San Diego: Part I

This blog post was originally meant to recap the accessibility of San Diego and why Daman Wandke picked this city to test out AbiliTrek’s new Yelp-like platform. However, due to multiple events, it has morphed into the piece of the story about the ableism that we know all too well. Don’t worry, you will get to hear all about the wonders of how accessible the city of San Diego really is; just stay tuned to next Monday to hear the better half of this story.

Minus being called cripples and told to beat it while exiting the elevator onto the trolley platform, Daman Wandke and Kyann Flint experienced little ableism while traveling throughout San Diego itself. A trip unfortunately has to typically face ableism at some point. It was not until they encountered TSA, upon leaving San Diego, that the ableist adventures really began.

Daman travels often — on his own — so he has paid for PreCheck to avoid having to remove his items from his bag nor experience a full-body pat down every single time he flies. People who cannot walk through the metal detector must have a full body pat down every time they fly; it is not by random selection but every time. This is unless the lengthy process of obtaining PreCheck has been gone through and paid for.

When Daman and Kyann arrived at the San Diego airport, their boarding passes indicated that they had PreCheck. The airport was understaffed so travelers with PreCheck were given neon-colored cards and funneled through the same line as travelers without PreCheck. Daman and Kyann were each given a neon card, so they continued believing that they had PreCheck. However, by the time they were told to remove electronics from their bags, their bags had been swept through the scanner to the other side (all things still within their bags as this is what passengers can do when they have PreCheck) to be potentially unattended. While Daman and Kyann waited, person after person passed by — PreCheck and not — to be granted access to the other side of security.

Twenty minutes passed before Daman was greeted by a male TSA agent. Kyann watched Daman as he was escorted away to be patted down. Not following protocol, the TSA officer inappropriately patted Daman down; he used the palm of his hand rather than the back of his hand (ironically, this TSA agent verbally expressed the correct protocol of a pat down). All the while an airport worker asked the officer why he needed to pat Daman down in that manner as Daman had PreCheck.

Kyann’s mom, who was traveling with Daman and Kyann, witnessed the end of the pat down the agent performed on Daman. Kyann’s mom was appalled by the agent’s mistreatment of using the palm of his hand to pat Daman down in sensitive areas. This humiliating distastefulness on behalf of this TSA officer was not necessary and needs to be prevented from happening again. Unfortunately, this experience was not Daman’s first and this poor treatment is not an isolated occurrence.

When it was time for Kyann to be patted down, a female assist agent came to the gate and started yelling at Kyann to take off her hat and scarf. Then the agent continued to yell some gibberish about taking Kyann’s seat cushion. Kyann was confused as she still believed that she had PreCheck and did not understand why TSA needed to take her seat cushion (it would be painful for Kyann to ride around in her chair without her seat cushion as she would have to sit on the metal frame). Kyann also could not hear everything the TSA agent was saying so Kyann called the agent over for clarification. The agent finally walked over to Kyann and Kyann asked the agent to pull the cushion out from underneath her. Kyann then followed the TSA agent through the gate to the other side of security to be patted down (sitting on the metal frame). The agent complained that according to protocol she had to give Kyann a full body pat down, rather than just swabbing her hands, because TSA was understaffed. This did not make any sense to Kyann because if they were understaffed they would do less to PreCheck customers. Along with the full body pat down, the TSA lady still swabbed Kyann’s hands, chair, and shoes as well as her own gloves. This process took over five minutes.

All the while Daman and Kyann were being patted down, Kyann’s mom was treated extremely poorly by TSA staff. Kyann’s mom knew to remove all the items from her bag, but she did not remove anything from Kyann’s and Daman’s bag because she knew they had PreCheck. While her bags and Kyann’s bags moved easily through the scanner, Daman’s bags were pulled and sat in a long line of PreCheck bags that were being searched. When the TSA agent finally searched Daman’s bag, he was cold and rude to Kyann’s mom. She tried to explain that Daman had PreCheck and if she knew Daman’s bags were going to be searched, she would have removed Daman’s wheelchair charger. But the TSA agent did not care. He pulled Daman’s belongings out of his bag, removed the charger and then said he was sending Daman’s bag back through the scanner. The TSA agent made a big mess of Daman’s things and did not have the initiative to keep Daman’s chair charger safe. Kyann’s mom had to rearrange all of Daman’s belongings to pad the charger to be sure it was not damaged during flight. Daman’s second bag also had to go through the scanner a second time because his iPad was inside it. The iPad could have been removed if Kyann’s mom knew the PreCheck protocol was not going to be followed. According to Kyann’s mom, it was simply poor communication on behalf of TSA. TSA gave the PreCheck flyers a different card making them think their bags were fine to travel through the scanner without being checked. TSA’s actions made more work for TSA agents and more stress for travelers. Kyann’s mom would have been happy to remove all of Daman’s “questionable” items like his iPad and wheelchair charger had she known TSA was not following PreCheck protocol. The whole situation made it a hardship for her. Many travelers offered to help her get all six bags together. TSA was not helpful at all. TSA made it even harder when they freaked out that Kyann’s mom had six bags. She told TSA that she would not have six bags to care for all by herself if they had not whisked Daman and Kyann away to pat them down.

On another note, what would have happened to Daman’s stuff if Kyann’s mom was not there? Remember, Daman often flies by himself. When Daman is patted down, he is forced to leave his bag unattended. Ironically, airports continuously remind people to not leave their bags unattended, but how is one to do this when TSA gives them no other choice? TSA tore through Daman’s belongings while he was off somewhere else being patted down. The TSA agent, while holding up each bag to search, yelled out, “Whose bag is this?” Daman was not there to claim his bag. This is not an intelligent situation on behalf of TSA hence the reason Daman pays for PreCheck.

Once on board, the entire flight was wonderful. Daman, Kyann and, her mom were all excited to be back in Seattle. When coming to a stop, Daman noticed that the plane was in a remote location without a Jetway; the plane was taxiing up to a giant scaffolding ramp that was skinny, steep, and had three switchbacks. They found out that their pilot argued with SeaTac to prevent landing where we did as there were four passengers on board with mobility issues. SeaTac did not seem to care. The pilot and head stewardess apologized for this inconvenience and the pilot even helped Kyann’s mom carry bags down the scaffolding.

Daman finally made it onto the tarmac just to find his wheelchair broken.  It took over an hour to fill out the complaint form. Personnel was very helpful but they tried to broach the issue with Kyann’s mom instead of Daman. Kyann’s mom told the agent helping Daman that they needed to talk to Daman. He is his own person and she was just traveling with him. She could not make any decision for him. Daman was amused that the Alaska personnel recorded that Daman was traveling with his family (this was a work trip and Daman is the boss)!

While Alaska does a relatively good job of caring for their passengers, there are many gaps in the flying process that still need to be filled. Alaska is working on many of these issues but airports, TSA, and other airlines still need to climb on board. Listen to travelers with disabilities to improve the service to all passengers. After all, with fifty-four million people with disabilities, there is a huge market awaiting access.