio.  And that’s okay, too.

 

About Nancy Marine

I've been a travel writer since 2006 and have pretty much loved every minute of it! If there's a location you'd like to know more about, send me an e-mail at editor@explorationtravelmagazine.com and I'll do everything I can to get it on the site for you!

8 comments

  1. I used that disability number you posted. Thanks a lot!

  2. Nancy… I am sorry about what happened to you, but not surprised. I flew with my disabled mother on Delta. They had her in a middle seat in row 35. I called nearly everyday after booking and was told they couldn’t do anything because the plane was full.

    When we got to the airport, I went up to the gate with my mom in the wheelchair and explained she needed a closer aisle seat. They told me they would do what they could.

    For the next half hour, we listened to them give out seats and upgrades constantly, but nothing for my mom. Finally, they came over and told my mom that they were going to let her board with extra time to her seat! They wheeled her to the plane and she slowly and carefully made her way to the back of the plane. She was then stuck in a middle seat without the ability to stretch her (poor circulation) leg.

    Delta’s answer to this after my letter and phone call complaints? A $100 voucher.

    I could go on and on with problems I’ve had with Delta’s customer service. Unfortunately, where I live, I’ve got American and Delta. I will always chose American first, but sometimes I have to fly Delta. The amazing thing is that — in the air — I find the Delta flight attendants to be accommodating.

    Marcia

  3. The last time I flew to Ohio — on Delta — they pretty much bent over backwards to make sure I was accommodated and comfortable (I am an amputee with a prosthetic); I’m sorry that their customer service has fallen by the wayside while chasing the almighty dollar. This year my trip is on Southwest (LAX-DEN-DAY and reverse), and I *know* SWA will give me Great Customer Service! (Disclaimer: I almost worked for SWA as a Customer Service Representative — was on their LAX employment waiting list for two years; and am a Rapid Rewards member.)

  4. Nancy, unfortunately poor customer service is getting to be the usual state of affairs for most airlines. On a recent trip to Hawaii, every leg of my flight on United had some issue–canceled (causing us to miss a day and a half of the trip), late (causing us to miss connecting flights), delayed (necessitating rescheduling that took hours), etc. and baggage that didn’t arrive with us (due to all the changed flights).
    On another recent trip to Switzerland two of our reservations on United were simply canceled (without notifying us), and it was really a pain to get things straightened out because we weren’t aware of that until I tried to check in online the day before traveling. Plus we no longer had the seats we had booked 4 months prior to the trip and had to take cramped “leftovers.”
    The agents in the airport are too few and poorly trained. I have a trip on United coming up (booked when it was still Continental), but I’m swearing off United after that. (So far I like Delta; not too fond of American).
    Flying has become the worst part of travel, IMO, but it’s still a necessary evil because I love to explore new parts of the world. Airlines are charging more for less. It’s a real shame.

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