In October 2013, I fell down from a pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar, and dislocated a wrist bone in the right hand. The problem could not be diagnosed in Nyang U (Bagan) and I had to fly back home for a surgery. It took me a three-hop journey on three different airlines to get home. Subsequently, recuperating from a surgery and permitted by my doctor to travel, I took eight more flights in a span of two months when my hand was still in a sling or wrapped in a splint.
With a total of eleven hops using six different airlines, I had a chance to see how different airlines treat passengers with special needs. I was surprised at the sea difference in their treatment, sometimes even among the staff of same airline in different airports.
During all these journeys, I never requested for wheel chairs or special assistance, as my left hand was intact and I was able to handle my baggage, albeit with some difficulty. In some occasions, airline staff came forward to help me when they noticed my hand in a sling. Most airlines were neutral and in the only instance when I requested for some privilege, I was turned down.
Here is a compilation of my experiences taking eleven flights with six airlines.
The Best – Yangon Airways at Nyang U (Bagan) Airport
It is five months since I took a Yangon Airways flight from Nyang U (Bagan) to Mandalay and I still can’t forget how friendly the staff were. On arrival at airport, my cab driver waved at an airline staff at the gates and asked him to help me. One look at my injured hand (and many cuts on my face as well) and he understood I can do with some help. He sprung into the cab, lifted my bags out and placed them on a trolley. When I stretched my left hand (the uninjured hand) to push the trolley, he refused to hand it over and escorted me to the check-in counter.
There was a small queue of about two persons at the counter. He wouldn’t let me stand in queue, though. Instead, he made me take a seat, reassured me that everything will be taken care of and volunteered to take care of all the formalities. All I had to do was to sit back and relax while my bags were getting checked in and boarding pass printed.
The good folks at Yangon Airways continued to help me even in Mandalay. At Mandalay Airport, I had to offload my backpack from the belt and had to carry it on my shoulders to the first ,floor where the check-in counters are located. They had no lifts available and stairs was the only option. It was going to be a tremendous effort for me to pull up my large backpack and a day-pack with just one hand. At a time when I was struggling with these, a Yangon Airways staff walked to me, took both my bags and assisted me to the first floor. It was probably going to be the most challenging task I ever had to take up in my conditions, but for the help from this good man.
Thank you, Yangon Airways!
The Worst – Druk Air at Paro Airport
For a country of genial people who are usually happy to offer help, I was surprised to find Druk Air staff at Paro not very forthcoming in assisting passengers with special needs, or even acknowledging them.
Paro Airport has an unusual layout that doesn’t let you take your bags in a trolley to the check-in counters. At the initial security check cum baggage screening area, which happens before you check-in, you have to leave the trolley behind and manage the bags on your own. This meant I had to drag my large backpack from security check to the check-in counters. Add to this problem, there was a long and slow-moving queue at the check-in counter, which meant waiting in line for about thirty minutes and dragging my backpack with me each time the queue moves forward.
I did this for a few minutes and found it painful. While the economy-class queue was long and dragging slowly, the business class counter remained empty. I walked into the lady at the business-class counter and asked her if she would let me check-in there. I was declined. Neither did she think of sending someone to assist me go through the check-in process. I was left to waiting in the long queue, dragging my backpack with me.
If I remember well, this was the only time I requested for assistance in those eleven hops that I made with an injured hand. In the past, airline staff had occasionally asked me proactively if I needed any assistance. The refusal from Druk Air to help seemed unusual and took me by surprise. Thankfully, one of the fellow travellers helped me with the bags and I was able to go through the check-in without suffering too much.
The Friendly – Jet Airways at Bangalore Airport & Thai Airways at Bangkok Airport
The Jet Airways staff at the check-in counter in Bangalore Airport were the friendliest and the most helpful I found within India. There was a queue at the counters which may have taken 10-15 minutes to clear. But as soon as I reached there (with my right hand secured in the sling and announcing its helplessness), I was whisked away from the queue and sent to a relatively empty Première counter. The staff at the counter were friendly and helpful and inquired if I would like to use special assistance (‘no,’ I replied). They tried to make me as comfortable as possible, even insisting on helping me attach the baggage-tag to my cabin baggage. Further, I was assigned to an aisle seat in the front row and the middle-seat to my right was left empty.
I enjoyed a similar hospitality at the check-in counters of Thai Airways at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Checking in was quick as there was no queue. I was offered assistance when they noticed the sling. I was given an aisle seat and the middle-seat to my right was left empty.
Thank you, good folks at Jet Airways Bangalore and Thai Airways Bangkok.
The Confused – Jet Airways at Kolkata Airport
After experiencing the friendliness of Jet Airways staff at Bangalore, I was expecting a similar treatment at Kolkata. Only a week later, I was to catch a Jet Airways flight from Kolkata.
I was early at the airport, almost eight hours before the scheduled departure time. On arrival at Jet Airways check-in counter, I asked one of the senior staff members if I can check-in right away or am required to wait for check-in to begin for my flight. I was hoping to get rid of my bags, complete the security check and catch some sleep till it is time to board. Things went according to the plan, but for a few minutes of juggling at the counter.
The person who checked me (let’s call her P1) in was probably new at the desk. Since she was unsure if she can let anyone check in too early, she inquired with her neighbour (P2) if she should.
P1: Can we check someone in for a 5pm flight (It was about 10am)?
P2: No (her answer was very firm and terse)
Now, P1 was in a bit troubled and she did note want to disappoint me. So she once again turned to P2
P1: But this person’s hand is broken. Why don’t we check him in?
P2: (now clearly unhappy about being confronted) No! Don’t!!
Much to the dismay of P2, P1 decided it is time to consult a senior staff. She turned to the same senior staff who had initially given me a green signal. They came to a resolution that I must be allowed to check-in, and the baggage manager must to be instructed to put my check-in bag in a hold area and ensure that they are boarded on the flight. So P1 went ahead with checking me in.
She was able to prepare my baggage ids and have them dispatched. However, when it came to printing my boarding pass, her system encountered some problems. After fiddling a bit, she requested P2 to print my boarding pass, and asked me to collect it from her.
I studiously stood in front of P2’s counter and gave her a ‘let-me-have-my-boarding-pass’ stare.
For some reason, P2 was now furious. She refused to comply with P1’s request.
P2: You checked him in; now you give him the boarding pass!
P1: (in a tone of request and surrender): please.. I am not able to print it here..
This went back and forth for a few minutes, while I watched with some amusement. Both of them were trying to mutlitask, doing something else and also trying to pass the task of printing the boarding pass to each other. My sense of amusement was slowly dying and was getting replaced with annoyance. Finally, just when I was thinking if I should step in and express my displeasure about two fine ladies having a brawl, P2 got up from her seat to resolve the problem in P1’s system and pulled out my boarding card. It must have taken more than ten minutes for the whole drama. In the meanwhile, while she was processing my ticket, P1 had also put my bags on ‘priority’ label and had ensured that I get a left-side aisle seat.
I must thank P1 for her kindness, but I guess Jet Airways Kolkata staff can improve their processes and co-ordination.
Besides the above, I also flew Druk Air from Kolkata and Air Asia from Mandalay. I took SpiceJet from Bangalore, Delhi and Varanasi when I no longer had a cast, but a prominent splint still hung around my right hand. I took another Jet Airways flight from Delhi with the splint on. They offered me no privileges and I did not have anything to complain about them either. But having been treated with privileges by Jet Airways and Yangon Airways, I must admit that I secretly wished for everyone else to be equally hospitable.