Having not flown since becoming a wheelchair user I was incredibly worried and nervous about going on holiday. Crowds are daunting and people rushing with trolleys and luggage leads to trapped fingers on wheel rims, bashes and painful knocks and clipped feet (mine) or heels (others) . So on a recent family holiday (our last overseas for a while that I promise you thanks to the aftercare, or lack of it I should say, but that’s in another blog). We arrived nice and early and were very excited, if not somewhat over awed. We booked Meet and Greet so that the Car was parked close to the airport and I called Stansted in advance to check the location and accessibility from the Meet and Greet area to the airport. I was told several times on the call it was only a short walk, which I ignored until about the the 5th time of hearing it, when I laughed and said – wheel, it’s a wheel, what I need to know is, is there dropped kerbs and level access etc. As if reading from a crib sheet I was told once again it was a short walk across a road. I figured it couldn’t be that bad, but was surprised that there is no mechanism for blue badge holders to park in the nearest meet & greet bays, especially as this is all organised well in advance and it would be simple enough to implement. We arrived and unloaded, my wife quickly getting out of the car and opening the boot to show the wheelchair to prevent the person directing the cars from parking the car behind us too close, and made our way to the key drop off. When dropping off the staff were very polite and said that they would arrange for my vehicle to be close to the key collection point when we returned and presumably marked my ticket as a wheelchair user. A system of sorts, and with a couple of tweaks this could be really effective, it was however a pleasing start.
As a group of 7 all with hold and hand luggage we were efficiently checked in, of course online pre check in and so on helps this but the staff were cheery and professional even if we were still half asleep at 6.00am. The only sticking point was that we had to be moved from Row 1 because apparently Thomson do not allow Children to sit in Row 1 strange considering it had been Thomson’s own special assistance team that had booked my wife, daughter and me into these seats knowing her age. We were given the option of all moving to Row 3 (which we were assured was an accessible seat) or our 3 year old could sit elsewhere, not much of a choice so we palmed our daughter off on some unsuspecting strangers. I jest we of course moved to seats 3, although had I been able to see Row 3 I would have argued this more, but since it was early, I didn’t know we’d get stuck on the runway for an hour and a half and we were excited we left it.
We were directed to the special assistance desk, which was clearly undermanned with more people requiring assistance than people available. I thought pre-booking was meant to prevent this but it seems not, unless of course others hadn’t pre-booked. The member of staff who checked me in saw the people I was with and looked pleadingly as she said can you make your own way to the gate and someone will meet you there to help you on the plane. Although we were a large group I was effectively travelling with my wife and 3yo, our 19yo son and his 19yo girlfriend wanted to go off and do their own thing as did my parents. However after it became apparent there was no one to help me to the departure gate so we reluctantly agreed and my wife pushed me, whilst I was buried under the hand luggage as I wheeled off. In the end we all decided to go through to the departure gate together and get breakfast. Going through to the security area for our hand luggage and body checks we were directed via another pathway to avoid the long and winding tape. When we got to the security check area everything was such a rush and we had no idea what we were doing. I was pushed off in a wheelchair with my wallet, hand luggage and many other items on a conveyor belt I could no longer see. My wife was with our 3yo and as I had no assistance it meant I was pushed away from them with my wife dealing with my hand luggage. I had my back to them and no way of knowing what was happening whilst I was padded down and checked, my crutches went through the x-ray machine and suddenly I became aware of some panic behind me. My LG bless set off the alarm and being her first time flying and my wife and I being at opposite ends of the system there was no one to help her stand in the x-ray machine and so on.I had my back to her and couldn’t move to reassure her and my wife who also set it off then got shouted at for moving and trying to help a 3 year old. I had no idea where my personal belongings were or my travel party but we were quickly reunited.
All the staff we met throughout the airport I have to say were polite, helpful and courteous but I felt really let down by the special assistance. Getting to our departure gate we sat and had to wait for assistance to be called. When it arrived we found out we couldn’t board as a party and needed our own hand luggage and boarding passes. so we (my wife, daughter and I) were taken to an elevator which I had to point out was out of order. We were then taken to another lift, 3 trips to the wrong floors later and it became apparent that the override key wasn’t working, so my wife, daughter and I were left in the lift whilst she walked to the correct floor and called the lift. From there I was then pushed down the gangway towards the entrance of the plane, and as the special assistance person disappeared off into the distance saying you’re OK from here as a statement as opposed to a question and we were abandoned. It meant leaving my wife with 3 lots of hand luggage, a 3 year old, helping me to transfer on to crutches for the short walk to the plane and folding my wheelchair up for the 2 people waiting to take my wheelchair to the hold. Now she is good, in fact she is pretty awesome but she doesn’t have octopus arms and the ability to juggle all this. I wouldn’t mind if I had simply turned up on the day and asked for help but we’d booked the hliday and requested assistance 10 months earlier and I’d spoken to Stansted and Thomson several times in the build up to our holiday.
In Fuerteventura I was met at the plane entrance and taken to our luggage carousel. On the return I was met in the departure area, wheeled to the departure gate, and my whole party were taken down first to the plane with another couple in a wheelchair. This was a significant improvement on Stansted or so I thought as it meant all my family were available to help me, my LG and my wife to get on the plane and hand my wheelchair over. This however is when things somehow went wrong.
Firstly my chair was delayed coming up from the hold (turns out it had been severely damaged on the flight home and I can only assume that since the damage was so significant and obvious that people were panicking and I would like to think they weren’t waiting for it to become completely dark outside to hide the damage but my faith has been left destroyed by the whole affair). The assistance off the plane was just as bad. Instead of being met in the all weather covered bridge we’d boarded from we were off loaded from the other side of the plane in to the elements on to a platform truck, lowered to the ground, then off loaded onto the tarmac where I had to help the assistance staff wheel me up a steep ramp into a minibus, before a short drive saw us being offloaded again outside and into some lifts and then into the terminal. By the time this had all happened the rest of the party we were traveling with had disembarked, collected all our luggage and were sat there calling us and waiting for us to appear. I asked to be pushed straight to the damaged luggage reporting desk, where I was left to report the damage to my wheelchair. The significance of the damage to my wheelchair didn’t register with the airport despite it having a ripped seat and no replacement chair to get me to my car was offered. I was sat precariously on a ripped seat, buckled chair in tears with a fantastic holiday ruined in one flight home. Now whilst I know Stansted Airport are not necessarily the ones responsible for the damage to the chair they are the company I organised assistance with at the point of booking 10 months before flying, and called 2 weeks and 48 hours prior to flying to check all was in place and they could have offered me a wheelchair to at least get me to my car. Overall I was really disappointed by this experience and it has put me off flying again. For a service that has to be booked in advance I had much higher expectations, to then spend 3 weeks desperately fighting to get my wheelchair replaced by Thomsons has left me even more disillusioned. We paid extra to go with a supposed reputable company, with the belief that they would care for my very important belongings and if worse case scenario happened they would swiftly resolve. Given that I had gathered all information they needed within 30 hours of landing and uploaded it to their website I can see no justifiable reason why it took them 19days to reach a decision and release funds to pay the company to order a replacement chair. I will have been without my wheelchair for well over 5 weeks by the time it is built and delivered to my size and shape specifications, had the lack of a wheelchair been treated more importantly it could have been ordered and delivered by now. It’s not like I had a tennis racket or set of skis broken I had my independence broken and have had to use borrowed chairs that have caused increased pain for a number of weeks, I missed part of my LG’s birthday celebrations and numerous nursery runs. I cannot wait to have my replacement chair and then I will hopefully be able to start reflecting on the good elements of our family holiday and not this. Going away is hard enough to plan, organise and sort and for now my passport can be filed as I have no desire to put my mobility aids in anyone else’s possession so it means only holidays we can drive too for the foreseeable.
On a positive note Elizabeth at Felgains has once again gone above and beyond the standard of customer service I would expect to help me resolve this. She has answered all my questions within 24 hours, has been very helpful, even contacted me to say money had been received so I can stop worrying and has organised for the wheelchair to be delivered to me. The customer service has been the polar opposite of Thomson’s and it restores your faith a little.