Monday, 5 August 2013

The British Airways experience

If I can crib about drawbacks in facilities for PWD in the US and Canada (and of course, India), then I shouldn't leave out the people who tried to colonise almost all of the above. I was scheduled to fly British Air, with a two hour stop in London between the Toronto-London and London-Chennai legs of the looong return flight.

I was dreading the Heathrow experience and as justification, to my friends, of this dread I could only mention the general air of confusion and inefficiency that has been the common denominator of all my prior visits to it. Let me try to put down on paper a rough approximation of how this dread was vindicated.

To start with, the plane did not fly to what we in India call an aerobridge; instead, we halted on the tarmac, where a bus and staircase was waiting. So I walk down to the waiting bus `with a little help from my friends' and am informed that there will be a wheelchair waiting for me when I get off the bus. I suppose that was the hope. When we got there, there was no sight of a wheelchair. An Indian BA official there politely and diffidently asked me if I could please walk just a little more, which translated to about a 50m walk till we got to an elevator. That, fortunately, was almost the end of my forced exercise for the morning, because that's when we were met by the driver of a buggy with a no-nonsense Anthony-Quinn-look-alike who made no attempts to conceal his opinion of his organisation's mess-up and consequent ordeal I had been subjected to. He eventually drove the buggy into a large elevator which then took us to Level -4, meaning deep under the tarmac, and on getting out of the elevator, we must have driven what felt like about 1.5 km, then back up a similar elevator into the more peopled higher parts of the airport, where he left us at the next `pick-up point' where we spent a pleasant ten minutes or so, discussing the charms of Scotland with a lady who was from there, before another buggy came and took us to the desired gate almost an hour before boarding time. 

Then I had the bright idea of trying to use the available time for my morning ablutions. The problem was that I had been deposited at a spot from which I would need to walk about 50 m. to go to a toilet and my weary limbs would have none of it. Just then, almost as if by divine providence, a BA attendant (clearly Indian by appearance and accent). When he was requested to take me, he agreed and offered to wait for me to come out. As soon as I went in, I tried, unsuccessfully due to the number of plastic things which had to be opened, to brush my teeth with the little packet they give all fliers along with the earphones at the start of the flight. At this point, I noticed that my wheelchair attendant had come in and was glaring at me. When I asked him if he would help me open that tooth-paste - which was beyond my clumsy fingers - he blew up. `I thought you wanted to use the toilet; you can brush your teeth in the plane', and thus chastised, I was taken back to the gate. As we neared the gate, we heard them giving the boarding call and my man immediately perked up with `I'll take you to the plane; you have a good flight' this translating in any language to `time for you to tip me adequately'! I got into the plane, tipped him and looked forward to returning home, to `known devils'.

I got to thanking: what would I have done if my disability was more severe so that I couldn't even get out of the chair?


  1. // When I asked him if he would help me open that tooth-paste - which was beyond my clumsy fingers - he blew up. `I thought you wanted to use the toilet; you can brush your teeth in the plane', and thus chastised, I was taken back to the gate.//

    What the hell! Surely this is something you can file an official complaint about?

    1. The poor guy is probably an underpaid hey-you as far as BA is concerned. They'll probably chew his a.. as a token, but nothing will be done about the system that gave me my forced exercise!

  2. Prof. Sunder
    This comment is not on your write up on the British Air but just to express my appreciation and share my experience. Your columns so aptly and accurately capture the experiences of those who are differently abled.

    A physically active and healthy close relative suddenly began suffering from some disability over the last few months. It has been an eye-opener. There are people who are courteous and offer to help and yet there are onlookers who even question why the person is in a public place - be it grocery stores, cinema, malls, upmarket stores (surprisingly these places are not "disabled friendly"). Every single activity/ every detail has to be worked out, even if you are only buying vegetables. How far to park the car from destination, will they allow a wheel chair, will there be an elevator etc etc. Visits to the local temple were stopped after permission to enter was denied, because of the plastic splint worn on the feet. We have not even considered medical consultations in other cities because of travel related issues.
    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences - I usually post your column on facebook but it seems that people however well meaning they are, prefer to hear news about children, newborns, love life, professional successes and not elderly disabled relatives.

    1. Dear `p',

      Thanks for your gratifying comment.

      Can you write an email to me ( with details of this temple refusing entry on the grounds of the plastic splint, etc. ?