It’s been a couple months since my last rant about the
abysmal failure shortcomings of United Airlines customer service, and I have had far too many blog-worthy experiences that you should’ve read about by now, but you’ll just have to settle for a brief summer recap.
I got the fancy new wheelchair that I’d ordered before we left for the East Coast (no thanks to United, insurance pays for one every five years). Within a week and a half, I nearly got ran over by a train in said fancy new chair thanks to some sketchy crossing signals. Good times! I also bought a fancy new van. Okay, technically that was before we left, but whatever. In early August, we held the biggest event yet for The Here and Now Project, which was a massive success despite said fancy new van getting its bumper smashed in with less than 2000 miles on the odometer.
Thankfully, the bumper got fixed a week later at a gas station by a crafty good Samaritan with a blow torch and a crowbar as I was heading out to spend some quality time with Ian Mackay, one of my best friends who was smack dab in the middle of an epic journey from Victoria BC down to Portland, OR in his power wheelchair to raise awareness for accessible trails in Washington state. (Click here to go read his story. You won’t regret it.) Unfortunately for him, he got sucked into the crazy vortex that is Kenny’s Law when two of his of support team’s bicycles were stolen off the locked bike rack of his van while it was parked in my driveway one of the nights he was using my place as homebase. Sorry bud!
It hasn’t been all borderline calamitous situations, though. Earlier this month I wound up on a panel of judges for Miss Africa Washington State, which was equal parts surreal and humbling. While I knew next to nothing about beauty pageants and embarrassingly little more about Africa heading into it, what Claire and I thought would just be a fun night of getting gussied up (read: rare & slightly uncomfortable for yours truly), turned into a truly inspiring experience. Seeing young women speaking passionately – often in their second or third language – on heart wrenching platforms like forced child marriage, the AIDS pandemic and female genital mutilation was moving to say the least. After such an incredible display of courage and advocacy, we left with our minds and hearts just a little more open. It was awesome.
I’ve also had a constant flow of friends, neighbors and subcontractors tearing apart my backyard to install an outdoor kitchen as well as a swinging bench and some hammock posts. Plus, Claire has inspired me to overhaul my diet. It’s easy to forget that your body is a machine, and I’m amazed that how a few small changes to its input can dramatically affect the output. There’s a lot of organic food in the house lately, we’re making stuff like a healthier version of trail mix and she has me considering drinking shit like kombucha. The jury’s still out on that last one, though.
So yeah, there’s your recap. I think you are pretty much caught up.
I tell you all these things for a couple of reasons. The first is to point out that, despite my best efforts to resume a normal life, The Universe seems to have other plans. Apparently, you people need entertained, and the Grand Puppeteer in the sky is happy to oblige. The second, and more important reason is to highlight that this is the exact kind of minutia that the folks at United Airlines count on so people they’ve screwed over – like me! – will get bogged down by the daily grind of life and lose the fire they originally had when the incident first occurred. And, honestly, up until a couple weeks ago, I must admit that it had kind of worked.
Something readers may not know about me is that I have a deep-rooted fear of authority. Combine that with a lifelong, slightly unhealthy need to please others, and you start to understand how confrontation is not my strong suit. I’ve been actively working on those character defects over the last few years, but it’s easy to fall back on old behaviors. So, when I got home and my fancy new chair showed up a couple weeks later, it acted as the first touch of sandpaper to the chip on my shoulder. And as I got busy planning the event for my nonprofit, the other chair was incrementally pushed to back burner, and the people in my life started to notice that I was slowly losing my edge for retribution, and I couldn’t disagree.
Fortunately, I hadn’t lost it completely by the end of July when I got a call from one of United’s severely overworked damage control liaisons named Tracy, who had had the supreme misfortune of speaking with me after both of my previous Twitter outbursts. With a sweet Texas drawl, she asked if my chair had been fixed, to which I responded, no, it still hadn’t because we were waiting on parts. She then said United wanted to offer our group free flight vouchers to compensate for our travel woes. The total amounted to less than 10% of the financial cost of that hellacious trip, not to mention the collateral trauma my team and I suffered at the Newark airport, University Hospital ER and Philly Amtrak station, ultimately spending 11 of the 14 days of what was supposed to be our vacation without a functioning set of legs I could control.
Even well-seasoned Tracy could not stifle her laughter when I asked incredulously, “With your airline or the one of my choice?” Catching herself, she responded in the negative, but said I was free to gift them to anyone I might want to. As if I would recommend their airline to anyone I know at this point? Thanks, but no thanks, I told her, this was probably a conversation for someone above her paygrade anyway. After another slightly uncomfortable laugh, she said she would send the vouchers anyways, in case I change my mind.
Although I saw the email come through my inbox, I never even bothered to open it because, as you have read above, life got busy quick. There were events to plan, vehicles to wreck and bikes to have stolen. Life continued with distractions both big and small until the emotions surrounding this horrifying experience finally began to melt into my subconscious with the rest of the anecdotes of vacations gone sour.
Then I got a call a couple weeks ago from my local wheelchair repair people informing me there was a hang up with my repairs because United’s mobility outfit in New Jersey was not answering their calls. Realizing it had been more than a month since I’d heard from Tracy, I finally went back and found her email, looking for a few specific words. Sure enough, halfway down the eight paragraph message, I found the words “liability release” – a few sentences of legal-speak they think completely absolves them of blame for the hell we all went through – that starts with the words “By accepting this travel voucher…” Now I see why Tracy was so hell-bent on making sure I got the vouchers.
Consider the fire successfully re-lit.
Because the fact of the matter is, I made it home in one piece only because I have the resources to bring a well-trained staff that can handle borderline life-threatening situations, along with enough connections in the wheelchair industry to get my needs at least partially addressed while the people responsible did little more than tweet. But what if I didn’t have those resources or the connections? What if I hadn’t had the random dumb luck of timing this trip right before my new wheelchair arrived?
If it weren’t for all of that, I’d still be stuck in a broken wheelchair for the last three months with nothing but a few new scars and a handful of worthless ticket vouchers to show for it. What’s worse is that this story isn’t all that unique. I’ve heard countless variations of it both before and after I boarded United Airlines flight 1695. The whole situation has made a couple of things crystal clear: I’m not nearly as special as I like to imagine I am (whiskey-tango-foxtrot?), because as much I wanted the whole ordeal to be the rope that finally pulled down one of the largest barriers to accessible travel for folks in my community, it’s more likely to be one galvanized link in a much bigger chain that eventually does the job.
This situation is much bigger than me and my experiences… And the fight is only beginning.
… And I need to blog more. Stay tuned for a little of both.