I live in Orlando, Florida, and while most of the time this is the airport I use for my international travels, sometimes I prefer to drive a little bit for a direct flight. Miami International Airport has more direct flights to Europe and Latin America than Orlando, so I used it twice in the last two years for this reason — the first time in April 2018 to visit Lisbon, Portugal, and most recently in November 2019 to travel to Spain. Arriving back at MIA both times was a complete nightmare, and here’s why I recommend avoiding flying into MIA as a wheelchair user at all costs.
TAP Portugal in April 2018
In April 2018, I flew on TAP Portugal direct from Lisbon, Portugal to MIA. I was already annoyed when I landed in Miami because I had paid extra for a bulkhead seat in the center section of the plane. This allows me to have some extra legroom, and people don’t have to shove me around while climbing over me to get to the lavatory. Apparently, TAP Portugal thought it was in my best interest to move me back 20 rows and place me in a designated wheelchair row, simply because the armrest lifts up. They did not reimburse me for the fee I paid for the bulkhead seat I lost. They also didn’t tell me about the change prior to boarding. But at this point, that’s neither here nor there.
The flight was uneventful, and we landed without incident at Miami International Airport. I’m always the last one off the plane, so I waited patiently for everybody to disembark and for my wheelchair to be brought to the door of the plane. There’s this little law called the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that requires any airline, whether domestic or foreign, that either arrives in or departs from to the United States to comply with its tenets. One of those rules states that the airline has to return my wheelchair to the door of the plane, or as close as possible on the jet bridge, within a reasonable amount of time – usually thirty minutes or less.
Well, thirty minutes came and went, and still no wheelchair. The airport crew was ready with the aisle chair to take me off the plane, but I told them that I would stay seated quietly on the plane until my wheelchair was brought to me. We hit the 45-minute mark, and still no wheelchair. At that point, the airport representative for TAP Portugal got on the plane and approached me in a huff. I mean, he was pissed.
Every minute that I was sitting on the plane was costing them money because they can’t turn the plane around and get it moving for the next flight. But I learned my lesson the hard way years before. If I got off the plane and sat in either a hard and uncomfortable aisle chair or in an airport manual wheelchair to wait for my personal chair to be brought to me, there would be no motivation for the airline to comply with the ACAA. So, I sat. And I waited more. And the TAP started turning a shade of fire engine red.
In my years of flying as a wheelchair user, I have used dozens of airlines and flown over half a million miles. During that time, I have never once had an airline representative yell at me. There’s a first time for everything, and that was the day. He told me I was being ridiculous. He accused me of holding their plane hostage. Then he told me he was going to call the police to have me forcibly removed from the plane. That was when I unlocked my cell phone and went to hand it to him. He refused.
When situations like this happen to wheelchair users, we’re supposed to ask to speak to someone called a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO). Every airport is supposed to have at least one on-duty during any time that flights are operating. This was not the case that day at MIA (another ACAA violation), so instead of the CRO they sent me someone else. He was nice. He was also very calm, and very understanding.
He explained to me that because of the gate layout, the ground crew was physically unable to carry my scooter up the stairs to the jet bridge. He said they had initially sent it to the Customs area for collection, which is another common ACAA violation, but they would be able to roll it from Customs halfway down the jet bridge to a lounge area. If I would be willing to get off the plane onto a manual chair, they would take me to that lounge area to be reunited with my scooter within 15-20 minutes. I shrugged my shoulders and said, Okay.
Now, I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. If they were able to roll my scooter all the way from Customs halfway down the jet bridge to a lounge area, why couldn’t they roll it just a few more down yards down the rest of the jet bridge to the door the plane? But at that point, I was ready to let it go. The stand-in CRO did his job in defusing the situation. He was kind, he was sympathetic, and he made me feel heard. He knew the situation was messed up, and while the solution wasn’t ideal, it was clear that he was making a sincere effort to help me.
I later filed a complaint with both TAP Portugal and the Department of Transportation for several ACAA violations. After a full year, I finally got a letter from the DOT with the results of their investigation. Basically, TAP denied any wrongdoing, and the DOT found them guilty of all the wrongdoing. I was never compensated in any way, and TAP was never punished in any way. But, at the end of the day, I made it home safely – with my scooter.
Iberia Airlines in December 2019
I was sincerely hoping that my incident with TAP Portugal was a one-off or a fluke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. On December 5, my best friend and I flew on a direct flight on Iberia Airlines from Madrid into MIA. I quickly informed the crew that I needed my wheelchair at the door of the plane, and asked them to please instruct the ground crew to do so. They understood completely, and quickly complied with my request.
After about 20 minutes, the airline representative for Iberia — I’m assuming the equivalent to the TAP Portugal airline representative — started speaking in Spanish to the flight crew. I speak fluent Spanish, so I understood every word, and I was only seated a few rows back from the aircraft exit. He clearly said to a flight attendant that “it wasn’t about what the passenger wanted, but what the airport wanted,” clearly referring to my desire to have my wheelchair returned to me.
What ensued was a complete rinse and repeat of my experience with TAP Portugal at MIA in 2018, but with a twist. When I requested the presence of a complaint resolution official, the Iberia representative just looked at me, shook his head, and said no. I said, in Spanish, “Excuse me?” I explained to him once more that the law states I’m entitled to speak with a CRO upon request. Once again, he said no. I have a feeling he didn’t know what a CRO was, but he made no move to find out, speak to someone else, or ask a supervisor.
At roughly 30 minutes after landing, he left to presumably go figure out what to do with me and my chair. I apologized to the flight crew for the hassle, but they only smiled and said I should remain calm. They were supportive of me and said they would stay on the plane with me until my chair was returned to me.
A few minutes later, the Iberia representative returned. He said it might take a long time for my chair to be returned to the door of the plane because they had to send an immigration official along with it since my chair was on its way to Customs and baggage claim. I said I would wait. He wasn’t happy about that. He left again.
A few minutes later, he suggested that I transfer to an airport wheelchair and wait on the jet bridge, since it would now only take five or ten minutes for my chair to be returned to me. I replied that since it would only take five or ten minutes, I would wait comfortably on the plane. He said the only reason they couldn’t turn the plane around was because of me. I noted that during this entire time, not one single person had boarded the plane to start cleaning up, and I knew that plane wasn’t due to depart MIA for at least another two hours. I told him that was was his problem and not mine, and I would wait on the plane. He left again. Five minutes later, he informed me that my power wheelchair had arrived.
Just like my experience in April 2018 with Portugal, this entire incident took around one hour. Both times, the airline representatives complained that it was impossible to return my chair because of the weight and the layout/logistics of the airport. Both times, I stated it was interesting that they had a way to get my wheelchair into the terminal to roll it ALL the way to customs and immigration, and then to baggage claim and not to my jet bridge. Both times, they magically found a way to return my chair to the door of my plane after an hour of waiting.
Know Your Rights Under the ACAA
These two incidents are prime examples of why you should know all of your rights under the ACAA. Many airline representatives, and particularly those that are not based in the United States, have no idea what the ACAA is or what they have to do in order to comply with it. Always remember that the top priority for airlines is to be profitable and to be on time. They damage our wheelchairs because they are in a rush to load and unload planes as quickly as possible. They will tell you anything they can to get you to believe you need to get off the airplane as quickly as possible, with or without your personal chair. The second that you disembark the plane, you lose all leverage and the airline and airport lose all motivation to return your chair as quickly as possible.
Miami International Airport also has a considerable amount of work to do. Considering the billions of dollars they’ve invested over the years in expanding airport terminals and property, apparently they haven’t invested anything to bring them into compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. There are airports all across the United States that have no trouble returning wheelchairs to passengers at the door of the plane, including from international flights. There’s no excuse for why MIA can’t make this happen.MIA also has to educate airline representatives on what CROs are, and what to do when passengers request one.
I understand that every travel day and every flight situation is different. I’m lucky that I have a strong bladder and I was able to wait on the plane as long as I did in both situations, despite desperately having to use the toilet. Some wheelchair travelers won’t have the time or the energy to fight ACAA violations as they’re happening, and I totally understand that some people just want to get the inconvenience over with as quickly as possible.
However, if wheelchair travelers don’t complain about these violations or mistreatment by airline and airport representatives, then nothing will change and nothing will improve. I’m sharing my experiences with you at Miami International Airport to both warn you about what your experience will be like if you arrive there as an international passenger, and to support you by making sure you know what your rights are as a wheelchair passenger.