Unhappy travels with Norwegian Air

My last post outlined the pre-flight problems that I had with Norwegian Airlines. I really expected that the debate about the battery would be as bad as it got, but they managed to make it worse. In fact, check in was a doddle. They had no problem approving the scooter, including batteries, and agreed it could be gate checked. I got through the airport under my own steam and it was much nicer than being pushed through via special assistance.

The trouble started at the gate. I asked them to put my scooter in the ‘priority space’, which is required by US law to take collapsible mobility equipment. Having downloaded FAA guidance on travelling with a mobility aid because of the battery issue, I understood that I was entitled to have my scooter carried on board in the crew cupboard if it would fit, and that my scooter would get priority over other luggage They asked how small my scooter folded to – I duly showed them – then they said there was no space. I challenged this and said that I understood that I was entitled to priority in the space as a result of the equipment being mobility equipment. Then the person at the gate told me that there was no cupboard or space even for crew bags on the plane. I accepted this and asked for reassurance that my scooter would be returned to the gate. I had previous experience on another airline of my scooter getting lost being taken to the baggage hall. I was told that it was unacceptable to return mobility devices to the baggage hall and that it would be at the gate. I was also told that it would be in a container on its own, and it would be labeled so baggage handling staff knew to take it off first. I accepted this.

Despite my being told that there was luggage space on the plane, when I was getting ready to disembark I saw a musical instrument being taken out of a cupboard on the plane. I was very annoyed since it was clear that there was space on board but my scooter wasn’t given priority.

On its own, that would be irritating, but sort of par for the course when traveling with mobility stuff. Unfortunately, it was not the only thing to happen. I got on the plane and the recline mechanism on my chair was broken. They moved me to another seat after a little while – and the seat next to me was empty since the mechanism on it was broken too – not great form for premium. The seat I was in was great. The flight was turbulent but otherwise OK. I had a rough time landing, which sometimes happens when I’m tired. Disembarkation at Gatwick was the next point of drama. I asked whether my scooter was available once all the other passengers had disembarked. Initially, I was assured that it was to be brought to the gate. After around 15 minutes I was asked to take a manual chair from the plane and to get my scooter from the baggage claim. I declined and said that I needed my scooter. After that, the member of ground staff told me a number of things that I believe to be untrue, including:

  1. The scooter was right outside the aircraft and they knew exactly where it was and would take it to baggage reclaim.
  2. That the scooter would take at least 20 minutes to bring to the aircraft door because it had to be taken to a lift at the end of the terminal
  3. That it wouldn’t be possible to bring the scooter to the aircraft door
  4. That there was no lift available
  5. That the stairs were too steep and that my scooter couldn’t be carried up them (despite it being in two pieces which weighed well under 15kg)
  6. That baggage claim crew would not lift any mobility equipment under any circumstances.

He also told me that there was only one member of special assistance available and that I wouldn’t be able to go through the airport without a member of the special assistance staff. He told me that I was delaying another person that was using special assistance because I wasn’t willing to be transported from the aircraft without my mobility device. I told him that it was my legal right to have my scooter brought to the plane, and he said no-one was disputing that.

To cut a long story short, 5 different men tried to make me get off the plane. The pilot suggested ground crew call the police to forcibly remove me. Only one of the men actually came down to my level to talk to me rather than towering over me. Eventually, after a chat with the guy that had the decency to talk to me on my level, I said I’d get off if they would put in writing that my scooter would be brought to the gate. The ground crew guy wasn’t willing to do that, so I stayed on the plane til I heard a radio message to say that they had ‘found’ my scooter in the container with the crew baggage and that they were bringing it back from baggage claim. Almost 40 minutes after the plane got to the terminal my scooter emerged. The delay was less of a problem than the bullying way that I was treated by ground staff and the crew of the Norwegian flight.

 

First flight with a scooter

Today I’m flying out of LAX and into Gatwick, a trip I’ve taken before. This time, however, I am traveling with my new electric mobility scooter for the first time. In my naivety, I thought this wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do since I made sure that I got a scooter that would fold away and with a battery that met the requirements for plane travel. Of course, I was wrong. There was no way of registering that I was bringing the scooter on the airlines online system so I had to phone them. It started easily enough, with her taking my details and finding my reservation. She said she needed to ask for advice from a colleague about what she needed to record, and I got a bit worried that she hadn’t dealt with mobility devices before. My experience is that people that aren’t used to dealing with mobility devices don’t know the rules particularly well, and argue that you can’t do things that are actually permitted.

The first stumbling block was her telling me that I needed to check in my scooter at the baggage counter. I wanted to take it to the gate since I prefer not to have my mobility dependent on wheelchair assistance that as often as not treats me as luggage. We had a short back and forth about why I had to do that before she went off again to consult a colleague. While she was on the phone I found the section of the Norwegian website that said that in most places I could gate check my scooter. When she came back she reiterated that I had to check it in, but when I read her the section she recanted and said that I might be able to take it though if the staff at check in permitted it.

Then she asked what kind of battery I had. I told her that it was a non-spillable lithium Ion battery 288 watt hours. At that point she said that I wasn’t permitted to travel with a battery over 100 watt hours. I said that was incorrect and that the regulations state that I’m permitted to carry up to 300 watt hours. Unfortunately, this isn’t displayed anywhere on Norwegian’s website – though several other airlines do include this information. I told her that I have a letter from my consultant and a safety certificate for the battery. She said that I was permitted 2 batteries of up to 160 watt hours, but that they couldn’t allow me to take a single battery of 300 watt hours. The conversation got pretty circular – with me telling her that the FAA regulations said I was allowed a 300 battery and her telling me that it wasn’t possible. In the end she said she could add the electric wheelchair to my booking, but I may not be permitted to take the batteries because they were too large. It was very frustrating indeed. Not least because I was on the phone for a good half hour and got absolutely nowhere.

At that point, I decided to go look into the regulations further. Fortunately, the scooter manufacturer had a link to the FAA regs and the ‘pack safe‘ information. It is the US regulations that apply, specifically 49 CFR 175.10(a)(17). It says I can have a 300watt battery and a spare. The other thing I found when looking around the website was a phone number for help dealing with disability related issues in travel. I called it and a delightful woman answered, took my details and said she would call Norwegian on my behalf. I should be hearing from her later today.

At this stage I’m pretty sure that I will get on the plane with the scooter and batteries, but I’m a bit pissed that it has taken this much time and physical/emotional energy to sort it out. This is disability work. Stuff that you have to do in order to do perfectly ordinary things that everyone else takes for granted. It is time-consuming, anxiety producing and disabling. It doesn’t need to be this way. I’m frustrated that it is.

The Virgin saga, part two.

So, my last post ended with an attempt to book my ebike, which is a mobility aid, on a virgin east coast train.  Unsuccessfully.  I got a reply from special assistance, who are unable to book me a spot for my bike.

I have attempted to book a place for my bike, however, I have not been able to online.  I booked the ticket through work and there was no option to add my bike to the booking.  My bike is a mobility aid, and I need to take it with me so that I am able to get from Kings Cross to my meeting at the Oval.  I can’t walk far enough to get there on the tube.  I understood from your website that there were 3 or 5 spaces for bikes on your trains? Is this not correct? How are other mobility aids stored?

Apparently different parts of Virgin East Coast are incapable of talking to each other.

Bike storage on our services is in the Train Manager Van at the end of the train and need to be pre-booked. If you require a station wheelchair to help you get to your seat this can certainly be arranged but bikes would need to be stored in the correct places. You can contact our web support team on 03457 225 111 who will be more than happy to check availability of bike spaces on the service you are traveling on and if available book this for you.

The customer service email doesn’t respond for 10 days, special assistance can’t book bike places. The place I book my bike on the train can’t book special assistance. I am really not keen on phoning them to be kept on hold for ages.  I find it stressful, so try to do these things in writing where possible.  Often it isn’t possible. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try one last time to get them to clarify what needed to be done.

What I need is assistance with putting the bike on the train, and with getting it off at the other end. Depending on the proximity of the bike storage to my seat, I may need the station wheelchair.  Just to confirm, are you saying that it is not possible to book my e-bike on this train via special assistance, even though I use it as a mobility aid?

Their ultimate reply:

We can not book bike reservations at Journey Care.

Once you have this booked I am more than happy to arrange assistance getting someone to help you put your bike into storage and assisting you to your seat.

So, I guess there is no option.  I will try calling tomorrow. Update to follow.

Trying to make Virgin Trains East Coast accessible to me

I have a work meeting on Thursday and Friday of this week in London.  This means travel by train.  I’m much more able to get around if I have my bike with me, so I wanted to book a bike space to take my bike with me.  My mobility impairment mentioned in previous posts makes using the tube and walking very difficult and tiring.  While taking my bike with me sounds pretty simple, it has not been.

First, I contacted virgin trains through facebook:

2017-06-03 (2)
As you can see, I wasn’t terribly happy with their response.  I emailed their customer service email address to make the same request and then decided to investigate their special assistance process.  It turns out the form for special assistance is pretty long. Despite taking the booking number which has all the details of the trip, you have to manually input all those details too.  Plus your home address – which is relevant why?  Nevertheless, I duly filled out the form and sent it off. The response?

“Thank you for your assistance request.

Have you reserved bicycle space on your journey as there is no storage on board for a bike?

Many Thanks”

Not especially helpful, or hopeful. I replied:

“I have attempted to book a place for my bike, however, I have not been able to online.  I booked the ticket through work and there was no option to add my bike to the booking.  My bike is a mobility aid, and I need to take it with me so that I am able to get from Kings Cross to my meeting at the Oval.  I can’t walk far enough to get there on the tube.  I understood from your website that there were 3 or 5 spaces for bikes on your trains? Is this not correct? How are other mobility aids stored?”

I’m disappointed by how difficult it is to use public transport with a bike, and even more disappointed that rail companies aren’t supporting disabled passengers to bring mobility aids with them.  I hope I manage to bring my bike with me so I don’t have to pay for expensive taxi’s in London and lose my autonomy. Time will tell, watch this space….

New projects

I had a car accident 9 months ago.  It wasn’t all that serious, but it has left me with ongoing hip and lower back pain.  One of the effects is that I haven’t been able to walk anywhere near as far as I did before the accident.  I have struggled to walk for more than 10 minutes without sitting down. I’d get pain, burning or numbness from my hip all the way down my left leg.

A couple of months after the accident, one of my people suggested that I should get an electric bike.  I wasn’t convinced.  They are expensive, heavy and I am not the most coordinated person (dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, after all).  Over the previous summer I’d tried to learn to cycle again, and I hadn’t been able to coordinate myself to manage to steer, pedal and look over my shoulder. I was fine when going straight, but roads and corners were not ideal for me.

I decided to look around and try out an electric bike.  I have to say, I fell in love instantly.  I tried it once and found myself considerably more competent when I didn’t have to peddle so hard going around corners and when looking over my shoulder.  A major win there! After that, I found that riding the bike gave me a previously never imagined level of freedom.  Movement on it is a lot easier than walking.  I can go further.  I can stop outside most shops rather than parking a much greater distance away.  I don’t experience anything like the pain that I did when I walked – cycling for an hour is less painful to me than walking for 10 minutes.  I was 100% won over.

I started thinking about whether my bike is a mobility aid. I think it might be.  I got to wondering whether I had any rights around its use under the equality act.  The reason I questioned this is because I have found two key limitations to my newfound freedom.  First, my home city has a bike free zone in the center of town.  It means that it is an area that I don’t go into. I’d like to be able to.  Second, there are limits around taking bikes on trains, which there aren’t for other kinds of mobility equipment. Because my bike dramatically increased my ability to get around, I really want to take it with me when I go away, and the train is the best way for me to do that.

So, my new project is to write to both my local council and also train companies to attempt to assert my right to use my bike as a mobility aid.  I would like them to waive restrictions in the town center and also to allow me to take my bike on the train even if the bike spaces are full.  I’ll keep you up to date with my progress.

 

There are a couple of other people writing about bikes as accessibility aids.  For example, this is a great blog post looking at the cycling infrastructure and how it affects people with mobility impairments. This is another one hailing bikes as a fab new mobility aid. Even the Department for Transport has said that it will encourage the use of bikes as a mobility aid! There is even a charity that promotes cycling as an inclusive activity; Wheels for wellbeing.

How to prepare for pre-employment occupational health appointments

This blog does not constitute legal advice

The Equality Act 2010 changed the law so that employers are usually obliged to wait until after they have made a job offer to ask about absences and other health related information.  Nevertheless, when someone discloses a disability or other health issue that may affect the performance of their duties or may require that adjustments are made, occupational health providers will usually be involved.  In a former life, as a HR consultant, I talked to or met with 6 occupational health doctors and nurses.  As an employee, I’ve been referred to a further 6 to discuss my own health and disabilities.  Having experienced both sides of this, I thought it would be helpful to put together some advice for others doing the same.

Filling in the health form:

  • Answer the questions put there honestly
  • If your answer doesn’t neatly fit into one box or the other write a short note
  • Send it back directly to the occupational health provider if that is an option
  • If you have previous occupational health reports or access to work reports that detail adjustments that you need, send those in too.

Preparing to see the doctor

  • Make a list of any health conditions or impairments that you have – even if they weren’t on the initial form
  • Decide which of these you want to disclose.
  • Make a list of the medications that you take (you don’t need to hand this over, but you could refer to it if they ask for this information)
  • Make a list of the potential impacts of your medical conditions, impairments or disabilities on your new job
  • Make copies of previous occupational health reports and access to work reports to take with you
  • Think about whether you need or want any adjustments to your work environment – if there are, think about how these link to your health conditions or impairments.
  • Find a friend/therapist/partner and talk through the link between your health condition or impairment and the adjustments you need.  This should help you to clarify the information you need to share and to feel more confident about the link between your health/impairment and the adjustments that you need.
  • Lots of people find this kind of appointment stressful, take care of yourself and ensure you have support around to call on if you need it.
  • You are entitled to see the report before it is sent to your employer. Always ask for the report to be sent to you first. 

Seeing the doctor

  • Do your best to answer questions that they ask clearly
  • If you can, link the reasonable adjustments that you need to the questions that they are asking and to the impact of your medical condition, impairment or disability.
  • Ask the doctor whether they can think of other adjustments that might be helpful for you – you know your medical condition better, but chances are they will know the employer and the kinds of adjustments that are easily made much better than you will.

Once you get the report

  • If they have factual errors or have missed out important details point this out.
  • If there is information in the report that you would prefer was kept private, say so.
  • Remember, you don’t actually have to disclose the report at all, though it is usually helpful if you do.
  • If they recommend contacting access to work, do so quickly.
  • Be prepared to be asked to meet to discuss the contents of the report with your line manager.

 

Occupational Health reports are usually helpful for recommending workplace adjustments so that people can work effectively. Where recommended adjustments are not made, they can provide evidence to the employment tribunal of failure to make reasonable adjustments.  While appointments with medics are stressful for most people, the pre-employment occupational health appointment is usually supportive and a way of ensuring that your new employer is providing all the support that you need.

Reasonable adjustments – travel by air

I have a (hopefully temporary) mobility issue that has meant that over the last 9 months or so I’ve been using special assistance when flying.  The experience has been partially wonderful as I have been able to travel without the pain that standing and walking would have caused. Unfortunately, it has also been pretty horrifying, especially at some airports – notably Stanstead and Boston – where I have been treated like luggage and deposited at various points around the airport.

So, what went well?

  • I got to my flights on time
  • I didn’t have to do any more walking than I could manage reasonably easily
  • In three of my eight journeys, I was ‘allowed’ to buy water once I got past security
  • The staff were almost always lovely
  • At Gatwick there is a lovely area for people to sit in relative quiet while waiting
  • Both Gatwick and Heathrow had the same person taking me from the special assistance area to the gate (and on to the plane if I’d needed that), which was very helpful.

Despite how positive an experience I have had at airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, I certainly did not feel that I was receiving a service on an equal basis to non-disabled service users.  I felt lucky if I was allowed to buy water (something I have always done without trouble when not using special assistance). I didn’t even try to go to any of the shops or restaurants in the terminal because it was clear that wasn’t part of the service – but for anyone else using the airport, it was a big part of the experience.  On one occasion I was waiting half an hour after the flight landed before the special assistance arrived – fortunately I stayed in my seat so while it delayed me, it didn’t mean I was standing.  On my most recent journey, I got off the plane to find a queue of people waiting for special assistance and no wheelchairs.  I find standing painful at the moment, so I sat on the floor – as far out of the way as possible – while other passengers disembarked. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable experience.

For me, the most troubling part of the experience was being treated like luggage at the side of the corridor in three airports. Stanstead was the worst, by far. Having been waiting on the plane for 30 minutes, the driver complained about not having had a break and having worked non-stop.  We arrived at the terminal and there was no-one there, but fortunately, they arrived pretty quickly. After a brief exchange between the staff (and no hello to the wheelchair users)  the other passenger and I transferred to the wheelchairs and were taken into the terminal building.  We were then deposited with a third passenger at the edge of the immigration hall. I asked what was happening next, but they said we would have to wait for staff to arrive, and gave no indication of how long that might take. We were joined by a fourth and fifth person soon thereafter.

After about 15 minutes a group of 4 staff.   They barely spoke to any of the wheelchair users, other than to find out where we had come from so they could get our luggage. They did talk among themselves at length about unfairly the workload was divided and how awful and lazy the previous staff members were. It was totally dehumanising. It was like we were inanimate objects to be wheeled around whose thoughts, feelings and opinions simply didn’t exist. We didn’t exist as people.  Conversations literally happened over our heads.  Being a (temporary) wheelchair user felt disabling because of how it transformed the way these people interacted with me, considerably more than any physical barrier that I was faced with.  I don’t see any circumstances in which a group of walking passengers would think it was acceptable to have themselves left in the corner of a room for an undetermined amount of time.  I don’t think airport staff would think it was acceptable to talk about their colleagues and work environment in the way that they did in front of people without mobility impairments. I have no idea why these things are considered acceptable and even normal for wheelchair users.

 

The other two airports where I was parked in the corner were less awful experiences.  Staff were clearly over stretched but they didn’t spend the entire time speaking to each other as though I didn’t exist.  I had several different people moving me around the space, and was literally parked in corners and corridors – but I was told when I would be collected. The communication was much better, and I was treated like a human being.

The thing is, right now I have a choice about using special assitance.  I probably could get through the airport on my own, but I would be in considerable pain and it would impact on the days following the flight. With that choice, the experience felt bad to me, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had no choice other than to use special assistance it would feel a lot worse. Especially if I were traveling with a work colleague or friend. It is a little bit soul destroying every time I do it., though.

If the equality act worked, it would be different. Until it does, I guess I’ll be grateful for those times I can buy water and get treated like a human.

Pressure to settle

I met with the lawyers yesterday from my union.  It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and they put the respondents case to me.  That was pretty difficult. I recognise they have to test the evidence, but it was hard going.  Right before the meeting, ACAS called to ask whether I would be interested in any form of settlement at this stage. I called them back after the meeting and said I wanted to return to work, and that with the adjustments in the latest occupational health report in place I thought I would be able to.

I think settling now would do a few things.  It would give me time and space to recover my mental health.  It would allow me to explore other career options – though I may have to leave acadcemia.  It would give me some financial freedom.

The thing is, the pendulum on whether or not to settle the case swings one way and then the other.  I start out thinking that I don’t want to settle, and then something happens and I do.  I don’t want to give any more of my life to this case, this employer, this dispute.  But then I don’t want to be part of this huge problem of people with discrimination cases settling them with binding gagging clauses so nothing really changes.

So, eventually, I sat down with the COT3 agreement and looked at the terms that I didn’t want to sign up to.  I revised parts of it and deleted others. I sent that back to them with a higher financial settlement offer. They keep dragging it out – so I put a time limit on it of end of play tomorrow.  I can’t see them agreeing to the changes I have asked for, and I can’t see them agreeing to the higher figure. I guess it is a case of ‘watch this space’.

Avoiding reasonable adjustments – Precarious work

During and following my undergraduate degree I found myself in various types of insecure work. Some of it was agency work, some of it was short term contracts and one job was on a graduate scheme. In some of these places being in a carpeted environment affected my health, and in others, it didn’t. In some places, I didn’t ask for adjustments because I didn’t need them. In others, I didn’t because my job was too precarious. I rationalised it by reminding myself that it just made me a bit wheezy, and I didn’t really need to work without carpet. These jobs had an impact on my health and my wellbeing, but I didn’t feel sufficiently disabled, sufficiently affected or sufficiently able to ask for those adjustments. My experience of how long and hard I’d had to fight as an undergraduate made me feel like it was just too hard. Especially in a job where I might get dismissed if I fought for myself.
Looking back it really makes me realise how much the fight with my undergraduate university took it out of me. It was demoralising and frustrating. The endless questions about whether I really needed to have a carpet-free room. The requests for justification. It was exhausting. I didn’t have the resources back then that I have now – and I didn’t know I needed them.

My life changed for the better once I had an understanding of the social model of disability, once I identified myself as disabled, once I knew other disabled people, once I understood something of the law, once I learned how to advocate more effectively for myself. None of these things was a silver bullet, but they were resources that I wish I’d had as a young person. I hope some of my writing helps other people to access some of those resources.

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