Southwest helps fix a wheelchair — and a holiday journey

Waiting in line to board a flight can be a good thing.

It means Carlos Vargas and his 90-year-old mother, of Chicago, can board their Southwest flight to Newark, N.J. first.

I am happy to wait in line, because… I can. Those like his mother cannot.

Determined to travel, she refused to let her wheelchair travel challenges keep her from visiting her grandchildren during the winter holiday season.

And Southwest went way above and beyond to make sure she succeeded.

The Good News Guy continues to be humbled by uplifting stories of determined, ailing, and underappreciated challenged travelers.

Southwest is no stranger to the public — or our column — as a good-natured airline, including a particularly memorable and viral story about taking a passenger under its wing.

Other airlines have their moments, too. Hawaiian Airlines completely refunded all of a family’s nonrefundable tickets when one of them died. So did JetBlue for a serious illness.

With its sagging reputation, even American sits right with a passenger when it graciously offers a better empty seat. And United really went out of its way for this severely ill traveler.

Our society’s mobility and accessibility are higher than ever — exceeded only by our growing impatience. While hordes of me-first flyers compete for smaller seats, we may overlook the accomplishments of the disabled and assisted preboarders in wheelchairs we only casually notice while waiting in line.

Do you ever wonder about their backstories? What is compelling them to go somewhere despite their difficulties? Who are they visiting, and why? What happens to them when their flights are canceled or delayed for hours, and they are alone? Maybe our day isn’t so inconvenient after all. In the end, we still get where we want to go safely in a pressurized metal tube at 600 mph. It is not only amazing, but it should serve as a reminder that we should be grateful for our privileges, inconveniences and all.

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“My mother traveled with her own special airline-compatible wheelchair with four small wheels,” began Vargas. “The plastic base of the left arm was damaged, and we’re not sure how it happened. While we were waiting for our luggage in front of the Newark Southwest baggage office, Elvi Silva, Customer Service Supervisor, asked if I needed help. I told him ‘no’ but commented about the broken arm.”

You won’t believe what happened next.

“He called me inside to tell me he could help and called a vendor they work with to arrange for them to pick up the chair and fix it,” Vargas went on. “As kind as that was, and when he realized that it would have taken time we didn’t have, the manager gave me a brand new wheelchair he happened to have in exchange for the old one, right on the spot!”

He added, “No paper, no money, no questions.”

No problem.

There’s more.

After their return trip home, they were the last to deplane, close to midnight, after numerous East Coast snowstorm delays. Not to be outdone, Michael Sliwa, a Midway Airport Southwest rep, brought the wheelchair to the airplane door, walked ahead with them to the baggage carousel, and waited with them to retrieve their luggage.

The attendant was clearly tired. Maybe he had family waiting for him at home? Perhaps he was hungry? He didn’t care.

He waited.

And in case anyone missed it, Vargas imparted another critical lesson lost to many. Travel (and life) can be unpredictable, and sometimes bad things happen by chance. They do not always need to be someone’s fault, as seems to be the case in our “who-can-I-blame-first” world.

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Sometimes moments like this are also what best reveals the inherent good nature of those who are eager to simply be nice and not just do their job.

“From the time I noticed the broken wheelchair arm, I did not say or request anything since this occurrence could happen to anyone at any time,” Vargas concluded. “Every time I fly with Southwest, they are the best.”

Vargas also thanked for what we do for consumers. It is we who thank him for letting us and the airlines know when things go right — instead of only when they go wrong.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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