Oregon Journey – A Course Change
The Question of a Woman President

Elders and the Unfriendly Skies

An old man is shuffling through security at an airport. The line behind him is long, peopled mostly with business road warriors who know the routine and give no truck to laggards. The old man is gruffly told by a TSA agent to remove his shoes. It is clear he cannot bend over to untie them and a road warrior grumbles, “Christ, can’t people learn to wear shoes without laces to airports.”

No TSA agent will help. There is no chair for the old man to sit in to remove his shoes. He is helpless, as the grumbling behind him spreads, until an old woman, a stranger to the man, bends over to untie his shoes for him and place them in the tray for x-ray. She bends over again on the other side of the security frame and almost lovingly puts on his shoes and reties them, but not without warnings from the TSA agent to hurry it along.

Crabby Old Lady could fill several posts with such airport security stories. Sometimes it is a young mother wrangling a couple of kids and an infant who slows up the line. More often it is an elder, occasionally walking with a cane, who can’t move fast enough to suit the TSA and other travelers.

But the air travel difficulties for elders don’t stop at security.

Much to her surprise, Crabby has traveled in the past year at least as frequently as she did when she was working for the television networks. She has, in that year, been through about 20 airports and none are equipped for or accommodate elders.

If you can’t sprint a mile or more between flights dragging a 40-to-50 pound bag plus a personal bag with heavy laptop, reading material and the other usual accoutrements, you are not welcome at airports.

Unless one lives in a large city and is traveling to another large city, it is no longer possible to get to a destination on one airplane. Because the probability of checked bags arriving with the passenger at the same time and place was never high even before airline cutbacks, and is much lower now, Crabby never packs more than she can stuff into a carry-on.

But the ramps from the plane, which appear to get longer with each trip, are steep for hauling 40 - 50 pounds and Crabby must stop to rest several times. No one ever offers to help.

Some of the small airplanes have no enclosed ramp and so an old traveler is obliged, on arrival, to haul her bag up two flights of stairs. No easy task for Crabby these days. It happened three times on her latest trip and she was grateful for the young man at one airport who carried her bag up for her.

Once in the airport, exhausted from the ramp or stairs, there is a mile or more to walk to the next plane or the front of the airport for a taxi and in all her travels this year, Crabby has encountered only one airport with electric carts.

Remember those? They carry six or eight people with their bags and toot along at a pace equal to about twice walking speed. They were terrific, even when Crabby was young and had too much to carry. But no more. Only wheelchairs are available which require a 10-to-20 minute wait (usually when you have 30 minutes until the next take-off) and require a minimum five dollar tip to the pusher which is, essentially, an extra fee for not being young and spry.

The requirement to be with one’s bags at all times irks Crabby too. It is close to impossible to get into a restroom stall with carry-on and laptop bags and still sit on the toilet. In pre-9/11 days, other passengers were willing to watch bags while you went to the restroom or to the newsstand to buy a paper. No more; now they are afraid you are a terrorist.

There is another baggage twist Crabby is obliged to suffer on the small planes that depart from and arrive in Portland, Maine: carry-ons do not fit in overhead compartments, so there is a trolley on the tarmac next to the plane from which porters load the bags into the hold. Invariably, all the space is taken on the lower racks by the time Crabby arrives with no one in sight to help hoist her bag onto the top rack.

Although this complaint is not exclusive to elders, what about legroom. As Crabby was obtaining her boarding passes at a kiosk last week, a screen informed her that for an additional $90 or so she could have a seat with more legroom. Crabby is guessing that is about $18 per inch – outrageous – and not in Crabby’s budget.

Crabby is 5’ 2” tall and her knees always touch the seat in front of her. What do taller people (almost everyone else) do? If you err and do not pull out all the reading matter, water bottle and other items you might need during the flight, you do without; it is not possible to get your pocketbook from under the seat when knees touch the back of the seat in front of you.

These days, Crabby always arrives at her destination exhausted and weak, needing a day to recover. But that’s not possible in our go-go, 21st century world of sardine-can airplanes that are no better than buses in the sky. Who can afford an extra day’s hotel bill that would be required for a rest in arriving a day early?

And to add to her misery, on this trip Crabby again picked up some bug – undoubtedly from an airplane’s recycled air – that has left her still feeling flu-ish, tired and coughing. If Crabby Old Lady were king of the world, she would dispense with terrorist screenings and require a health certificate from every passenger.

Crabby doubts she will adhere to her every end-of-trip vow to never go anywhere again that requires getting on an airplane. But the single thing that would improve air travel for elders is reinstating electric carts at all airports. A young person’s sprint is an old person’s heart attack waiting to happen.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ronni Prior recalls a school class that no longer exists in Adventures in Home-Ec.]

Comments

I feel your pain! Traveling through London's Heathrow earlier this year on my way to Ireland was a "pain" in more ways than one! Long hikes, no place to sit down to take off my shoes, stairs, etc. I've become an expert at finding "hidden" elevators (or lifts), but they don't always exist.

On my return trip, I requested a wheelchair, but the waits were ridiculous, as were the "holding pens" for disabled passengers. I usally don't consider myself helpless or hopeless.

By the time I got home, I could hardly walk at all, and I was considering knee replacements. Now, several months later, I'm walking fine. I'm afraid my international travel may be over; I can't seem to take it anymore (certainly not in economy class); I'm not really wealthy enough to afford business or first class, and I don't travel often enough to get frequent flyer miles--even if they were convenient.

I'm flying again this September--just to Richmond, Virginia, this time. I wish someone would pay more attention to us traveling seniors. Thanks, Ronni.

Marlys of "Never too Late! and "Write your Life!"

I think the operative word here is 'Arrrrrrrrrrrgh' I don't fly much anymore but I am blessed because I usually fly out of Akron/Canton instead of Cleveland (if I can) because it's smaller and the hikes aren't outrageously bad and they still offer early boarding for elderly and handicapped and mamas with little ones but not early exit when we land. As to what do tall people do? We suffer a lot. I think Customer Service is a term that has gone the way of the horse and buggy. I think we need to start writing to airports and tell them to be more user-friendly for us.

Ronni,

Everything you said about air travel is true! And then some...
My husband had to have his right leg amputated due to complications of diabetes. He has an artificial leg which he gets around on in such a terrific way that you would never guess he had a disability. Until you get to an airport,that is..
His leg already has a shoe and sock on it and at the airport the TSA troll always insists that he remove his shoes. Well, he CAN'T remove his shoes, so in their infinite wisdom they take his LEG away to Xray it.
They always take it to some remote place and don't bring it back for 20 minutes sometimes. It makes us very worried that they have damaged it or, worse, LOST it.
They never apologise to him or sympathise with him.
They are very rude so we have had to give up air travel. Lucky for us that he can still drive very well so we are not completely stuck.
If they were just a little nicer,we could fly more, but that's out of the question because of their attitude.

I hear you, Ronni. Since air travel has become the equivalent in fun of a day at the DMV I've told people that, unless someone is in mortal peril, I'm driving. I enjoy driving and haven't enjoyed air travel in years.

Nancy, that is terrible what they do to your husband. How sad.

I abhor flying.

I recently spent nearly four hours on the tarmac waiting for weather to pass in Dallas.

Happily the plane was nearly empty, or I might have had a mental meltdown. Not so happily they cancelled the flight (because of its nearly empty status I am sure) and we were emptied out and left to fend for ourselves upon arrival back to the gate. NO ONE was there to tell us what to do next! We had to leave the terminal and "start over"!

I am like you Ronni, I had only a carry-on to worry about and while sadly watching my passenger-mates get into line behind HUNDREDS of people back at the TICKET counter, I said "forget this" and I made my way to the car rental and drove the rest of my journey.

Yes, it took longer. Yes, it was more expensive!

I had my sanity however, and plenty of legroom.

Did you see the recent news about that exploding plane where all the passengers got out? I don't at the moment recall where this happened. I do recall thinking if my elderly mother was on that plane, she might not have MADE it out...the slide...the running away from the burning plane. Terrible.

Dear Crabby.....we all understand. I've flown rarely since 9/11, and at 5' 9", I find driving or taking a train fits me better. Then again, we now have a car that gets 41 miles to the gallon that fits micro people, and I miss the luxury of my full size, uneconomical pickup truck. I'm so sorry about the trip miseries and hope you feel better soon.

As an aside, I created a mirror blog at blogspot, and blogspot promptly went down...and stayed down. I moved over to Wordpress, only slightly daunted in my search for an easily accesable blog site, only to find they don't like you to copy and paste from Word. WYSIWYG editors are the bane of my current existance. You do not really get what you see....a loverly topic for this frustrated 65 year old.

Ugh. Yes, air travel is a pain. For what it's worth - I had a good experience on Frontier recently. Admittedly I am young and can make those races, but I found that my connecting flights were close, the flight attendants were polite, and that I had enough leg-room (barely: accessing my carryon still wasn't fun, though).

And last time I was through Chicago O'Hare (a couple years ago) and Denver (this month), they had electric carts still. (Of course those are two airports that, by size, NEED them! I hope they never get rid of them.)

And another thing...

Crabby Old Lady wants to know why the rules - on land and in the air - always favor the boors of the world?

On one flight during this recent trip, the person sitting one row forward and across the aisle from Crabby, who was in the window seat and could not easily move, stuffed his headphones into the seat pocket without unplugging them so that even over engine roar, the scratchy movie audio made it impossible for Crabby to concentrate on her book.

It was the equivalent of someone in a movie theater taking a cell phone call and had gone on for 30 minutes or more.

When the flight attendant answered Crabby's button call and heard her request to ask the man to unplug his headset, he said, "I can't ask a passenger to turn off a headset; it is his right to have it turned on."

Crabby Old Lady impatience shot up into the red zone. She shouted way above the engine's roar: "NOT IF IT'S NOT ON HIS HEAD, IT ISN'T! I have a right too - to read my book."

The passengers in Crabby's immediate vicinity applauded, and the attendant then unplugged the headset. The passenger did not acknowledge the move and Crabby could get back to her book in peace.

Here is one of Crabby's long-time, unanswered questions: why is it always necessary, when someone is being rude in a theater, on a plane, in a restaurant, etc., to make a jerk of oneself to obtain basic public civility?

Laura...

I too was in O'Hare during one of the legs of my recent trip and there were no electric carts. It is dependent on which terminal you are in, but I haven't been able to work out if they are operated by the airport or by airlines.

Right on. You nailed all the miseries (except for the food — not worth a mention, and I always bring my own). As a dual citizen/resident, I fly international twice yearly and I have learned to ask ask ask ask ask (did I mention, ask?) any able-bodied-looking person to help lift, cart, reach, place, carry up stairs, and remove from carousels carry-on and bags — (do whatever is required) what I (or any fellow) cannot do.

As for airport bathroom visits, I ask any sane-looking person (yes, I have my own profiling system!) to watch my bag. As an Israeli, I'm a tad less goofy, more sanguine about the terrorist thing. (It's well documented that Israeli airport security, from top brass to post-army kids on their first almost-decent-paying job at the front lines of "people interviewing and inspection" (yes, profiling) make a sick and cruel joke of the TSA infantile, unprofessional, and sadistic employees, including supervisors. (By the way, if any TGB reader knows whether the story is true or apocryphal about the elder woman in a USA airport who was given a strip-and-search because she was "randomly selected" — please let me/us know.) I report any abuses by TSA folk (warning: a time stealer and rarely productive) and if needed, call airport police (a different authority).

I regard the able-bodied who have near-total disregard, even disdain for one's fellows in the travel lanes, among other venues as tragic figures.

I ask that you send your post to the highest levels of airport authorities, airlines, appropriate elected officials, consumer groups, and others. This might bring at a minimum some relief to the predictably hardest hit victims. The previous comment by Nancy on her husband’s leg, absconded for twenty minutes, is an example of abuse that is reportable on every front.

Ronni,

You're not going to like what I am about to say, but I have to say it.

Air travel was more civilized when the flight crew were young. The Stewardesses were enthusiastic and loved to please the people on their flight.They were also dismissed when they got married or got pregnant at about age 24.Then some other young bright eyed and bushy tailed young woman would be hired and SHE loved her job for awhile and treated everyone nicely.It was a pleasure to fly with them.
Then, it was decided to not call them Stewardesses anymore but to call them Flight Attendants and let them stay until they dropped dead at age 80 while pushing the drink cart up the aisle. They hated their job after a few years and it showed!
That is what happened to air travel INSIDE the plane. The TSA is what is the matter OUTSIDE the plane.

Airports are difficult for handicapped people also or even those like my friend who has two artificial knees. I led to her recent trip being thoroughly frisked every flight change and in front of others once in an intimate manner that surprised her. You'd think they could have a way to quickly determine metal knees or hips without putting those, who have already endured a lot of pain, through a lot more

I have not flown for several years and after reading the posts I don't think I will ever fly again. I am looking into Amtrak. Of course you can't use the train if you are pressed for time or are going overseas, but it's an alternative in the U.S. and Canada. Is it a good one? I don't know.

The last time I flew I almost beaned a man trying to get my carry-on down from the overhead bin. I said, "I'm too old for this."

I used wheel chairs for my last trips and it was worth the extra $10 to be able to skip the long line, board first, and have help with my carry on (The attendants on Southwest were always helpful.)

I hope you are feeling better, Ronni and I want to say, "Good for you" -- speaking up when the boor and rude attendant wouldn't take care of an obvious problem. Send a complaint to that airline.


Darlene,

If you want to ride Amtrak you better let your Senator know. The Bush Administration hates Amtrak and tries very hard to deny them any money every year.For the past 4 years they have cut the funding for the rail System.
A bill to give Amtrak dedicated financing was recently passed in the House and will soon go to the Senate for approval. In the past the Republican Congress has not passed one bill that would give Amtrak dedicated funds, and President Bush has been no help. His only interest is to pass bills giving tax breaks to the rich.

today so moved by this--plus my own anxiety--i linked here, proposed Elderbloggers and others begin to coordinate blog posts. jiggle our congressman to notice during "A Month of Passenger Indignities."

i'm open to better ideas.

I've been worrying about those long ramps since my parents (gone many years now) were traveling to visit us and their grandchildren. Now I'm getting close to it myself and my husband and I travel a lot.
Unless it becomes expensive in cash or image (note the breast feeding hubub http://dontgelyet.typepad.com/dontgeltoosoon/2006/11/no_breastfeedin.html) it's not going to change. In fact, as fuel prices continue to rise and the number of seniors raises the incovenience level in airports, it's probably going to get worse. One small suggestion: I always travel in clogs -- good arch support and you can slip in and out of them in no time. Stand at the counter, cross your leg and pull off the shoe; put it in the bin, change legs and repeat. Beyond that you're right and I have to say that when my kids were little and we were shlepping all that paraphenalia we had the same problems. Should make a nice united front.
I love the idea of linking up protest posts -- maybe just tag them all airlineindignant07. What do you think?

Flying used to be fun. An adventure. People dressed up to fly. Nice clothes and nice manners. Good food. Then came the advent of the cattle call genre of airlines. Push 'em in. Pack 'em tight. Throw a cracker at 'em.

Treat them like cattle and pretty soon
Passengers started showing up in pajamas and boxer shorts

The attitude of airlines now is this:
The airline industry would be just fine and dandy if it weren't for the PASSENGERS

And the bad attitude of the airlines started before 9/11 and has gotten worse with time.

If only we in the US had the high speed trains of Europe.

Just reading this post and associated comments brought back some awful memories of flying.

My husband is disabled, and while airline security under the TSA is marginally less rude to him than the former rent-a-cops used to be, the new realities make travel much more miserable for everyone.

I cringe every time I watch an elderly person strain to comply with barked TSA commands or a mother struggle with a small child, diaper bag, etc., while being glared at by Chino Man, the Important Business Traveler.

The old realities--huge hub airports, close connections--weren't so hot either. We both traveled a lot on business ourselves a few jobs back and actually worked out (weights, aerobics, etc.) to be in shape for Hartsfield Atlanta, our personal nemesis.

Working out really helped, but who wants to devote a half-hour a day (assuming they can) to toughening up just to survive the airport?


Sounds to me after reading this post and skimming through the comments so far that there's a new blog in this, not just in elder travel, but travel for everyone.

My little anecdote:

My son and I flew back to Adelaide from Melbourne and it was the last flight. We landed at about 10.30pm and of course he was tired and had slept a bit on the plane until his ears started hurting on descent.

When we finally got off the plane (we were seated right at the back and therefore last to get off) the toilets nearest us were closed and of course he was busting. An electric cart was sitting there but nobody to drive it. I was SO tempted to borrow it and to add insult to injury we'd arrived at the furthest away from anything spot when the rest of the airport was empty.

The first really miserable flight I remember was several years ago between So. Cal and Va. I truly became ill with what proved to be a fairly serious abdominal infection that forced me to spend an undue amount of time in the restroom by the end of the flight. The flight attendant was increasingly hollering at me to exit that room as we neared landing, but had I done so it would have been a disaster.

I hollered back finally with words I'd rather not have said for all to hear. In all the trips and time I was in that room, the attendant never once noticed or inquired about my welfare, apparently thought I was just airsick which I've never been in my life. She was too busy talking with her co-attendant about what airport she was going fly to on her next assignment. Even I didn't know how serious my problem was until even more severe cramping at home.

Then, there was the recent trip to Hawaii; the serious lack of leg room for this 5'6" person -- my poor son at 6'. Thank heavens for catching the one electric cart in Honolulu on it's last run when I was traveling home alone. My shuttle service at LAX really shafted me, kept me waiting two hours after my having been up 24 hrs. straight, and I'm still burning about that.

Yeah, we don't have much of any sort of decent mass transit in this country. I've love to travel the West Coast on Amtrack, or even coast to coast with a compartment, but no upper bunk for sleeping, at
a reasonable cost.

The best ride I've had has been on a Metrolink from our community into L.A.

Well, let me tell you that it isn't specific to the US.
I just wrote a "sister post" at Blogging in Paris
http://blogginginparis.com/2007/08/24/unfriendly-skies-from-paris-to-newyork/

You're so right, Nancy. Oh to have some of those lovely trains in Switzerland. But I did have a horrible experience on a train from Budapest to Vienna. It's a long story, but one that would make all of these airline horrors mild by comparison.

My best experience of travelling with someone in a wheelchair was from Tenerife, where the airport had a special check in for disable passengers. Access to the aircraft was via steps, but they had special tractors which lifted up to the plane giving direct access.

Dublin has the usual long hikes, but on one occasion when going through the security check in when using a walking stick, that of course had to be x-rayed, I was asked if I was OK going through without it. So far I have never had to take of my shoes!

I forgot to add, that the airlines I usually travel with load passengers with young children or with mobility problems before everyone else. You have to wait until everyone is off at the other end though, but I suppose that is fair enough.

I, too, miss the days when it was fun to fly. The system is so overburdened now it's unlikely that will happen again in our lifetime. I console myself by thinking of the days when traveling was an expensive and horrible experience. When the young people left home for better conditions it was unlikely they would ever see their parents again. I'm grateful things aren't that bad.

We live in a nation taught to fear its toiletries and shoes. Against the backdrop of this fundamental idiocy, the other indignities of air travel seem to follow as a matter of course

The irony is that if you do use a wheelchair (your own, or pre-ordered for best results), you jump the security line and, in our experience, are treated with respect and dispatch (maybe there's an unconscious assumption that if you can't walk well or at all you couldn't be a terrorist?).

This has the result of equating the normal less-robustness of older age with disability.

It amazes me that they don't have the electric carts. Even with those moving walkways, it can be literally miles, miles, to walk to one's flight or between flights. One has to be young, athletic, and unencumbered not to notice. Who are they designing these things for?

In our far-flung culture, elders traveling to see children and grandchildren, or to use their free time seeing the country and learning things, must make a up some substantial percentage of travelers. Now why doesn't the AARP use some of its legendary muscle on this?

It reminds me, too, of how elder-unfriendly I discovered New York City to be as Jacques became increasingly disabled. Buses are accessible, but with few exceptions subways are not. There are very few places to pause and sit on public sidewalks, and those few are provided by friendly businesses, not the city. I'm curious to know whether other cities are better.

Amen.

San Diego airport has a very nice system of electric carts all run by senior volunteers. I've also had good electric cart service in Houston. When I got off one plane there was an employee with a clipboard to tell us where to go for connecting flights. He looked at me with my cane and got me a cart almost at once (and the connecting gate was a long way.) I do recommend a visible sign of age/disability/etc. like a cane.

Great! I'm reading these posts just three weeks before I fly from St. Louis to London, necessitating 2 connecting flights. Thankfully, due to the generosity of my traveling companion, I'll be flying first and business classes. But I'll still have the airports and the security checkpoints to contend with. I used to travel alone but don't think I could do it any longer.

Isn't this awful, the smarter we get the less service and kindness we seem to see. My husband and I almost always try to drive when we can. We just returned from Sicily a few month ago (in March) and the flights were a nightmare. At 61 and 62..we just don't want to go through this stuff any more. We're tired..

If misery loves company..you got it..
Dorothy from grammology

I hope this gets through... last one didn't and thank you, Ronni for the email reply (linda w/hotmail addy).

I can only offer a suggestion or two. Travel only with a carryon. I learned that you can ship clothing and what you need and hotels will hold for your arrival. Timing is everything with this and to avoid having to use the expensive services, plan carefully. On my return trip, I packed and sent via Priority Mail (postal service). I delivered package before leaving, I was home on a Saturday and package was delivered on Monday.

Needless to say, if you are visiting relatives, this becomes a much easier and viable method.

In order to avoid having to rush, long lines - get to the airport early. This is the only way to avoid problems and yes, sadly, there still will be problems.

I read some commentary about Amtrak... I love it and have taken it a few times for weekend trips. I do not know how it would work for perhaps a cross-country. For a vacation, you can avail of one of the travel/tour packages and that cuts cost a little. Otherwise, it is "pricey" and more time consuming than flying.

Yet, Amtrak is pleasing, especially with the cars that have the open viewing. I found the staff to be very polite and helpful. Another perk is that you can have a snack on all the trips. Gets you out of your seat - stretch a bit and then settle back to view scenery or read.

I met a few kind folks on my trips and found it nice to sit and chat or enjoy the scenery with a seat-mate.

I like travelling. I still get excited when I am on a turnpike and see the rest stops.

Linda

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