Braille Monitor                                                                           November 1986


United Airlines: Excess Liquor, Excess Liquor, Whimsical Behavior and Lack of Concern for Safety

by David Ticchi

In my position as International Marketing Manager for the Kurzweil Reading Machine, I do a great deal of around-the-world traveling. People often ask me if I have any fears of flying, terrorism, or concerns about doing business in different countries. Frankly, I don't have any fears about air safety. I am mindful of terrorism, and I would not travel to any area where I believe I would be incurring great risk. I feel completely comfortable doing business with our distributors in different countries and, in fact, Kurzweil Computer Products would not pay me to do so unless I was competent. My greatest concern about air travel, whether domestic or international, is how I am going to be treated by the airlines. From the time I set foot in an airport and until I pick up my luggage and leave I have no clear idea of how I am going to be dealt with. Therefore, I try to prepare myself for any situation which arises: mandatory rides to the gate, required pre or post boarding, special seat assignments, purchasing of headsets, pre or post departure, and in general a full range of attitudes toward the blind. This does weigh on my mind and adds to the tedium of air travel. It is unfortunate and unnecessary. There is no reason why blind people should suffer the indignities, demeaning behavior, and hassle which we face every day when traveling by air.

I would like to tell you of an experience I had on a recent business trip. I am responsible for a number of distributors around the world. Early in May I made a standard business visit to our distributor in Hong Kong. I found my travel there to be most enjoyable: Business was successful, and Hong Kong was a fascinating place to visit. On my return to the states, I stopped in Hawaii for two days of R & R. My itinerary called for a flight from Honolulu to Seattle to visit with an old college friend and a flight from Seattle to Boston.

On May 6, 1986, I arrived at the Honolulu International Airport to take United Airlines flight #32 to Seattle Washington. I first proceeded through the agricultural station where inquiries were made regarding fruits and vegetables purchased for return to the mainland. Then I checked some of my luggage with a baggage handler. I told the skycap that I had a ticket and a seat assignment but I wanted to reconfirm my booking. He said a ground agent would handle this for me.

A young woman arrived on the scene and identified herself as a United ground agent. I explained to her that I wanted to reconfirm my seat assignment. She said she would do so and that she would give me a ride with others in a golf cart to the gate. I reiterated that I only wanted to reconfirm my seat assignment and find out from what gate flight #32 was scheduled for departure. She insisted on my riding in the cart. I steadfastly refused. She then said, "I am really very pretty, you know." I responded, "And I'm not easily seduced." She then went to reconfirm my seat assignment. The skycap, Joe, and I chatted. He said she really was very pretty, and I replied that I was more concerned with principle than beauty.

The ground agent returned and said, cheerfully, that I had been assigned to seat 31-H, but since that was so far back in the plane she had moved me to seat 18-H. This would be easier for me to walk to. Frankly, I prefer to sit farther back in the plane, which is why my travel agent had requested that seat. I did not make an issue of this. I smiled and shrugged and said that I would walk to the gate. I had ample time before departure, and I would enjoy the walk in the fresh air of the wide open Honolulu Airport. Joe offered to walk with me as I had a garment bag, attache case, and a good supply of macadamia nuts as carry-on luggage. So we walked together to the gate. Along the way I discussed with Joe my chagrin over the change in seat assignment. He seemed to understand my reasoning that service ought not to be imposed but that a paying customer ought to have some options. When we arrived at the gate Joe and I had a brief relaxed conversation. I gave him a tip, we shook hands, and said goodbye. I listened to a Walkman as I waited for departure, feeling relaxed and satisfied and with a sense of accomplishment for completing successful business.

Evidently the departure gate for flight #32 had been changed. An agent came over to me and asked if I had a ticket. I explained I was leaving on flight #32. He said it had begun boarding and he'd be happy to walk me on board. I grabbed my carry-ons and walked to the jetway, handed in my boarding pass, and boarded the plane, a DC-10. When I stepped aboard I exchanged greetings with an attendant and realized the agent had followed me on board. I explained I was quite familiar with DC-10's and would have no problem finding my seat. My only question was the location of the closet nearest to seat 18-H in order to hang my garment bag. I proceeded across the plane and down the aisle, agent and attendant in procession behind me, and arrived at 18H, an aisle seat in the exit row. There was a closet in the galley directly across from the exit. I hung up my garment bag, placed my attache case by my seat, and since the overhead compartment was full, an attendant stowed my macadamia nuts in the rear of the plane. I hung my jacket in the closet and sat down. I asked the person beside me if I could place my cane between the arm of her seat and the fuselage, as I normally do. It wasn't possible. I thought about placing it in the closet in the galley since it was only two steps away, but an attendant told me it was an elevating closet. I decided to buckle it in with me in the seat belt. The plane began to taxi out. The flight attendant directly across from mein a jump seat by the exit said I would have to give up my cane as it was sticking out in the exit path. I replied that I intended to keep it with me as the cane is my mobility and independence. She said that in an emergency someone might trip on it. I told her that in an emergency I intended to be using it. She evidently got up and then returned with a woman who identified herself as Nancy, head flight attendant. I added that there was no regulation that said I had to do so and, in fact, the National Federation of the Blind had filed suit with airlines, United included, on this issue and if this went to court "you will lose." The plane continued to taxi out to the runway and my cane was buckled in with me and firmly in my grasp. Nancy said she would talk to the captain. She returned and informed me that if I didn't give up my cane, the captain would turn back. I answered, "Turn back."

A few seconds later I felt some change in the plane's motion. I honestly don't know if we were then moving forward, in reverse, or motionless. At this point my mind was racing; I was incredibly angry; but I was determined to keep my composure and to be smart, not to be mad. I felt there was a lot at stake here. I was proud to be a Federationist as I sat waiting. I felt I was prepared.

A man arrived on the scene and squatted by my seat, at my level, and said, "Good morning, I understand we have a problem with your cane."

I responded, "I guess we do." I reiterated that my cane was my mobility and independence and I had no intention of giving it up. He stated that I might not be able to move as quickly as others. I retorted that that was a matter of pure speculation. He asked me if I had any problems with sliding my cane under my seat toward the rear of the plane and if I would be willing to hold onto it during take-off and landing. I responded that I had absolutely no problem with that arrangement. He returned to the front of the plane and we began again to taxi out for take-off. The entire incident had been centered on my cane, not my sitting in an exit row.

The flight attendant across the aisle from me and I had a pretty cool discussion. I really don't remember all the details. She said that if "I'd done this to begin with as she suggested, there wouldn't have been any problem." I told her it was my understanding that she had wanted me to give up my cane. If I had been mistaken, I apologized for the misunderstanding. In fact, that was not the case at all.

Shortly after we were airborne the attendants sold headsets for the inflight entertainment. I told the flight attendant who had been sitting across the aisle from me that I wanted to buy one. She responded that I could have one since I wasn't able to watch the movie. I told her that when I go to the movies I pay for my seat like anyone else. She replied, "Well, after all the hassles, we'd like to give you one." I suggested she give me a drink instead. She insisted on giving me the headset and I paid for my only drink on the flight. The rest of the flight was uneventful although the crew as very cool tome.

It should be noted that the bar was set up in the galley by me and the exit. Business at the bar was quite good. I overheard an attendant asking a gentleman if he was being met at the airport or was driving home. When he answered that he was being picked up, she gave him another drink and told him she wouldn't have served him another drink if he planned to drive.

When we arrived in Seattle I picked up my garment bag, attache case and jacket, an attendant brought my macadamia nuts, I walked to the front of the plane. An attendant asked if someone would be meeting me and I responded yes, most likely. She then said something to the effect of "Do you know your way around the airport," and before I could answer she giggled at her own words. I should add that I find Seattle to be one of the easiest airports in the world to learn and get around. As I was stepping onto the jetway a man, unidentified and possibly a crew member or ground staff, asked if I needed a hand with my carryons. I appreciated his offer and gave him one of my pieces. I met my friend at the end of the jetway.

I had an enjoyable time in Seattle. The Boston Red Sox won the game at the King Dome. And Northwest flight #76 to Boston on May 8 was one of the most pleasant I've ever been on; not just because of the contrast with United Airlines flight #32 but because the service was offered and not imposed. It manifested the inconsistencies in the ways that airlines deal with blind people. The Northwest flight was an example of the way things should be done when blind people are flying. I requested to speak with the head flight attendant so I could compliment the crew.

My experience on United flight #32 is illustrative of a simple fact--that many of the problems which blind people face are created by organizations and individuals who "know what is best for us" and who pay little attention to customers and consumers. This is not only true with airlines but for each of us in our everyday lives.

I did not ask for assistance to the gate--I was TOLD I had to ride in a golf cart.

I did not ask to change my seat--my seat was changed and I was TOLD this would be easier for me. The new seat, coincidentally, was an exit row seat.

When I told the crew I would not need any assistance in locating my seat, I was not taken at my word--I was TOLD that someone would assist me, and two people followed me down the aisle.

I was not asked to reposition my cane--I was TOLD I had to give it up.

I was not permitted to purchase a headset for entertainment--I was TOLD that I was not capable of watching the movie.

Flight #32 was very unpleasant. As I mentioned, I felt prepared for dealing with this type of experience because I read the. Braille Monitor. I have also spent time discussing these problems with Federationists and nonFederationists. The NFB philosophy is vitally important for the future of all blind people in all areas of our lives as a source of pride, strength, and sustenance. I am thankful that I am part of the organization.