Monday, November 4, 2019

Travel Day - San Francisco to Nova Scotia


I feel like Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" movies these days when it comes to travel...I'm too old for this shit. It's just such a marathon to get to some destinations anymore.

It's two and a half hours from our house to San Francisco International Airport. My wife doesn't want to wake up and leave very early in the morning so I relent and book a night at the Embassy Suites Waterfront hotel, just south of the airport, for the night before.

A faulty air conditioning tower in the parking lot next door keeps us up most of the night but it does allow us to relax a bit in the morning before hustling into the airport.



Inside, once we find the right counter, Westjet is accommodating to us on our first flight from SFO to Calgary in Alberta, Canada. I paid extra to be booked into their premium class (what most airlines would have called first class about 20 years ago) and to be able to sit Tim in the first row.

This also allows me to tell the airline that I don't need help getting Tim on the plane. I can just bring his wheelchair into the door of the plane, have him bear his weight while I stand him up, and swing him over to his seat about five feet away.

The flight to Calgary goes well enough...we were delayed about 20 minutes at take off and then about half an hour in Calgary because one of the ground crew didn't come back from his meal break on time...and we settle in for a five hour layover before the next flight.

Going through passport control, all is going well until we get to the automated kiosks. They won't focus on Tim to take a picture, he's too low in his chair to get a good shot. We have to do it the old fashioned way, with an Immigration Officer.

"Please hand me your previous flight's boarding pass," he asks.

It's back on the plane in the seat pocket at my seat.

"You'll have to exit the secure area and have the airline issue you a new one."

Navigating from the exit to Westjet departure desk in Calgary is quite a walk. Once we get there, they just tell us to use our next boarding pass and go through security again.

We're back in secure terra firma, browsing the Hudson newstand, looking for snacks, until it's time to head to our gate, number 73 in the C concourse. It's in a quiet, out-of-the-way part of the airport.



It's almost time to board. The gate agent, Jeffrey approaches us and asks to see our boarding passes then returns to the counter. In a minute, he returns..."we have a little situation."

Situations are never good at the airport. Airports can be evacuated for "situations," you can be denied boarding for "situations," things are never good in "situations."

"We cannot allow you to sit in the front row since you are special needs," he explains to us. "We'll have to reseat you in the back of the plane."

Let me interrupt this bit of news to explain something...when we can and when we can afford it, I like to splurge on the front seats of the aircraft. This is almost always first class (premium class, business class, whatever the airline calls it) and means that we'll get a nice, wide seat with the most legroom on the plane.

It also gets us the best service...hot towels, cocktails, nicer meals, free baggage, lounge access, front of line access at the ticket counter and security...and, most important of all, it gives me plenty of room to easily transfer Tim into his seat.

Tim has explained the usual boarding process for the mobility impaired in a previous post. In short, it's a pain in the ass for him and he really doesn't like it. He'll put up with it when he has to, but he'd really rather not do it.


When we're in the front row, I can easily seat him, as explained above. The flight crews are always impressed by this bit of practised boarding. To us, it's just simply easier and less prone to mistakes and injury. I've done this hundreds of times...many times, the boarding crews are just learning how to do it and make a myriad of dangerous errors.

After Tim is seated and buckled in, I fold up his wheelchair into a nice, easy-to-handle 50 pound bundle for the baggage handlers to take. The whole process takes less than five minutes and no one has to wait around for the airport crew to show up.

It's a true win-win for everyone involved.

Back at Calgary's gate C73, I put on my debating frame of mind and ask Jeffrey as nicely as I can, why can't we sit in the front row? Westjet knew when I bought the tickets that Tim is special needs and uses a wheelchair because he cannot walk at all. I mention that this has never been a problem before, even on Westjet. In fact, we just flew on Westjet from San Francisco in the same situation and no one said one word about it.

"It's company policy," he said.

"No one has said anything until now. Your tariff doesn't say anything about it (Westjet's tariff - the document that explains their policies that must meet Canadian Federal laws - says that disabled are prohibited from the exit row and the aisle seat on a bulkhead row. Tim was assigned the window seat - Ed)," I replied.

"Our equipment to seat him cannot be deployed in the front row."

"How can that be?" I answered. "It makes it to the back of the plane where there is much less room and it is exponentially harder to transfer him to a seat. Besides, I'll be doing the transferring...you guys don't have to do anything."

"I'll need to find a supervisor to see if we can approve this," he says and walks off to start dialing the phone.

We're flummoxed as to why this is suddenly a problem (or "situation" as the airlines like to say) after all these years. It reminds us of the time where suddenly the batteries to Tim's wheelchair chair became a problem after many flights with no problems.

We watch as he tries to get someone with authority on the phone. This is a late night flight so it takes awhile. We watch as he explains and we wait. We watch as the rest of the passengers are wondering why we haven't boarded yet.

He comes to tell us a supervisor is on her way to explain things to us. In the meantime, he gets on the PA and tells the passengers in the lounge that boarding has been a bit delayed because of a "situation that needs to be cleared up."

Oh, great. Now, we're a "situation" to the rest of the flight's passengers.

The supervisor finally shows up and starts to explain things to us. I explain everything I've already covered here, plus told her that we paid a precious premium to sit in these seats on top of the fact that if something went wrong it would be much, much easier for me to evacuate my son from this seat than any other seat on the plane.

She says she'll go to the plane and ask the pilot and crew if they have any problem with it. About twenty minutes later, we're told that the crew has given us our blessing and five minutes later, we're securely aboard. Jeffery comes and apologises, saying he's new and doesn't feel comfortable approving things like this. I thank him and in my thoughts think that maybe he doesn't feel comfortable but he sure didn't have any qualms about making up airline policy that doesn't exist.



Finally, we're on our way and five hours later, we're landing in heavy fog in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So heavy that I was waiting as we descended in the clouds for a clearing that never came...suddenly, the thump of the runway told us we were on the ground. At the gate, I could see the orange cones  on the flashlight of the ground crewman right outside of my window but not the man himself.

As we deplaned, the captain told us that he almost diverted to Moncton...a hundred miles away...but decided he could do a blind instrument landing.

Oh my...

Well, now we're safely on the ground. Navigating Hertz for our rental SUV was easy and we're off in the fog and rain at 6:30 in the morning to find our hotel.

See you when we get there.

Darryl Musick
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