In case you haven't heard, United Airlines has been having a pretty tough quarter.
I wish I could tell you I was surprised to hear it. I was horrified, mind you, but not surprised. I have flown United fairly often because, well, when you travel for business you don't always get to customize your itinerary.
You see, there was this one time I flew on United and standing at the front of the line to board at the gate, I overheard flight attendants making fun of a passenger who'd approached them earlier with a question. It was repugnant behavior. Another time, in one of their lounges, a front desk receptionist told me in a astonishingly rude tone that my problem wasn't her problem (I couldn't get on the WiFi). I can't forget the time my flight with United was delayed hours and hours and we were given no information -- not even when people at the gate started to get shouty and threatening. United staff just walked away and left us there. When we finally boarded, no apology was given, nothing was explained.
And now let me also tell you about one of the most humiliating moments of my entire life.
I'm very tall and, frankly, wide (I mean, hence the blog name), so when it's available to me, I'll spend the $20 or $60 to upgrade to more leg room. One such time, this put me in an exit row.
Now, I travel with my own seat-belt extender. I do this for two reasons. First, airplane seats suck, and even though I fit between the armrests just fine, the seat-belts also suck. Second, when you ask a flight attendant for a seat-belt extender, they tend to wrap it up and slip it to you covertly, like it's this thing you need to be ashamed of and it just always left me with this residual stench of embarrassment I did not care for. So when I found out Amazon sold seat-belt extenders, it was a no-brainer.
You know how right before take-off, the flight attendants walk up and down the aisle to make sure your seat is upright and everyone's properly fastened in?
Here's how it went....
Flight Attendant: Excuse me, ma'am?
I looked up at her. Why was she shouting at me?
Flight Attendant: Ma'am, I'm afraid disabled people cannot sit in the exit row.
Me: I'm sorry...?
Flight Attendant: You have a seat-belt extender and so you cannot sit in the exit row.
Me: But I'm not disabled.
Flight Attendant: That's policy, ma'am. We'll have to find you a new seat.
Me: But I paid extra to sit in this seat.
Flight Attendant: When you land, you can take that up with somebody or call the airline but I need to move you.
There may have been a little more banter after that but I don't recall specifics. I was red in the face. I was mortified. The entire plane was tuned into our conversation. I held back tears as I unbuckled myself, gathered my things, stepped over the two passengers in my row, and followed the snotty flight attendant to a seat in the last row of the plane, on the aisle.
I was so devastated, I didn't even have time to care that I had paid for an upgrade and instead smelled the bathroom for the six hour flight home. I took a xanax and tried to sleep through as much of the flight as possible. Sometimes I woke up and teared up a little. I refused beverages and snacks because I wanted precisely nothing from this airline except to get home.
I was not given a refund for my upgrade, by the way. I emailed their customer care account (I just checked my gmail, I've emailed them a few times over the last few years) and never heard back. And honestly, I didn't even care that much because I mostly just wanted to forget that whole flight had ever happened. It's really hard to recover from feeling that humiliated. She had called me "disabled" and it was just so public and nasty - I still just do not understand why her tone was so condescending and cruel.
Much later, unable to stop thinking about it, I did finally do some research. Apparently, the reason someone using a seat-belt extender cannot sit in the exit row is because it physically makes your seat-belt strap longer so when you take it off, it hangs lower off the seat, and there is a concern people exiting will trip over it.
Fair enough, I suppose, but really, if people are scrambling to get off a crashing plane, there's gonna be a lot of tripping and shoving and panic.... But again, fair enough. And needless to say, it has nothing to do with anyone being disabled.
Recently, I've lost some weight and last month, I flew Southwest to Las Vegas. Their staff is always incredible, for the record. And for the first time in more than 10 years, I did not need a seat-belt extender. I burst into tears. Also, I was sitting in the mother-effing exit row. It was an amazing feeling and I couldn't help but think "I'm not disabled anymore, United. Fuck you."