Guide Dog Files part 2
Welcome to Guide Dog files part two, a weekly recounting of my experience learning to work with a guide dog for the first time. After weeks of not sleeping well, we pick up the story with me headed to the airport.
The day finally arrives – September 30, 2018
I woke up early to get to the airport on time. My wife Carrie dropped me off and I headed into the check-in line with my suitcase in tow, and white cane clearly visible. This would be my first solo trip anywhere since the accident that stole my sight. I was a bit unnerved to say the least, as I have always traveled with my wife and she always played the part of sighted guide. I was flying United Airlines, and upon entering the airport, I wandered to the largest line I could find. The person directing traveler traffic diligently ignored my requests for help finding the proper check-in location. The first time flying with United Airlines in over ten years was not starting out well, but being ever-optimistic, I trudged onward. Eventually, I found my way to the end of the line and the lady directing traffic (who had ignored me earlier noticed me, and saw I was a cane user, her demeanor changed, and she abruptly grabbed my arm and unceremoniously dragged me toward an open check-in kiosk. This was the limit of my interaction with the “traffic monitor” as I will call her as I do not know her official capacity in the organization. My impression was that she could have used a bit more tact when leading me to the kiosk. I also fully realize and understand that Sunday morning at the airport is a complete madhouse and sometimes people just don’t have time to be super courteous.
Upon reaching the check-in kiosk, a gentleman quickly appeared and asked for my identification, informing me that he would happily check me in for my flight. He then asked me for a credit card for my bag charge. Once the bag charge had completed, he said “I’m not going to make you walk through that line again, I will check your bag right here.” Upon returning, he offered me his arm for guided assistance and took me to the accessibility assistance desk where I was placed in a que for wheelchair assistance to my gate. I found this gentleman who checked me in personable and my short interaction with him was a pleasure. I believe in tipping when people help me, because it may make the next visually impaired customer’s interaction go a bit smoother. Before I head to the airport, I always seperate some five-dollar bills in my pocket so I can easily tip, and know the amount I am tipping.
Even though the airport was extremely crowded this Sunday, the wait time for assistance to my gate was only about fifteen minutes. The line for wheelchair assistance was large, and I was surprised that in what appeared outwardly to be a stressful and chaotic situation, the customer assistance agents were courteous and efficient in their process. I informed the gentleman running the check-in that I was able to walk, and he asked if I would mind walking with the next person needing assistance in a wheelchair. I may have terrible vision, but I am fully able (and love to) to walk. A young middle eastern woman showed up and my new wheelchair-riding friends and I headed out to TSA screening. The woman (I am incredibly remiss in that I did not get her name) took us through security screening, checking on us to ensure we would make it through the screening on the first pass. After everyone in the party made it through security, we gathered our belongings and headed toward the tram that would take us to the gates. Once we reached the concourse, the woman offered to bring me right to my gate which was located twenty feet from where we got off the elevator from the tram. I tipped the attendant and told her I would be fine – thanking her. To my shock, within a moment, another woman approached me, informing me that she was a United Airlines employee and offered any assistance. I confirmed the location of the gate, which was right ahead of me, I asked the location of the restroom and she told me – which was right across the hall – she also offered to take me to the door. I appreciated her assistance and friendly accommodating attitude. Well done United Airlines, you really redeemed yourself in my eyes after a rough start.
Once aboard the plane, the flight crew was distracted and I was never offered nor could I find anyone to help me find my seat. It just so happened that another Guide Dogs for the Blind client was on the same flight as I was, I asked her which number seat she was in and just counted a few rows from there, problem solved, but not good on the part of the flight crew, especially when they know that disabled passengers are loading first. After takeoff, the snack carts came through, and the flight attendant apparently nodded at me rather than asking what I would like to drink. I could not see the nod, and she finally asked me verbally. In her defense, she wasn’t aware that I was visually impaired, but perhaps it would have been a different interaction if anyone had been present when the disabled passengers were loading.
After an uneventful flight, we arrived in San Francisco, I deplaned and found an assistant had already been contacted and was on the way to lead another visually impaired traveler and I to the proper baggage claim carousel. The resulting journey to the baggage claim was generally uneventful, and the Guide Dogs for the Blind employees met us and took over for the attendant from United Airlines. Overall, I would say that United did an above average job dealing with visually impaired customers. The check-in and flight crew interactions were average, but where United’s staff shined were in the in-person interactions, through the accessibility desk. Special shout-out to the United employee who noticed me in the concourse and asked if she could help.
An hour-long trip through San Francisco reinforced the fact that I don’t miss living in the Bay area, or Bay Area traffic. We arrived at the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility and after a short time for settling in, the group of eight clients were given a thorough tour of the building. After an excellent dinner of lemon chicken, rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables, we all sat and discussed generalities for rules of conduct and what to expect the following afternoon when we would meet our guide dogs for the first time.
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