Monday, July 09, 2012

A Veteran in Miami Airport

I arrived at Miami Airport after a cruise this weekend with an old Army friend of mine (I should say, he's a friend I met in the Army, but who is a friend for life). The cruise disembarked early and my shuttle got me to the airport nine hours before my flight.  As usual, I immediately checked to see if there was a USO to rest at.

Miami Airport has no USO, but there is a "Military Appreciation Lounge" which is quite large. It is similar in function to a USO, but is run separately. I found this out not from any employee of the Airport--I had asked three if there was a USO and none could tell me, instead giving me looks of confusion. One told me there "might" be an information desk--in terminal E (four terminals away).

I finally found signage for the lounge and made my way in. There are two numbers to call, one for during staff hours and one for after, but it was so close to opening time, I just waited. At nine AM, on the button and as advertised, a very nice lady came to open the door. She moved slowly, as older people do, but was very amiable.

About an hour later, I heard her on the phone and guessed that there was a disabled vet. The lounge, I should add, is situated at the top of a six stair entrance--not altogether inviting for disabled vets. She asked me if I could help her get the wheelchair to the veteran, which I of course said yes to.

I think there is a common mis-perception amongst the public that a disabled veteran is someone who has lost limbs, or is in a VA hospital--someone who needs constant care and/or medical assistance. There are, however, any number of veterans with limited disability who need help only occasionally. This gentleman was clearly one of the latter. He was understandably upset as he had gotten himself and his luggage, with no little difficulty, to the lounge based upon the same google search I'd used, which lists as one of the lounge's amenities "wheelchair assistance". When he arrived (and it is, again, not easy to get to) and found that not only was there no "wheelchair assistance" other than a wheelchair, and that was situated at the top of an insurmountable (to someone who is disabled) staircase, his anger and frustration were evident.

It was an unfortunate situation. The volunteer who was there did not know what to do to help him and had no other information other than a wheelchair. The veteran, who had followed the advice on the website, now found himself further from his gate than otherwise and with no one to help him. I offered to take him to his gate and the two of us set out for Delta--four terminals away. He was hoping to get standby on an earlier flight.

When we arrived at Delta, I pulled him up to the "first class" line. Not to get him through the shorter line, but because it was out of the way of foot traffic (pedestrians tend to ignore wheelchairs and cause traffic).  The Delta employee took a look at the wheelchair, made eye contact with me briefly, and then turned his back pretending he didn't see us and pulled the red, elastic band directly across in front of the wheelchair I was pushing.  The move was bold in its blatant disrespect. I left the wheelchair where it was (yes, I was being passive-aggressive) blocking the entry to "first class" so that the employee would have to address the veteran if anyone else came forward and stepped over to the self-check in kiosks to ask another employee for help.

The second employee told us that Delta no longer does standby. The veteran was now unsure what to do. He asked the Delta rep what his options would be if he chose to go back to the Military Lounge--would Delta pick him up there with their wheelchair (I volunteered, obviously, to bring him back on my own, but he didn't want to bother me further). Delta informed him that they could take him TO the lounge, but not bring him back from the lounge at the time of his flight.

At this point, I began to get upset. The Veteran asked, "Isn't wheelchair assistance something that's offered by Delta as part of the services?" and the employee rolled her eyes and said she could check. She came back and informed us that her superior had told her that since the military lounge was in the same terminal as American Airlines, we would have to have American bring him back to Delta if he decided to return.  He decided against it, and we called for a Delta wheelchair to get him through the gate four hours before his flight.  About five minutes later, a wheelchair arrived, pushed by a smaller woman who honestly didn't look physically fit enough to push him AND carry the two bags of his that I was carrying. The Veteran stood up to change wheelchair, but after he did so the woman pushing the wheelchair and the employee began speaking to one another in very quick Spanish. I picked up a little of what was being said, but before I could figure it out (my Spanish being limited to ordering food or knowing when my mother is talking about me to my Aunts), the woman pushing the wheelchair left--apparently someone else had called for a wheelchair and she had approached us instead.

Neither employee addressed the Veteran--the customer who needed the wheelchair to begin with--but the employee did say to me, rather curtly, "That one's not his, it'll be a few minutes."

Eventually, a wheelchair arrived and took him, I assume, through the gate and I returned the empty wheelchair back to the Military Appreciation Lounge. I sit here now, feeling angry and disappointed. Having had my own father in a wheelchair for a short period before his death, I know what a difficulty it can be to get around in a wheelchair. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, not everything is wheelchair friendly or accessible. But, for the airport to advertise a lounge for military personnel (specifically offering wheelchair support) and then provide none--and to situate it somewhere that is not wheelchair friendly, is ridiculous! Obviously there is nothing the nice lady could have done about this, but someone at the Airport should have had the foresight to either build a ramp, or delete a line of text from their website.

As for the people at Delta, it would have taken one employee a modicum of effort to make the gentleman feel less like an imposition to be dealt with and more like a person.  I'm sure Delta and the Miami airport have all kinds of policies and systems in place to deal with disabled passengers. But if they don't ensure that their employees know what those systems are, or empower them with the ability to work outside those systems when the situation necessitates it, then those systems are counter productive. Moreover, if the employees they hire have poor customer service skills to begin with, that lack of skill will only be exacerbated when dealing with customers who have special needs. To have seen that so openly and downright hostilely expressed toward a Veteran in my own care for even a short period made my heart sink.

I just checked the link: I do not see wheelchair assistance listed, although I do remember seeing it on the Veteran's mobile phone when he showed it to me. There may be an unofficial link that offers said service, but on the official, top of the google link--I don't see it there.


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