Rude Airline Personnel
ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, FLORIDA -- My family and I recently traveled Southwest Airline to Orlando, Florida from our home State of Rhode Island. Our flight from Providence, RI on the morning of March 1, 2009 went off without a hitch and their staff was friendly and courteous. However, we experienced a very different and troubling reception at Orlando Airport for our return trip home on March 5, 2009.
Allow me the opportunity to provide some relevant background information. I am 54 years old and my wife and I have been married for over thirty years. In addition to having three biological children, my wife and I had decided to become foster parents in 1989. This opportunity subsequently led to the adoption of three children, two of whom have special needs.
Our child with the most severe needs was a recent recipient of “A Wish Come True.” My daughter has a rather rare and unusual chromosome abnormality. As a result, her world is one of rituals, the need of constant assurance, repetition, scheduling and planning. I only know of three known cases in Rhode Island at the time of this writing. The manifestations of this affliction are presented as autistic-like behavior, Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsiveness disorder and a heightened state of anxiety. The most serious medical complication associated with this hardship is that there are an unusual number of deaths that occur during sleep. (In the 21 month period between April 2006 and December 2007, there was a reporting of the sudden, unexpected, and as yet unexplained deaths of six seemingly healthy young people with chromosome 15q duplication syndrome. The six cases of sudden and unexpected death involved young people of both genders between the ages of 7 to 26. All died during the night while they were in bed, presumably asleep.)
As a recipient of “A Wish Come True,” family members are presented with the final product. Planning is done by the wish organization. We were presented with a package instructing us where to be and at what time to be there. For example, our itinerary simple stated: March 5, 2009 Departure Information from Orlando. Airline: Southwest; Flight Number: 1613; Departure time: 6:30; Arrival Time: 10:25. There was no mention of a layover or a stop. Honestly, when all was said and done I was surprised when I learned this was not a non-stop flight.
The morning of March 5, 2009 was our last day of my daughter’s “Wish” vacation aboard the Disney Cruise Line Wonder. We had to be off the ship by 9:00 that morning. However, our flight home was not scheduled to leave until 6:30 that evening. We had no choice but go directly to the airport as we needed to follow our luggage for baggage check-in. (Apparently Disney has a partnership with some airlines that allow for direct ship-to-airline baggage transfer and check in. The owners of the luggage need not be there. We have since learned that Southwest does not have this type of arrangement with Disney.)
After several hours at the terminal, it was apparent that daughter's behavior was going to become an issue. My daughter’s way of thinking would be akin to, “Why go to an airport terminal if you are not going to fly on an airplane?” I asked one of Southwest’s service desk employees if it was possible to transfer to an earlier flight. We were told that accommodations could be made for my daughter and one adult; however, the remaining four passengers would not be afforded the same opportunity. If you knew my daughter, you would understand that this would not be a possibility; she traveled to Orlando with a group of six and she would need to travel back to Rhode Island with the same six people.
Our problem began when around 5:50 PM my daughter yelled a question from afar to your employee (wearing the name tag of Peter) at Gate 123. She asked when her plane would be there. I left my daughter and walked over to Peter to apologize for her loudness, stating that my daughter has special needs. He was gracious and asked, “Where are you folks traveling to?” I said we were going to Providence. He asked for my flight number. I told him I did not know the number off-hand, but we were going to Providence, RI. He checked his computer screen and said there had been a gate change, (he said there was an accompanying announcement as well stating such) and that we needed to be at Gate 125. He added that we should hurry because that plane was just about to begin boarding. I went over to my family and immediately retrieved the booklet that contained our tickets from my travel bag. Instead of going to Gate 125, I went back to see Peter who was engage in small talk conversation with another Southwest employee at the time. Nonetheless, I held out the ticket book for him to view, but instead he turned to me, and said, “Look man, I’m not pulling your leg. I just checked the screen. You need to be at Gate 125.”
I collected my family and hurried to Gate 125 where we were allowed to board the plane. We were seated and buckled-in after having placed our carry-on bags in the overhead bins. Within minutes, the same Southwest employee who allowed us to board the plane raced down the aisle, yelling to that we needed to, “leave the plane immediately. You are on the wrong plane.” My daughter began to have a panic attack. All she knew was she needed to be on a plane to go home and this man was telling us we had to leave. We were escorted to a Southwest service station where the representative at that desk asked, “Who told you to be at Gate 125?” I responded that it was the employee at Gate 123, whose name I did not know at the time. He immediately called over to Peter and asked if it was he that gave us the information as to where to go. I was not privy to his side of the conversation but I imagine it did not go well because when we returned to Gate 123 Peter’s demeanor had drastically changed. It was not his fault that we did not know where we were going. As my daughter panicked state is rising, my wife and I struggled to calm her down (“I want to get on the stupid plane!”) while at the same time trying to deal with a belligerent and extremely belittling Peter.
Allow me to regress and say that as the 6:30 departure time was approaching, my daughter was well versed and prepared to calmly board a plane and go home. The non-attention to detail by Peter and his rudeness after the fact was the catalyst for an escalation of everyone’s anxiety, especially for my daughter. As I am trying to calmly explain to my daughter that we would indeed be going home and there was simply a mistake made, Peter was shouting and reprimanding me.
In summary, the facts are that we are a family who was provided with very limited information. My itinerary from “A Wish Come True” simply listed a flight confirmation number, flight number and a departure time. Additionally, it came to pass that we needed to be at an airport terminal much earlier than the airline departure time. In my effort to keep my party together and on-track and my daughter with special needs calm, I saw one Southwest employee who told me that the most I can be afforded was a partial accommodation on a request for an earlier flight. There is a second employee (Peter) who insisted that we had been waiting at a wrong gate for many hours. There is still a third employee who allowed my party of six to board and be seated on a jet airline going to Providence, yet raced onto to plane moments later while yelling at us to get off. And finally we have Peter yet again who now is very willing and anxious to place the onus of blame and total responsibility squarely upon my shoulders because, “It’s not my fault that you don’t know where you’re going.” To add insult to injury, Peter’s last comment to my wife was, “I did not tell you to be at the terminal all day!” I guess he just needed to add that remark. (Upon reflection, I am very much surprised that the attendant at Gate 125 allowed us to board the wrong plane in the first place, especially in this day of Homeland Security. My best guess is that he collected our tickets, let us board, and then ran the boarding passes through the electronic equipment which alerted him of the error. He would then need to race onto the plane and remove our party from the incorrect flight.)
“A Wish Come True” strives to take the stress and worry of planning a child’s wish off the shoulders of the family. As I stated before, the wish recipient’s family is presented with a final package that simply instructs you where to be and at what time. In hindsight, I probably should have investigated the details of the flight plans and arrangements so as to have a greater understanding. I had not known that the jet we would ultimately be flying on was going to make a landing at Baltimore first. I only knew that we would be flying from Orlando, Florida to Providence, Rhode Island.
I would expect Southwest Airline to be professional in what they do and courteous in the treatment of their customers. Unfortunately, the attitude at Southwest was a far cry from the politeness and acceptance that we were afforded by the staff at Walt Disney Cruise Line. There was little sympathy or patience extended by Southwest Airlines to my family which included a child with involved special needs regardless that we had spent nine hours in your terminal. Peter’s conduct was such that the members of my party were made to feel that we were a bother; another unwelcomed, perhaps non-educated Southwest customer and that, given the choice, he really would have preferred to have nothing to do with us.
Rhode Island is a small state and I am an involved parent. I will be sure to share the details of our experience with the organization of “A Wish Come True.” Further, I will make a concerted effort to share my account with any and all agencies that provide care and services to our population of individuals with special needs.
I have sent this same letter to Southwest Airline’s customer relations but I am not under any illusion that a reprimand or, more importantly, a needed change will come of it. Southwest Airlines has left a lasting impression with my family. It’s not a very pleasant memory, but it is sure to be a long and lasting one.
Addendum: I have since received a response from a representative at “A Wish Come True.” In part, it reads, “I will be contacting the folks at Southwest Airlines to express my disappointment in the service or lack of service that you received. The flights were direct and our organization was billed for two direct flights. There were to be no stops or layovers. The time of departure, 6:30pm, was so that you could have a direct flight.”