Some of you may have seen my tweet the other day asking Southwest Airlines about their policy regarding placing passengers with visible disabilities on the preboard list for a flight if there hadn’t been a discussion with an agent about it first. Obviously, Twitter’s character limit necessitated a little more brevity, which may have come across as anger; it was not intended as such. I was quickly contacted by Customer Service Representative Nicole (and several others with their positive experiences) who offered to check into what had happened.
The Story: Karen and I were traveling from Omaha to Baltimore with a connection in chicago. We got out of omaha a little late necessitating hauling a little tail from MDW’s B12 to A4B. As an aside, anyone who has been the the “new gate” knows it’s faster to walk to Indiana. As we were walking the last quarter mile, we heard our names being paged to preboard the flight. We kind of wondered what it was all about, since we hadn’t requested to preboard, and since we didn’t need to preboard we just got in line with our boarding group, in numerical order. (as a second aside, the way the boarding line was set up, it would have been more inconvenient to us and others had we jumped the line)
Neither one of us thought much more about it until we were at the gate Wednesday (having finally secured the world’s best hot cocoa, that from Dunkin Doughnuts), and we got paged to preboard again. Again, we declined to do so, but it was at this point when I decided to engage Southwest and figure out why we were being put on the preboard list.
The Explanation: Nicole did follow up with an e-mail explaining what she found out. The gist of it is the agent at OMA was trying to be helpful when he saw the connection was so tight. I’m not sure if he thought attaching the SSR would trigger someone to meet us and get us to the gate more quickly, or if he thought at least the Ops Agent at MDW would keep an extra eye out for us so we wouldn’t miss the flight. IN any event, his intentions obviously weren’t malicious (nor had we ever really thought they were) and BWI was proactively acting on that SSR.
why did it matter to us? A lot of people probably think, “hey, you had the chance to get on before anyone else and get whatever seat you want. Why on Earth would you not take it?” As it is generally explained, the intent of preboarding is to allow people who need extra time or assistance getting down the jetway and to their seats to get that extra time or assistance. As a generally competant blind traveler* I don’t tend to need either of these accomodations. finding the right spot to stand in the boarding line isn’t difficult, one simply orients oneself the the location of the agent/boarding door, asks a passenger in line what their number is, and moves forward or backward accordingly. Following the group through the jetbridge is likewise not generally dificult. As for finding a seat, it’s pretty easy to either ask a flight attendant, should they offer, if there are empty seats nearby, or simply use the cane to determine if you find legs instead of empty floor space. A possibly daunting task to someone who has never conceptualized or experienced how they would do this as a blind person, but to us this is daily reality.
Anyone who has ever traveled with me on Southwest knows I am incredibly anal about trying to check in as close to that 24 hour pre-flight mark as possible. If I’m traveling alone, I like to sit by the window so I can easily stash my white cane along the bulkhead (it often confuses people when I have to ask them to slide it down there, don’t ask me why), and I’ve never had a problem finding a window seat when I’m in the A or lower numbered B groups. Same thing applies if I’m traveling with someone, we can board early and find seats together. I’m also generally confident that whomever I’m with is not going to get confused by the fact that my cane doesn’t collapse :).
There’s also another reason than not needing the asistance/time. it’s also sometimes a matter of ending up fighting public assumptions about the capabilities of the blind. Sometimes, people do things for you on the assumption that they think you can’t do it any other way. accepting a service you might not need may lead to the subconscious reinforcement of that assumption in someone’s mind. Maybe this doesn’t make any sense to anyone who hasn’t had to dispell numerous public misconceptions about what the blind can and cannot do, (I cite the crock of ridiculousary that is The BrailleWise Aircraft Toilet as a prime example**) but we do live in a world where many people still don’t believe the blind are as capable as sighted people and sometimes the assumption that we need to preboard is just one manifestation of that belief. When asserting that we are as capable as sighted folks, it hurts that assertion to take advantage of something we don’t need. Whether you yourself would think, the next time you are interviewing a blind person to work in a fast-paced environment, “hmmm, the last time I was on a plane, I saw that blind guy preboard. Maybe this guy is going to need more time to do things too,” but some people do hold that opinion. I completely understand how readers may not draw a connection from act A to thought B, but the human brain is a weird place, and my goal is to blend into the rest of you as much as possible.
I begrudge no one, blind or otherwise, from taking the opportunity to preboard if they feel they need it. In the case of blind people, there are those who have not yet learned the skills of blindness, or are not confident in their abilities, and do need extra time and assistance. If boarding my aircraft requires walking out on a noisy tarmac, I have occasionally preboarded if I wasn’t with someone, or didn’t feel I could ask a fellow passenger if I could follow them. However, in most cases, I’m perfectly capable of boarding during my asigned time. My reason for asking the question was to understand the Southwest policy, and what the thinking of the agents was. It was never to get on anyone’s case, raise ruckis because someone violated a federal reg, or be “that passenger”. I simply wanted to bring attention to what had happened, and maybe do a little educating along the way.
I would like to thank Southwest Airlines, Nicole, and the CSR Supervisors and agents she talked to, for your prompt responses. I have long preferred to fly SWA whenever possible because of the excellent customer service I receive, and because the people I have met are genuinely friendly. to the OMA agent who almost always recognizes Karen and me (and who knows Karen’s name), I’m sorry I don’t know yours; that is an oversight I will correct the next time our paths cross. And there will be a next time, because I will still fly SWA first and foremost whenever I can.
- Disclaimer: this description may not apply on days when I am doggedly sick, or have not slept in the past 24 hours.
** A famous NonyRant is forthcoming on this topic this weekend, I assure you.