Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986



Special Services Another Name for the Room for Holding Blind People

In the preceding article we gave a general description of the "room for holding blind people" which United Airlines has established in Chicago--and all, of course, in the tired old name of "safety." But how does it actually work? How does it affect the blind traveler going on routine daily business from one part of the country to the other? Here is a letter from Ramona Walhof which provides some of the answers. Her letter (written to attorney Peggy Pinder) also indicates that our efforts at public education are showing at least minimal signs of positive results. The battle ahead will be long, but we are accustomed to that--and the final outcome (regardless of how long) is not in doubt. That is why we have the National Federation of the Blind:

Boise, Idaho
February 14, 1986

Dear Peggy:

Things are changing gradually and painfully with United Airlines. I fly United more often than others because it has more connections in and out of Boise. Since early November I have traveled on at least thirteen flights. Most were United, but a few were Western. I had no trouble or hassle on any of those flights. Occasionally, someone has briefed me mildly. Some offers have been made that were unnecessary, but on none of these flights has any flight attendant been overinsistent or unpleasant.

Ground personnel have been something else, and especially United people in Chicago. Because of the Special Services room in Chicago, I have difficulty getting any other United staff to say even hello. For example, on February 5, 1986, I arrived in Chicago on flight 296 late. Before leaving the arriving plane, we were assured over the p.a. that all flights were equally late, so connections should not be difficult. I was met by a United agent who said, as usual, just stand right here and wait, and someone will come and get you.

Since I was unsure about my connection, I asked for the gate number and time of my connecting flight. He refused to give me that information, although he gave it cheerfully to others deboarding the same flight. Finally, another passenger offered to read the monitor for me and insisted on walking with me to the next flight. We almost ran. I do not know whether we took the most direct route to the next flight or not, because the United agent refused to give me the directions. When we arrived at the gate of the next flight, the agent at the terminal refused to deal with me again.

I asked if the flight number 588 had already left. "Go to the Special Services," I was told. I repeated my question. "Go to the Special Services," I was told. I felt like throwing something heavy at the man. Another passenger assured me that the flight had indeed left already as I, by then, had guessed. I decided the better approach at that point was to go to Special Services. I did and found that there were no more flights that night, and I would have to spend the night in Chicago and miss the next morning's activities.

United Airlines paid the cost of the hotel room in Chicago and provided escort service to it and back the next morning. No one was willing to give me directions to get there myself, although I (with this information) would not have needed the escort and would have had flexibility to do other things along the way.

February 7, 1986, I arrived in Chicago on flight number 295, which was also late. My connecting flight was number 85 9, which was even later. There seemed no help but to go back to Special Services. The office of Special Services leaves much to be desired for the blind. Their intentions are the very best, of course. However, a person who goes there is expected to hand over her ticket to the supervisor at the desk and sit down until someone comes to escort her to the flight. First of all, I make it a practice never to give my ticket away. I had an experience when it was not returned. Therefore, wherever my ticket goes, I go also, and vice versa. Second, passengers in the Special Services room are never updated on their connections. When delays are gradually lengthened, it is desirable to know.

Passengers are expected not to leave that room without an escort, even though restrooms and telephones are just across the hall. And worst of all, the escorts are taught to treat the people they escort much like baggage. Many have limited language skills, and the escort people take their instructions from the supervisor of that room, not from passengers.

The phone in that room is answered "Wheelchairs," and many people there, including the blind and unaccompanied children, do not need or want wheelchairs. February 7, 1986, no one was unpleasant. I kept my ticket and sat next to the desk so that I could check on my flight every half hour or so. The attitude was one of tolerance toward me. Other passengers who were not mobile or able to go to the desk and ask for information were quite restless and concerned.

Most of the time I have no need or desire to go to Special Services. However, most airline personnel know more about delays than passengers. When agents refuse to read the monitors for a blind person, we must rely either on other passengers (which is often quite adequate) or on Special Services. No United ground personnel in that airport have in the last few years been willing to try to give me any reasonable kind of instructions to get from one location to another. I know well the layout of concourses E and F, since they have been as they are for many years. Concourse G has been, and is, under construction, and some information about the layout would be very helpful. It is not possible to get any. Often the gate number of the arriving flight and the gate number of the departing flight are the only two pieces of information or assistance a blind person needs, but they are essential. It is often not possible even to get the number of the gate at which one arrives, which certainly makes a difference when you start to go to another one for a connection.

This is no doubt more comment on the Chicago airport than you want. I give you this much because I think flight attendants have responded, if grudgingly, to our various efforts to educate them. We must start on ground personnel in all airports, but Chicago is the worst in the United empire. I could tell you about many other bizarre experiences with ground personnel, but I have surely said enough.


Ramona Walhof