Flying the Unfriendly Skies

I’m planning to fly up to San Francisco in a couple of weeks to spend time with good friends. And I find myself more than a little anxious about it.

Not because I am afraid of flying. I’ve been a “frequent flyer” for as long as I can remember, going to visit family in London on a regular basis when I was growing up.

But two recent stories in the news — one a Detroit woman who was taken off a plane and detained for “suspicious activity” and the other involving an actress and her girlfriend being thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight because they had the gall to kiss in public — have reminded me of my own unpleasant experience with airlines.

Several years ago, I was preparing to board a flight to Atlanta. Because of my pain issues, I tend to be more comfortable wearing shorts, even though it does leave my legs exposed. Knowing this would be a long flight, I dressed accordingly in this fashion.

I actually got past TSA and all the way to the gate. Sat down in my seat. Then the stewardess came and asked me to step off the plane. Knowing that it was probably a question about the skin condition, I very pleasantly smiled, said “Sure, I think we can clear this up quickly,” grabbed my backpack and followed her off the plane and back up the gangway, where she directed me to the gate agent who had initially taken my boarding pass when I got on the plane.

At this point, I was puzzled. If the gate agent had an issue with me, why didn’t she say anything when she took my boarding pass? But perhaps she’d only thought about it after the fact. I was still prepared to be pleasant, so that I wouldn’t miss my flight.

And then it went all downhill. The gate agent very brusquely asked about the skin. I politely explained that it was not contagious and that I did not pose a health risk to anyone.

She then asked, “Well, do you have a doctor’s note?”

I blinked. A doctor’s note? Like as if I needed to explain why I’d been out of school the day before? “Uhhmm…no. I wasn’t aware I needed one.”

“Well, how do I know you are telling the truth?”

More blinking. Deep breathing. OK, how can I salvage this to get back on the flight? I decided to have her talk to my doctor, who is actually also a close friend. “Let me call my doctor and have you talk to him. He’ll clear this right up.”

At which point, Little Miss Gate Agent gave me the Head Circle. Yes, the one that says “ONTD.” She said, “How do I know you aren’t just making this up? How do I know he’s really a doctor?”

I froze. I had been escorted off the plane, accused of knowingly posing a threat to other passengers, and then accused of lying about my doctor. All in the span of about five minutes.

She then ordered me to stay where I was, while she went to another desk to board a different flight (mine had left by then). During that time, I reached my doctor friend and told him what had happened, and that she refused to speak to him. He said he would try to reach airport security and hung up.

When she got back to me, she said that she would have to call the airport doctor. I spoke to the airport doctor, patiently using Nice Big Medical Words. He sounded dubious and said that he would have to send over a paramedic. I smiled grimly at that, because he was the first doctor of whom I had heard would defer a case to a lowly paramedic.

The paramedic arrived (and by this time, I had attracted no small amount of attention from other passengers waiting for their flights). This is how I now know that the paramedics at LAX airport use bicycles to get around.

I realized that if he actually pulled out a set of latex gloves, I would lose it, big time. Fortunately, he just gave me the once over, shrugged, turned to Little Miss Gate Agent, and said “She sure doesn’t look contagious to me. She should be good to go.”

He then asked me if I wanted to actually undergo an exam. I smiled at him and explained that all I wanted was to get on the next flight out to Atlanta.

During all this, Little Miss Gate Agent gaped like a fish. As he filled out the paperwork, she huffed and puffed and demanded a copy. The paramedic gave her a patient smile that said he was out of patience with her. “Nope, no can do. That’d be a HIPAA violation. You don’t get a copy.” I could have hugged him at that point (no, I didn’t). My paramedic hero then hopped back on his 10-speed and rode off.

During all of this business with the paramedic, Little Miss Gate Agent got a call from airport police, essentially wanting to know why she was detaining the patient of Doctor Friend. It was, from what I could tell, not a happy phone call, because the minute she hung up, she was as sweet as Georgia peach pie to me. Helped me get on the next flight out, the dear.

I now actually carry a doctor’s note with me at all times. It states that I am not contagious and should be allowed to go anywhere the damn hell I want. I’ve learned to pull it out first thing at the airport. I also keep extra copies in case the TSA somehow decides not to give it back to me.

But it does not reduce my anxiety. Will I be scrutinized? Will I be singled out while waiting for my flight to San Francisco? What happens if another Little Miss Gate Agent decides that the letter is not enough?

Flying the unfriendly skies, indeed.

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11 Responses to Flying the Unfriendly Skies

  1. Violet Tigress says:

    That actually happened to you? I’m sorry!

  2. syona says:

    I have a friend who’s job is basically to fly in somewhere, solve tech problems, fly out…[kinda a higher paid service engineer]… as a result he does a lot of flying globally. As he’s said, he’s seen the inside of just about every airport there is.

    As a matter of personal policy, for the last five or six years he’s avoided flying through American airports whenever it was possible. Largely because he’s had his worse customer disservice experiences with American airport staff and security. He says he feels like American airport staff don’t really want him there, or anyone else there either. They’re generally rude, and unfriendly, and just look for a reason to make trouble. [his words, not mine].

    As a datum point, he’s Moroccan, and as a result of a car crash and fire, has some fairly impressive facial scars resulting in loss of skin pigmentation in patches. He’s also been pulled over about his looks before now. [it runs about 50/50 between what disease has he got, to accusations of being a not very successful terrorist.]

  3. Rainy says:

    I too would be anxious about flying after experiencing that.

  4. zem (@zem42) says:

    and to think there was a time people used to enjoy flying 😦

  5. SAF_Dc says:

    Oh my. I don’t understand these people. How have I met you and not seen this skin stuff, yet it seems to be all they can see.

    But they are a problem. I have an artificial hip, and go through the intrusive patdown every time because I set off metal detectors every time.

    And they always do assume the worst, and treat you so poorly, don’t they?

  6. It has helped us, a few times, to ask to speak to the airline’s or airport’s ADA compliance officer, liaison for disability services, whatever–there’s someone responsible for handling disabled passengers’ particular issues. That person knows more than the gate personnel about such matters, and (more to the point) that person knows what kinds of nonsense will get them sued, and how to avoid that outcome. Just asking for that person to be involved in a dispute signals that you know you have SOME rights left, even in an airport.

  7. Denise says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m really looking forward to seeing you though!

  8. After I read this post last night, I looked up the regs for the airline we’re flying at the holidays–turns out I CAN get free seat assignments ahead of time, for son and one adult. The other two passengers, we have to pay $6 a flight to reserve seat assignments, but for peace of mind, it’s worth it. (The airline should pay *me* for thinking ahead and sparing the other passengers, but whatever.) So thanks for the reminder!

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  11. JMixx says:

    Did you happen to get Little Miss Gate Agent’s name? I’d like to look her up the next time I’m in the area so we can discuss her mental condition and the risk it poses a risk to others.

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