Friday, 29 September 2017

Airport Assistance: London Gatwick and JFK New York.

Assistance on my outward journey really was a tale of two halves. It could just as well be called 'The good, the bad and the ugly."

Round 1: Wheelchair Assistance at London Gatwick
Check in bags. Then directed to the assistance desk 15m away.

Arrive at assistance desk.
Friendly confirmation of who I am, which flight I'm on, and what assistance I'd like.
Explained I could go through the priority lane on my own, and then visit the assistance desk on the left the other side, where they would sort out when I needed to be at which gate, and help me get there. Or someone could help me through security and to the second desk.

I chose to take myself through. Assistance chap took me to the right security lane and wished me good luck. All good. Staff didn't fuss about the extra, liquid containing medical stuff I had (like the cool vests). I was through in minutes and found the next desk easily.

The gate number hadn't been announced (I was early) so the desk chap told me what time I'd need to be back at the desk to be taken to the gate, and was friendly and helpful.

I then pootled off for a bit (the priority lounge which I'd booked was cool, quiet and had soft sofas I could lie down on) then returned at the allocated time. There was a queue. But desk chap recognised me at the back of the queue and said "it's gate -. If you'd like help, I'll sort it in a minute, otherwise we can meet you there."

I was doing well after my lie-down, and wanted the exercise (the floors at Gatwick are really easy to push on) so I opted to meet them at the plane.

Off I went, following his directions. I found the gate easily, got ushered to the front of the queue for tickets being checked, and into the gate seating area, where they said if I went to the front someone would be there to help shortly.

Sure enough, with plenty of time to spare, someone came over ready to assist me. The 'plane wasn't ready yet, so he checked he'd got my requirements right, and we chatted til we got the go-ahead.

I got on the plane first - taking my wheels right to the plane door, where I'd chosen to 'walk' to my seat which was very near the door. Assistance didn't bat an eyelid at my asking to borrow his shoulder for support, and asked which bags I wanted stowing where - so I even had my 'in flight essentials' bag  and my cool vest accessible - and my rucksack went in the overhead lockers.

Assistance chap leaves.

I was left feeling like I have been treated like a person, like a valued customer. (I'm sure they didn't get everything perfect, but when you see what happens next, you'll forgive any 'rose-tinted spectacles' aspects of the memory!)

Round 2: Wheelchair assistance at JFK New York.

Arrive. Plane empties. I wait for my wheelchair.

"Your chair is here"
I borrow the shoulder of an air hostess and get as far as past-the-chairs-and-nearly-at-the-door. Someone else has just sat in the airport wheelchair. It wasn't for me. "Your chair will be here in a minute".

I wait - but I've used up my limited walking and standing. So I slide down the wall I'm leaning against and crouch/sit on the floor.

Another chair arrives. "Here's your chair"

"That's not my chair - can't I use my own chair?"

"No - this is your chair, get in"

(Note: it is the end of a long flight, and a longer day. Speaking is really difficult and long sentences are impossible for me)

I'd been warned that despite the law allowing them to fetch your chair to the 'plane door like in every other country I'd ever visited, they tend to force you to use an airport chair - however unsuitable. I hoped this only applied to powerchairs. I was wrong. True, their laws means chairs have to be checked by customs - but how that equates to 'must go on a conveyor belt, and may not be taken to the plane after being checked' I can't quite fathom. I lacked the communication skills and brain power to force the issue. So I got in their chair. (If you aren't quite sure why 'not my chair' is a big issue, don't worry, I'll do a blog on it soon.)

It was nearly foot wider than I am. A heavy chair I couldn't even move. On my chair all bags attach to the chair, leaving one small handbag with passport, money and water bottle on my lap and my hands free. On the airport chair none of them could hang from it so they were all dumped onto my lap like I was a baggage trolley.

Assistance guy wheels me away.

We reach customs and go to one of the machines where you fill in loads of details on the screen and stuff. He filled it in on auto-pilot, only stopping to ask me whether I had a visa or a waiver etc. He then got stroppy that I didn't produce my passport immediately he asked for it - instead I handed over my plastic wallet containing passport and paperwork. Given that I was also trying to keep hold of the large rucksack, 3 small cool bags and handbag balanced on my lap, with dodgy coordination, I'm impressed I could get anything out of my bag!!

He answered the 'what do you have in your luggage' customs questions - without checking with me first. Clearly he must have been psychic. And then said "put your hand there"- indicating the fingerprint machine at a good height for standing people.

Unable to move my chair to a better angle, I leaned forward and managed to reach the plate -but the angle of my hand was wrong (and uncomfortable) - so I was just lifting my hand to position it better when Assistance says "no" and pushes my hand back down flat, holding it firmly against the plate. I stare in bewilderment at my hand now at a very odd angle, while attempting to shift my upper body into a position that will ease the discomfort (and dislocation risk) of the contortion. Unable to think up appropriate words for "Back off, and let go!".

The machine is satisfied and Assistance releases my hand.

Next: security - it goes fine. Security chap is respectful, polite, and quick (I think I got lucky!)

We approach the baggage carousel. I see my wheelchair about 15m away - waiting for me. Sitting in the middle of the floor like an abandoned suitcase. The relief!! I say "that's my chair, can we get it?"

"No, bags first".

He parks me by the carousel. Then walks off. Literally. Fortunately I'd been left next to someone from my youth group - who got my cases off the conveyor while I sat totally incapacitated in a wheelchair I couldn't move, buried under a mountain of bags.

I wait.

Assistance returns. "Is that your wheelchair?"

"Yes" (very relieved no-one else has walked off with it!)

At LAST I get into my wheelchair. Custom made for me. A chair that gives freedom rather than imprisons me. That minimises my pain. The relief is indescribable. I am no longer at the total mercy of an inconsiderate stranger who treats me like annoying baggage.

I spend a few minutes getting all my bags rearranged onto it. Blissful freedom at last.

I look round. He's disappeared again. And as previously agreed with the youth group (who all had their hands full of their own luggage), we are all making our own way to our meeting point. I'd booked assistance so it shouldn't have been a problem.

The relief drains away.

I return to my cases which had been abandoned by the carousel. I have no idea where Assistance went - or when / if he'll be back. I wonder if there is any way I can get myself and 2 cases to our meeting point. Or whether I should call someone from the group to return and fetch me (although airport staff might not appreciate them trying to get back in through the exit!)

The baggage hall is now nearly empty.

Assistance returns! At last!

"Are these your cases?"


He takes them and walks off at speed.

I follow. Trying not to get left behind. Not sure where we are heading as I have to concentrate hard on overtaking other passengers as my cases get further and further ahead. I struggle to catch up. No time to read signs or get my bearings.

Through a doorway - and into the familiar sight of an arrivals lounge. All the people with name signs, or craning forward to see loved ones. I've made it out.

The relief is short lived. My suitcases are hiking straight out of the airport doors. Will this be the last I see of them?

Summoning all remaining energy

He turns. Looks bemused - as if he can't fathom why I'm asking. Points ahead of him and says  "Outside".

Seriously? The assistance policy is 'Don't ask where someone is going, run outside with their cases and dump them'?

He comes back towards me looking annoyed at my interruption.

"Please take them through this door, then my group is the one on the left"

He wheeled my cases over there. And left.

I sighed with relief. I'd made it. I was back with people who treated me like a human.

I realise he might have been having a bad day, or a 'run off your feet' busy day - but the total lack of communication on basic points was....unparallelled. I've never experienced anything like it. Without spending any extra time and only minimal effort he could have said "your hand needs to be flatter against the plate to register your fingerprints" (No force required). And "I'm super busy, so I'll have to leave you by the baggage carousel while I fetch someone else, then I'll be back for you and your cases". He could have allowed me to switch to my chair immediately instead of making me wait for no reason (then I could at least have got myself to the loo while I waited!).  Oh, and "Where would you like me to take your cases - is someone picking you up, or would you like a taxi?". A little communication and respect would have transformed the whole experience.

And no.

He didn't get a tip.


  1. Total disgrace. Busy or had requested the service that they provide and you definately didnt get that. Id complain. Just because you use a wheelchair it doesnt mean that you arent intelligent or capable of more things than most people can imagine.....but at the same time he just assumed that you were ok to be moved into uncomfortable positions. I was half hoping that you were going to say that he had dislocated your wrist or something and that he went into total shock at what he had done! That would have made my day but I also dont want you in pain so Im glad it didnt. However, his behaviour wasnt very welcoming and since he was the first person you met in that country it doesnt say a lot for the people (and I know they arent all like that but first impressions do stick). definately complain.

  2. Wow! I'm so sorry you got treated the way you did here in the States. Definitely uncalled for. I hope you had a nice stay here, even if you did get treated horribly at the airport.

  3. I had a very similar experience to this at Helsinki airport in June. It was horrendous and left me feeling very nervous about travelling alone ever again. I have only ever had positive experiences at Gatwick and Manchester.

  4. I am so sorry you experienced this at JFK....and am sad to say I had a very similar experience flying from JFK to Prague this summer. Thankfully my husband was there to help. Although he had just had an accident in which he had lost a finger and thumb and needed assistance as well.

    We have always had great luck when in Europe and most of the US. However the large airports in the north east fail the grade.

    So very sorry you went through this too.


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