By Anthony Corona and Gabriel Lopez Kafati
We think it is safe to agree that this past summer was the season of air-travel madness. From cancellations to delays, from staff shortages to fuel-price spikes — and, of course, there was the dreaded lost luggage! — it was a summer of air travel and civil rights failures that we wanted to forget, but decided to address and correct instead! This post-pandemic return-to-travel summer was wrought with problems.
During this time of air travel woes for everyone, we had some specific troubles of our own which ignited the fire of advocacy in both of us! We are pleased to tell you how our successful advocacy has resulted in some important changes here at Miami International Airport (MIA) and at American Airlines, as well. The story of our missed flight and TSA mishandling is long, but we want to share the highlights.
First, we arrived for our short flight to Orlando 2 hours prior to departure only to be hassled by American Airlines’ curve-side personnel about our guide dogs. As much as we explained that our dogs were not “pets,” that their status as guide dogs had already been documented, that we had mobile boarding passes with us, and that all we needed was to check our bags and be directed to the Special Assistance Desk, they vehemently and stubbornly insisted, “All pets must be checked in at a counter!”
After wasting 15 precious minutes in this back-and-forth, we decided it was time to call in a supervisor. To our dismay, the supervisor gave us the same “pet” run-around! Even though we knew we were doing the right thing and that the laws and regulations were on our side, we decided to give up the fight and devote our attention to time, which was wasting! So we requested that the curbside folks should at least assist us to the counter where we had to check-in our “pets.”
About 45 minutes later, after a few other bumps with counter staff, we were finally ready to go through TSA. This is when the problematic turned into injurious! While trying to move through TSA, a very rude and completely uninformed agent began to assert it was “her job” to assess the security of our guide dogs by removing their harnesses and leashes. Very calmly we explained that removal of harnesses and leashes is not an appropriate part of the process for assisting guide dog users through TSA, and the situation only degraded as she continued to shout at us, “Do not tell me how to do my job!”
Again, we requested a supervisor to be called in. Unfortunately, he was not any better informed or any less rude. And, as he walked Gabriel and Posh to be processed, the original agent forcibly removed Boaty’s leash from Anthony’s wrist, breaking an expensive gold bracelet, and dragging Boaty away from Anthony.
You can be sure Anthony was not standing for the forcible removal of his guide, and, at that point, as Anthony stood yelling, “I do not give permission for you to take my guide dog. This is against the law!,” other passengers got involved.
On the other side of the metal detector, and after cooperating with the standard inspection of his hands, Gabriel was being forced to remove Posh’s leash, for the dog’s “inspection.” At the same time, both Anthony and Gabriel were being pulled aside and taken through the metal detector again, even though both of them had already been cleared.
Gabriel requested the names of the TSA agent and her supervisor, and both refused to tell him their names. Gabriel insisted. He said, “You have name tags on, don’t you?”
After he heard an affirmative response, he pressed on. “It was our right to have the same information as any sighted passengers.”
Understanding that we were still wasting precious minutes, and realizing that we had a mere 20 minutes to make our flight, we decided to get on our way to the gate.
A mad dash through the extremely busy Miami Airport resulted in our reaching the gate 14 minutes prior to departure. As we approached the gate agents waving our boarding passes, we were informed that we had missed the flight!
We explained how we had gotten to the airport with ample time, but had encountered so many delays due to uninformed airline and airport personnel. Gabriel asked if the plane was still there, and if the door was still open. The agent confirmed that the plane was still there and the door hadn’t yet closed. When we asked why we couldn’t board, we were told that passengers who are not at the gate 15 minutes prior to departure are removed from the flight and seats are re-assigned to stand-by passengers.
Knowing that we had walked into an empty gate area, we were perplexed. How was it determined in 1 minute that we were not there? How did it happen that no announcements were made about our absence, that our seats got re-assigned, that new boarding passes were issued, and that the stand-by passengers were able to board the plane? All we heard was silence from the gate agent. Other passengers began reacting and demanding that the gate agent stop ignoring us and taking advantage of the fact that we couldn’t see.
Later, while we waited for a different plane to take us to Orlando, we consulted yet another supervisor. He couldn’t provide a reasonable explanation.
We were issued boarding passes for the next flight to Orlando.
As soon as we were back, we sprung into advocacy action. Gabriel contacted the airline, while Anthony contacted the airport. Calling on the excellent advocacy education we have received from our ACB family — from leadership meetings we had attended to local voting task group activities; from walking/Zooming through Capitol Hill to representing our affiliates at many local civic events; from participating in community calls to learning at training sessions — we were armed with strong advocacy skills. After lengthy e-mail correspondence and many long phone calls, airline and airport supervisors were persuaded to investigate further. As a result, staff members were interviewed and camera footage was pulled.
The results: American Airlines conducted extensive training sessions with all their ground personnel at MIA, and we received a comprehensive letter of apology with a corresponding travel credit.
The TSA agent who subjected us to such rudeness and blatant ignorance of federal regulations was removed from her position. We have to admit that this was a tough one for us. While we do not want anyone losing their job, when we thought about how other disabled passengers were going to encounter that same person, we realized that removing her as a TSA agent was the right thing to do.
Additionally, MIA TSA personnel were mandated to attend a re-training session, specifically dealing with protocols and regulations regarding passengers with disabilities.
The supervisor for all of MIA’s TSA checkpoints kept in direct communication with us, and offered the assistance of one of his staff members who could follow us undercover and at a distance, to observe how TSA personnel would clear us and our dogs. Our next Miami International Airport experience was flawlessly smooth when we flew to Omaha this past July.
As we have reflected upon our experience, we know we want to share this story with our greater ACB family. We hope that this will inspire each and every one of you to keep advocating. Now we know that we will continue to encounter ignorance out there, and we know this will come in the shape of unpleasant experiences, delays in our daily routines, and moments of frustration. However, we need to harness all of that energy that comes along with outrage and disappointment and put it into our advocacy efforts. We know this seems like a never-ending battle, but we also know that the more we advocate, the better things will gets. Just as important, we remember that the civil rights we enjoy today rest on the shoulders of the many fierce advocates who preceded us, and there are many future generations who are counting on our advocacy to preserve those rights and gain many more. So again, keep advocating and never give up!
Years ago, telling a friend about my anger over life circumstances, I learned two things. 1. You can only complain to your friends for so long before you need to hire a professional. 2. Rage without direction is wasted energy.
Thank you for directing your rage (where it belonged). Keep advocating.
Huge Thanks To Both of You!
Would you folks allow me to copy and post this to either or both of the following: Guide Dog Users, Inc. Chat List; Golden State Guide Dog Handlers Chat List?
The more who hear your inspiring account of advocacy the more will do the same (I hope).
Dear Gabe and Anthony, I was so sorry to hear about this terrible experience. It is so dispiriting to know that such ignorance and discrimination remains even in such public places. I am so glad that the two of you were together and able to draw strength and resolve from each other. Thank you for your commitment to the advocacy you had to embark on after this incident.