Thursday, November 24, 2011
Depart Jacksonville at 1:10pm
Arrive Baltimore at 3:00pm
Depart Baltimore at 3:50pm
Arrive Pittsburgh at 4:50pm
A 50 minute connection between flights is pushing it when you are traveling with a wheelchair. We usually pick non-stop flights or itineraries with longer layovers, but since this was Thanksgiving and we booked only 9 days earlier, this was our best option. We made it through security without any issues or the bomb squad being called. The plane was boarded, the door closed and the plane started to back up for an on time departure. Just beyond the gate, the plane came to a stop for approximately 5 minutes before returning to the gate. The flight attendants immediately opened the door. I knew this was trouble because a plane never returns to the gate and reopens the door for a minor issue or a late passenger.
After several minutes, the captain announced that the ground crew had found a bolt under our plane. He went on to explain that it would take some time to figure out where the bolt came from and if it could be repaired. Every seat was taken and everyone was a little more anxious than on your average flight because it was a holiday. Once it got to an hour, I knew there was no way we were going to make our connection. I was sitting there trying to think of our options while watching the kids and listening to other passengers complain.
Being from Chicago, I can remember American Airlines Flight 191. 32 years after the crash and it's still the deadliest airplane crash on American soil. A missing bolt was determined to be the cause. It was hard keeping this information to myself as I tried to figure out a new plan. A couple of passengers did grab their bags and leave the airplane.
I was thinking our intended flight was the last for the day from Baltimore to Pittsburgh. I had just decided that we should get off the plane and head home and try again the next day. I wasn't too worried about the bolt, I assumed the pilots didn't want to die and would get it right. I was thinking it would be more inconvenient to be stuck in Baltimore for the night. We wouldn't get our bags and we checked the wheelchair all the way to Pittsburgh. It would be a difficult night to be stranded and I figured it was better to be at home to regroup.
It was now 90 minutes past our departure time and I was just standing up to start getting off the plane when the captain gave an update. He announced that the bolt was not from the airplane. He said the bolt had a part number that did not exist in the manual. The pilot even took pictures and sent them to headquarters. Boeing was even consulted and everyone was in agreement that the bolt came from another source. The last part of the announcement informed passengers that it would be at least another 20 minutes before we pushed back from the gate because of paperwork.
Immediately after the update, a Southwest Representative boarded the plane and gave status updates on every one's connections. The very first was Pittsburgh and she said they would hold the plane and that all Pittsburgh passengers would have to hurry to catch the flight. After all the updates, I explained to the representative that Kellisa couldn't walk and there was no way we could be fast. In addition, I assumed the flight would also be sold out and already boarded by the time we got to the plane, if we even made it in time. With that in mind, I explained that four middle seats scattered all over the plane would be waiting for us and with a 2 year old and Kellisa, that would not work for us and our situation.
In case you don't know, Southwest boards disabled passengers and those faking disabilities first because they have an open seating policy. Usually this works great for us and is one of the main reasons we only fly Southwest. However, in this case, it would work against us.
The representative listened and told me she would call Pittsburgh and take care of everything. I did not know what that meant, but I had confidence that it would all work out because she told me not to worry.
I fly Southwest almost exclusively for my job, 100+ flights every year for years because of how they have always treated Kellisa. Kellisa flies over 20 times a year and Kellisa has flown over 150 times in her life. It's been over six years since Kellisa flew on another airline, so most of her flights have been on Southwest and we have never had one complaint about how they handle and treat Kellisa! Most other airlines are not as friendly towards passengers with disabilities.
One example: we were flying back to Chicago for Kellisa's birthday party one year and had to postpone the trip because Kellisa needed emergency brain surgery and would be in the hospital. I called to rebook and even had a note from the doctor if needed. OK, I will rat out the airline. Northwest explained that emergency brain surgery wasn't a good enough excuse to change our flight and we would be charged more to make the changes than the original ticket prices. I went up the ladder and every supervisor gave me the same answer. This was additional stress that I didn't need with Kellisa in the hospital and we ended up losing $600 because there was no way for us to keep our original itinerary. Needless to say, we've never flown Northwest again.
We arrived in Baltimore and made our way to the Pittsburgh flight with Kellisa in an airport wheelchair that Southwest had waiting at our gate. Of course, it was in the A Terminal and we arrived in the B Terminal. As we approached the gate, we had the feeling that they knew we were coming and before we could say anything, the Southwest Gate Agent informed us that he had saved three seats in the first row and one right behind in the second row for us. It was an awesome feeling to be taken care of so well in this day and age of customer-no-service. Relieved, I settled in the middle seat between the two kids and Lisa took the 2nd row seat. Thankfully, this flight was uneventful.
This is just one example of how great Southwest Airlines treats their customers, especially those with disabilities. Other reasons, but not the only ones I/we only travel Southwest: I fly enough to earn a companion pass (that means Kellisa flies free every time because she is with me), 2 bags per person can be checked for free, Southwest never charges a change fee (and with our schedules, we change most of our planned trips at least once) and if you cancel a flight, Southwest lets you apply 100% of the original ticket cost to another flight (as long as it's within 12 months).