Avianca Airlines left disabled passenger alone in dark plane for over an hour

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Mar 15, 2018
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#1
I just returned from a trip to South America with a friend who is a disabled senior citizen. She can walk short distances with a cane, but mostly rides a scooter. We both flew from our respective cities, so we were on different flights...hers was on Avianca with a plane change in Bogota.

As usual when she flies, she had arranged for handicapped assistance at the airport, and gate-checked her scooter. For her connection they were supposed to meet her at the plane and transport her via wheelchair to her next flight. But when the plane landed, it was far out on the tarmac and passengers deplaned via stairs and were bused to the terminal - something she was not able to do on her own. She was told by a flight attendant someone would be there soon for her, but then they all left. The lights were turned off, nobody showed up to help her, and she was literally left in a dark plane for over an hour! The cleaning crew eventually showed up, but ignored her repeated pleas for help.

Finally, over an hour later, two people came to help her down the stairs, onto the bus and into a wheelchair in the terminal, where they wheeled her to her next flight JUST in time before they closed the doors.

To make matters worse, when this flight landed in Rio Di Janeiro, again no one met her and her scooter was nowhere to be found. She was able to hobble off the flight (this one had a jetway) and waited at the gate for 90 minutes, all the while being told by agents that they were "looking for" her scooter. They finally did find it and bring it to her, but by then her pre-arranged transport to the hotel had come and gone, so she had to make alternate arrangements.

We have not yet taken any action. I'm assuming we should start with the Avianca Suggestions and Complaints form provided on your site, but my real question is - what should we ask for? I feel that some compensation is due her, particularly for being left alone in a dark airplane for over an hour, terrified that she'd miss her connection and be left alone in Columbia. That should not have happened to anyone, much less a disabled elderly woman traveling alone.

She travels frequently and is well versed in arranging for handicapped services, so this was not her error.

Thoughts?
 
Jul 13, 2016
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#2
Sounds quite horrifying!
Handicapped services are handled by the airport, although requested through the airline. Each airport has their own service and some have fewer employees to service all handicap requests. I think the problem occurred when the plane disembarked on the tarmac rather than at the terminal with a jetbridge. The service person may have waited at the gate and then left when the plane didn't arrive, not thinking to check where the plane actually was. Or he may have figured out where the plane was, but probably did not have the authority to drive out onto the tarmac to pick up, so he might have had to wait until such time as a driver could be found. I could easily see that taking an hour or more.
 
Likes: jsn55
Sep 19, 2015
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#3
Tarmac arrivals and departures are very difficult, as there has to be a mechanical lift or people to carry the person up the stairs in a special chair.

I am sorry this happened to your friend.

Honestly I am really surprised that a passenger was left alone on a jet.

I have heard that it does take a long time for the disabled services to get to a tarmac boarding/disembarking in Bogota.
 

jsn55

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Dec 26, 2014
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#4
I travelled for years with teams of disabled athletes, and have participated in many interesting adventures on and off an airplane. Bottom line ... I wish everyone with a serious mobility or communication issue would travel with a companion on every flight. While this must have been an awful experience, it doesn't seem much out of the ordinary when you look at the big picture.

It's a communication thing. Someone on the plane should have waited with her for ground services to show up. But crew members don't know much about ground services, they just assume that all will be well. It's not unheard of for an airline/airport to take a couple of hours to locate a personal mobility device. I'm very glad that she made her connecting flight. On the final arrival, arrangements should have been made with the hotel so they awaited a call from her when she was ready. If she travels frequently, I'm sure this is not the first time that she had to wait for her scooter. And pray that it wasn't damaged in transit.

I would let the airline know that they need to tighten up their employee training so that someone is responsible for making sure the last passengers are taken care of when arriving at the destination.
 
Likes: ADM
Mar 15, 2018
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#5
Thanks for your replies. We weren't clear that it's the airport's responsibility for disability services - since you request it when you book your ticket, we assumed the airline handled it. But that does make sense.

Yes, it was horrifying experience for her - and honestly, she travels a LOT and nothing like this has ever happened before. She's always had excellent handicapped services at airports. But normally she does have her husband with her, so this was the first time since her mobility has declined to this degree that she was traveling alone. (We were doing a "girl's cruise" - we left the husbands home.)

jsn55 - you are absolutely correct that if her husband had been with her, this wouldn't have happened. He would have gone into the terminal and screamed bloody murder until they got someone to help her! Given that she's never had an issue of this nature before, she thought she'd be okay to do this on her own. And she would have been, if ground services had done their job!

Regarding the hotel transport - this wasn't a huge issue, but it did increase her costs. She'd made arrangements with other people going on our cruise, who were arriving at the same time and staying at the same hotel, to share a transport. They waited...and waited...they knew which flight she was on, and it showed it had landed but she never turned up. Finally they just left. Fortunately Sandy (my friend) is quite self-sufficient - she just called the hotel and they sent a shuttle over, but it ended up costing her more money because, rather than share it with several other people, she had to pay for it all herself. (My flight arrived much later in the day.)

If the airline isn't actually responsible for the service failure here, it doesn't seem right to ask them for any compensation. And I can't imagine we'd have any luck asking for anything from the airport. So I think what we'll do is simply report what happened to Avianca, and as you say, let them know that they need to tighten things up. At the very least, they should retrain their employees not to leave a disabled person all alone in a dark, empty airplane!
 
Apr 19, 2017
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#6
If the airline isn't actually responsible for the service failure here, it doesn't seem right to ask them for any compensation.
It is if it's Avianca's aircraft and if their cleaning crew worked aroundthe disabled pax without lifting a finger to help. What if the stranded pax had a life-threatening medical problem while sitting there?
 
Likes: jsn55

AMA

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Dec 11, 2014
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#7
I was about to say she should have called 911 when she was trapped on the plane, but I see that she was in South America. This is a really frightening story.
 
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#8
It is if it's Avianca's aircraft and if their cleaning crew worked aroundthe disabled pax without lifting a finger to help. What if the stranded pax had a life-threatening medical problem while sitting there?
I was about to say she should have called 911 when she was trapped on the plane, but I see that she was in South America. This is a really frightening story.
Both good points! Any suggestions on what we should ask for in terms of compensation? I do want to be fair and reasonable, but I agree that what they did to my friend was simply unacceptable. The delay in services is one thing, but leaving her alone in a dark plane takes it to another level.
 
Sep 19, 2015
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#9
It is if it's Avianca's aircraft and if their cleaning crew worked aroundthe disabled pax without lifting a finger to help. What if the stranded pax had a life-threatening medical problem while sitting there?
Cleaning crews usually work for a subcontractor and are not carrying cell phones.

Getting a disabled person off of a tarmac parked plane requires specialized equipment.

Definitely a service fail, and I do think the passenger should write to the airport.

I still think it is odd that someone is allowed to stay alone on an empty aircraft and think that the airline should be aware of it.

I am not sure that there is a real claim for the delay in returning the motorized scooter. It can be very dicey prepaying for transportation when one has to pass through immigration and if one has specialty luggage. It once took me almost two hours to get through immigration at Heathrow just volume and staffing issue and I had prepaid for transport and had to pay extra waiting time.
 
Likes: Neil Maley
Jul 13, 2016
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#10
Regarding the cleaning crew ignoring the disabled passenger's pleas for help--we were not there and we are getting the story second-hand. Perhaps the cleaning crew did not speak English, and maybe the passenger did not speak Spanish--maybe the crew did notify the gate--we have no idea

It is an unfortunate event, but I do not see how Avianca is responsible. The flight crew was not trained to remove her safely from her seat; the cleaning crew was not able to physically help--and maybe they did call the gate for help; Avianca does not operate the accessible services at the airport.

Would it have been nice if a crew member had stayed with the passenger until accessible services arrived? Of course! Was it their responsibility to stay? No.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
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#11
Regarding the cleaning crew ignoring the disabled passenger's pleas for help--we were not there and we are getting the story second-hand. Perhaps the cleaning crew did not speak English, and maybe the passenger did not speak Spanish--maybe the crew did notify the gate--we have no idea

It is an unfortunate event, but I do not see how Avianca is responsible. The flight crew was not trained to remove her safely from her seat; the cleaning crew was not able to physically help--and maybe they did call the gate for help; Avianca does not operate the accessible services at the airport.

Would it have been nice if a crew member had stayed with the passenger until accessible services arrived? Of course! Was it their responsibility to stay? No.
And this is exactly why we don’t advocate third party cases.

LeeAnne, if you weren’t on the flights with your friend, we can’t advocate the case. We need the actual consumer to come here because there may be questions you don’t have first hand knowledge of.

Please review our FAQ page on what we do and don’t advocate:

https://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions/
 
Sep 19, 2015
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#12
LeeAnnC Neil has brought up a good point. All this information is second hand. Your friend should be here herself, as there is too much uncertainty with second have info.

Can you ask for your friend to join?
 
Mar 15, 2018
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#14
LeeAnnC Neil has brought up a good point. All this information is second hand. Your friend should be here herself, as there is too much uncertainty with second have info.

Can you ask for your friend to join?
And this is exactly why we don’t advocate third party cases.

LeeAnne, if you weren’t on the flights with your friend, we can’t advocate the case. We need the actual consumer to come here because there may be questions you don’t have first hand knowledge of.

Please review our FAQ page on what we do and don’t advocate:

https://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions/
Um...I'm not asking you to advocate. I'm simply asking for opinions. If we were asking for any actual advocacy, e.g. for one of your wonderful advocates to reach out on our behalf, I would have Sandy jump in. But I'm not. I'm asking for informal thoughts and advice. Not once have I asked any one of you to take any action on Sandy's behalf.

Sandy is aware of this thread, as I've been reading it to her, but she is currently dealing with a terrible case of bronchitis that has her laid up. So she is not getting out of bed to sit at her computer. We are discussing next steps, and I told her I would ask the brilliant folks in the Elliott forum what they thought about this. I'm helping her write up her complaint, and once she's back on her feet and up to sitting at her computer, she will submit it herself on the Avianca complaint for that I found in here.

So everyone please calm down. Nobody is asking for the dreaded "third party case advocacy". Just your wise advice. That's all.

Thanks everyone for your thoughts and views. But if it's such a problem to offer these to a "third party", then you are free to close this thread.
 
Mar 15, 2018
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#15
Cleaning crews usually work for a subcontractor and are not carrying cell phones.

Getting a disabled person off of a tarmac parked plane requires specialized equipment.

Definitely a service fail, and I do think the passenger should write to the airport.

I still think it is odd that someone is allowed to stay alone on an empty aircraft and think that the airline should be aware of it.

I am not sure that there is a real claim for the delay in returning the motorized scooter. It can be very dicey prepaying for transportation when one has to pass through immigration and if one has specialty luggage. It once took me almost two hours to get through immigration at Heathrow just volume and staffing issue and I had prepaid for transport and had to pay extra waiting time.
Thanks for your feedback. We agree that the airport should be included in the complaint.

Regarding the transport - it wasn't actually pre-paid. What I wrote was that it was "pre-arranged". She was intending on sharing the transport with two couples who were also on our cruise (whom we'd met through Cruise Critic) and were staying at our hotel. This would have been a nice cost-savings, as they were sharing the cost of the van. As it turned out, that van had to leave, so Sandy had to hire another shuttle on her own and pay for the whole thing herself. Again, as I mentioned before, this was not a huge deal - more of an annoyance, certainly compared to the experience in Bogota!

For the record, she was well aware that it was entirely possible she would miss this van anyway, for any number of reasons: her flight could have been delayed, or immigration could have taken longer, as you noted. So this was not our biggest complaint - just a bummer of an end to an already bad trip. But she doesn't expect any kind of compensation for that part of it.

Being left alone and terrified on a plane for over an hour is another story altogether.

The Washington Post had an article yesterday on air travelers in wheelchairs and consumer advocacy. https://www.washingtonpost.com/life...ecbafc-2b18-11e9-984d-9b8fba003e81_story.html
Thanks - great article! If this had been an US airline, we might have a way to report this breach of the ADA. But since it's not, we really have no recourse other than just to complain and see what happens.

Okay, well since it's been made clear that if Sandy isn't able to post in here herself (and right now, she's not), we should probably end this conversation. I'm well aware of Elliott.org's stringent policy of not advocating cases reported by a third party. I just wasn't aware that extended to not even discussing cases. Apologies. Maybe when Sandy feels better, she'll pop in here and say hello, just to confirm everything I've written on her behalf.
 
Mar 15, 2018
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#16
Regarding the cleaning crew ignoring the disabled passenger's pleas for help--we were not there and we are getting the story second-hand. Perhaps the cleaning crew did not speak English, and maybe the passenger did not speak Spanish--maybe the crew did notify the gate--we have no idea

It is an unfortunate event, but I do not see how Avianca is responsible. The flight crew was not trained to remove her safely from her seat; the cleaning crew was not able to physically help--and maybe they did call the gate for help; Avianca does not operate the accessible services at the airport.

Would it have been nice if a crew member had stayed with the passenger until accessible services arrived? Of course! Was it their responsibility to stay? No.
Oops - one more comment. I just talked to Sandy on the phone and read all of this to her. She's dismayed at the reactions, as she is so grateful for my help. She thanks everyone who has already offered their opinions.

Also, for the record, Sandy lives in Costa Rica (an American expat who retired and built a home there) and speaks fluent Spanish. She explained that the cleaning crew just kept telling her that someone was coming, and refused to make any phone calls on her behalf. They just seemed focused on quickly cleaning the plane. She was shocked when they all just up and left, and the lights were all turned off.

Anyway, that's all - carry on.
 
Sep 19, 2015
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#17
LeeAnneC, apologies, no one meant to sound like they are beating up on you and Sandy. It is just that in the past there have been second hand complaints and it was hard to find out what really happened. Sorry that Sandy is sick.

Cleaners for airplanes are in a terrible position -- usually work for a company that is hired to clean, and they have to do X planes per hour and are generally poorly paid. I would suspect that they are not bad people, just working under terrible conditions.

Honestly I cannot understand leaving a passenger alone on a plane, it sounds like such a security concern.

So your friend started in Costa Rico? That takes out complaining to the DOT, because they only have jurisdiction on flights that start, end or are completely within the US -- not that the DOT can do anything on behalf of a flyer but can fine the airline.

Most of us here have very little idea what the laws are in Colombia -- or if even this type of wait is normal. One blog on disabled travel mentions that there can be a long wait for assistance with tarmac arrivals -- this person wrote: "And although the airport does have jet bridges, sometimes passengers are deplaned on the tarmac and then bussed to the terminal. When that happens, it usually takes a while for airport personnel to locate a usable lift."

Now I realize that I am looking at things from a non local standpoint, such as leaving a person on a plane -- most countries do not allow that, and this is where an understanding of the local laws and customs would come in.
 

Neil Maley

Moderator
Staff Member
Advocate
Dec 27, 2014
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www.promalvacations.com
#18
When we help third parties, we often find that there may be details left out that are important to a case that the person writing doesn’t have an answer to. It often can change the advice we give. Thats why our FAQS say we don’t work on behalf of third parties.

Part of the problem is that this didn’t occur in the US or on a US airlines. We have laws that help protect customers via the ADA Act. If this had happened here, you would have been able to report it to the DOT. In other countries- they don’t have these kind of protections.

The best we can offer is that your friend goes up the executive chain at Avianca and asks turn to intervene in airport operations there so it doesn’t happen to someone else.
 
Mar 15, 2018
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#19
Hi Cristina - thanks for that. Yes, I'm very well aware of the issues that Chris and his team have had with advocating problems reported by a third party. My name may be different here in the forum, but in the comments forum you know me as LeeAnne Clark - I'm an active participant, and I too have commented on some of those articles. Especially from the helicopter mommies of grown-a$$ men who can't seem to handle their own issues. I get it. ;) But as noted, I just wanted to get some thoughts.

Neil - you are correct. Which is why from the beginning all I was asking for was some suggestions on what we should ask for from Avianca. I'm still not sure what, if anything we should ask for in compensation.

Given that others have apparently reported similar long waits for disabled assistance on the tarmac, perhaps she's really not entitled to anything. But I still feel like Avianca itself holds some responsibility in just leaving her alone there for so long.

Just so you know, I have no intention of asking anyone for assistance...we're quite happy to advocate for ourselves. I suspect nothing will come of this but a form letter response, but hey, you never know unless you ask, right?