United Airlines goes out of its way for a passenger

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

It means those like Denise Hawk, on the way to visit her grandson on United Airlines, can get on first.

I am happy to wait in line, because … I can. Hawk can’t.

Determined to travel regularly, she refuses to let multiple sclerosis keep her home-bound. With varying degrees of challenging air travel and customer service experiences under her belt, Hawk would need to be exceptionally impressed by a particular vendor to want to tell us about it.

She was, and she did. And … the winner is … United Airlines. And not just for poise and congeniality.

The Good News Guy is humbled by the uplifting previous American Airlines experience highlighting under-appreciated aspects of disability travel. The column’s access and travel references also apply here.

Our society is more mobile, and accessible, than ever — and so is, it appears, our impatience. Teeth gnashing and hand wringing seem to be the name of the game in a privileged society where hordes of me-first flyers compete for smaller seats. But before I sound like a downer, this can also reveal the accomplishments of the challenged and assisted pre-boarders we may casually notice while waiting in line.

Do you wonder about their back story? What is compelling them to go somewhere despite their difficulties? Who are they visiting, and why? Gosh – what happens to them when a flight is cancelled 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. If you think about it, it actually is amazing.

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“I have multiple sclerosis and have to use a cane,” Hawk begins. “On my recent trip home to see my grandson in Lubbock, Texas, I had a layover in Houston. The distance between gates is lengthy, and takes me a while to get there. When I left Knoxville, I did not request assistance, but told the ticket agent I would need a wheelchair in Houston.”

United’s policy is quite detailed and accommodating but, as with other airlines, requests advanced notice. They even have a page just for senior travel tips.

“When I arrived in Houston, there was a wheelchair waiting for me just outside the airplane door,” Hawk exclaimed. Before she could think of it, “The person that took me to my next gate asked if I needed to stop for anything, refreshment or bathroom.”

When I arrived at my gate, the ticket agent said she was expecting me. She asked if I would like to have a seat closer to the front, prepared me to pre-board, assisted me all the way, and upgraded me to seat 4A. She was friendly, happy, and helpful.”

Wait, shouldn’t the airline be doing this anyway as required?

Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, the “friendly, happy, and helpful” part can be lacking. There are ways to do something technically correct, and then there are ways to do it right.

The attendants and staff clearly cared about their actions, and accomplishing them to the best of their ability to make a challenging experience comfortable for someone who needed it, and, well, made her feel special. And who couldn’t use a little of that?

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Hawk says it best. “I felt like I was important to them and that they actually cared about my getting where I needed to go with as little stress as possible,” she concluded. “I fly at least once a month for 16 years, and this is the first time I have received treatment like this. This was the most pleasant trip I have ever had! I wish I had written down the names of the very helpful employees, but I didn’t.”

Maybe this will help. And may you have many more years of travel.

This story originally appeared May 15, 2015.

Andrew Der

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

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