Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Virgin America: No Accommodations for Autism Families

Virgin America: No accommodations for ASD teen.
Over the past months I've done quite a lot of traveling for work, much of it on what was my new favorite (until today) airline: Virgin America.  I'd had such great experiences that I was excited to introduce the girl and her dad to the cool purple-tinted interiors, funny flight instruction videos, and back of seat tv-entertainment centers on our flight back to New York.

When I saw that we weren't going to be able to get seat assignments together on the online booking, I called Virgin America and explained that we'd be traveling with a teenager with an autism spectrum disorder and asked if they'd be able to provide the typical disability seating that other airlines have provided for her — seated near the front so as to have most limited stimulus and contact with other passengers, and, of course, seated with us.  I was assured that this would be no problem, as long as we got to the airport two hours early. So I booked the flight.

We got to the airport two hours early — at 5:40 am — and checked at the ticket counter, as I'd been told to do.  She looked at our boarding passes for three separate seats scattered throughout the cabin and said she couldn't help us, but that customer service on the other side of security would definitely be able to help us.

After we made it through the long line for security, we got to the customer service desk, where we were told that we would not be able to have seats together. When I objected, they said, well, they'd try to get us seats together, but there were no guarantees. When I said that we needed disabilities seating with reduced contact with other passengers, the guy at the counter looked at me like I was out of my mind. Our girl's dad even had a typed note with this information that he'd handed to the customer service agent who handed it back as though he couldn't read or, or more likely, just didn't care.

After three phone calls to customer service, they somehow managed to find two seats together, so that the girl and her dad could sit side by side.  My seat was elsewhere.  Customer service kept insisting that we were seated together even though we weren't -- we were in entirely different rows, at the back of the plane, where our girl would have maximum contact with passengers coming and going from the lavatory.

Though one never wishes for one's kid to have a meltdown — the toll is just too high on them — there are those times when one wishes that you could give clueless airline agents just a little taste of the disaster that they are courting by not taking an autism spectrum disability seriously. By blowing off a request for reasonable accommodation (that they had already assured us would be available before we booked the flight).  By acting like we were making this all up so that we could have cooler seats.  Yeah, right.  I've decided to get my kid a life-long neurological disorder so I can get preferential seating on airplanes.

I wonder why it is that we get better disability accommodations on every other airline we've ever flown, even on frumpy old American Airlines. All I can figure is that Virgin America is just too cool to make reasonable accommodations. After all, having disabilities is just so not fashionable.  Or maybe it's that they're really not Virgin America, and therefore are not acquainted with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's pretty hard to figure this one out.

But so much for putting the fun back in air travel.  As far as this family is concerned, Virgin America is a big old able-ist FAIL.


audball said...

Ugh, I'm so sorry you all had to go through this! FAIL, indeed. And this post reminds me why we have decided to keep the family take the very long drive when visiting my folks. Flying just leaves too many things to chance. More often than not, we are on the losing end of the stick.

I will never forget the American Airlines flight attendant, whom after I asked repeatedly for just a single cup of water, continued to ignore me. When our El (who was 5 at the time) was out of her much-tested patience (this was the days before we could bring water into plane after security - so we had been waterless for awhile) and started to wail, she turned to us. I explained that our girl had autism, which made waiting difficult, the attendant actually had the gall to say, "So, what do you want -- a drink for that?!"


My DH has often said, you wouldn't take a child in a wheelchair and throw him in the deep end of the pool. Why are those children/adults with disabilities less visible subject to such horrendous treatment? And we don't ask for the moon, just for some consideration in certain instances.

Hugs to you...I hope you all fared well. I would have been seething and drafting a letter to Virgin while in my airline seat! And I join you on your "ban" against Virgin America...

MothersVox said...

Thanks @audball. VA's customer relations is now looking into what happened today, and they might make some policy changes. If that happened from our experience, it would make it almost okay.

Sweet M said it was the worst flight ever -- which is saying a lot given some of the flights we've had. But at least she didn't flip out. I think I was doing that for the both of us . . . I figure that our job as parents flying with our challenging kids to to take as much as many of the variable out of the equation as we can.

At least she didn't get the backscatter xray followed by excessively intimate patdown that I've been getting lately. If that had happened, and then the VA FAIL. I'm afraid we would have had quite an episode.

I'm so sorry about your American Airlines experience. "What do you want -- a drink for that?" Geez. Where do they find these people? I know the flight attendant job is hard, but if you can't do it, then move on to something else.

I wish our people were close enough for a van to get us their in a days drive, but they're all the way across the country, so we're stuck with airlines. Or trains!