Dear SAS – Come Fly With Me I

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Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away
If you could use some exotic booze
There’s a bar in far Bombay
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

Frank Sinatra

Dear SAS!

I was a frequent flyer the last six months of 2014. And although I have always thought that airtravel is one of the less stressful ways of travel, I am considering to change my mind. And one of the reasons for that, are you, my dear Scandinavian Airlines. I had a most memorable experience with your customer service in October. And I have been looking forward to sharing my experience on my blog…

2014-10-01 06.18.48
I recommend the Bradt travel guide for Ethiopia. Much more helpful that SAS Customer Service!

You see, the first week in October I was planning a trip to Ethiopia. Ethiopia, you say? What on earth were you going to do there? Yes, I know. All my friends and colleagues (I did not tell my boss) asked me the exact same question. And I kind of agree. It’s madness for a wheelchair user who cannot walk one single step to travel to Ethiopia. But I had decided. I had my reasons and some unfinished business to take care of…

So I had ordered plane tickets from SAS, carefully choosing the shortest route from Oslo to Addis Ababa (around 8 hours from Stockholm) without the usual stop in Wienna. I had also asked for wheelchair assistance (WCHC) through the new self service page at sas.no. I was careful to delete my entire internet search history first. Because if I didn’t – the SAS cookies (and no they are not the edible kind) would think that you were asking for assistance on the previous flight you ordered two weeks ago. If you are in a wheelchair, you are not supposed to be a frequent flyer…

However, I never got a written confirmation for my request. But I was too busy to doublecheck. I was pretty sure it was ok.

2014-09-23 09.53.05
Getting a visa

Before I could go to Ethiopia, I had to pay Stockholm a nano visit to sort out my Ethiopian visa. Which only took an hour when I got to the embassy. So I had plenty of time to kill in one of my favourite (wheelchair accessible) cities, before my plane returned to Oslo. So I was enjoying lunch in a nice café in Stureplan, when SAS customer service called me:

SAS:    We are sorry to inform you that your return flight from Addis Ababa to Stockholm has been canceled. Do you want to return the day before or the day after?

Me:     Uhm, I am not sure. I don’t have Internet here, and I have booked a hotel that cannot be canceled. I think I would prefer to return the day before though. But can you call me back later today for a final confirmation?

SAS:    Yes, I will (he never did).

Me:     Also, can you doublecheck that you have registered the need for wheelchair assistance? On ALL flights?

SAS:     Yes, I can confirm that.

Me:      On ALL flights?

SAS:    Yes, on ALL flights.

So I got the confirmation on e-mail that my return flight was changed without any cost. Still no confirmation of the wheelchair assistance. Which was a little bit strange…

2014-09-23 12.44.04
Lunch at Stureplan
Arlanda Express is an accessible dream.
Arlanda Express is an accessible dream.

So, the day before I was leaving to Addis Ababa I did two things (because sometimes you should be a little paranoid). I called my insurance company to check that my travel insurance was valid. Turns out it was not (for the first time in my life)! And boy, would it be a brilliant idea traveling to a country with a non-functioning public healthcare system without a travel insurance. Fortunately the insurance company sorted this out quickly and I was yet again covered. But I could not cancel the trip for any reason. Not even SAS customer service…

The second call went to SAS customer service to triple check that I actually HAD wheelchair assistance:

SAS:     Yes, you have wheelchair assistance.

Me:     On ALL flights? Both the one to Stockholm AND Addis Ababa? I never got a written confirmation.

SAS:    Yes you do…Uhm, wait a minute. No, you have assistance to and from Oslo – Stockholm. Not the flights to and from Addis Ababa.

Me:      Well that is brilliant! Because it is NOT regarding the longer flight I need it, is it?

SAS:     I will check and get back to you (hold on).

SAS:    Sorry, I cannot help you. You have to call Ethiopian airlines yourself, because our systems are not synchronized.

Me:     Uhm, well isn’t it YOU who should call Ethiopian? After all I have ordered the ticket through SAS and they are your subcontractors?

SAS:    No, that is not possible. I cannot do that. And you know…Ethiopian… (he didn’t say it…but I could hear him thinking “Why would you go to Ethiopia with a wheelchair anyway?”).

At this point I was thinking: Oh my God! I don’t have assistance, and I have to call some office in Addis Ababa. Perhaps they only speak Amharic? Who knows what is going to happen now? But I was lucky. I reached a friendly lady at Ethiopian’s Oslo office, who could confirm that I did NOT have assistance. I told her that was not good, since I was most definitely going to need it. She understood that, and made some phonecalls to the airport in Addis. When she came back to me, she said that she had now booked assistance. But since it was less than 24 hours to departure, she could not give me a written confirmation. Fair enough.

2014-09-30 18.05.31
Sun setting over Stockholm

So off I went the next afternoon. I had travel insurance, a valid visa, yellow fever vaccine and I hoped that I would get wheelchair assistance. In Oslo it went smoothly as it usually does. But in Sweden the assistance was late. So when I was boarding the plane to Addis, I was the last one to board. Not very funny when you are sitting in the back section of the plane. But thanks to some friendly crew, I got to store (at least parts of) my wheelchair in the cabin. I would not risk it disappearing in Addis Ababa…

I managed without WC, so I didn’t really check if Ethiopian had an onboard wheelchair. I was more anxious of what was meeting me at arrival. Perhaps I would have to crawl out of the plane and be stuck on the runway? This happened to some friends of mine in China last year…

So I double checked both assistance and my own wheelchair with the crew during the flight and before arrival. Well, I had no need to worry. On arrival, I got a regular isle chair from the assistance people, who all spoke English. In the quite new ‘lift car (for boarding)’ my own wheelchair was waiting for me. And the airport in Addis Ababa was quite modern with long carpet free corridors and normal elevators.

2014-10-01 06.07.37

The biggest ‘challenges’ was an escalator (went all right with a manual chair and some help) and the Ebola screening (some sort of scan done by an angry woman with a surgical mask). But after a while I could pick up my bag and head off to the Monarch Hotel with my friend who was waiting for me outside.

2014-10-01 06.30.18
Monarch Hotel welcomes you to Addis Ababa!

And I could tell you a lot about Ethiopia. But this blog post is to you SAS, so I save it for another post. Instead I will tell you about my trip back to Oslo.

I checked in quite early, in case I would face any practical problems in Bole International Airport. And except the fact that I was starting to realize that my assistance request had not gone through, I had no practical problems. I must admit however, that when we were standing in line for security, the power went out. Suddenly we were standing in total darkness. And all the Italians were shouting out: “Mamma Mia, aeroporte internazionale! Aeroporte internazionale. Tsk, tsk, tsk…!”.

tavle
When the lights came back, the text on the screens had turned 90 degrees. Interesting…

However after a few seconds the lights came back on, and a friendly guy from the staff came over to me and asked if I was traveling alone. Yes, I answered him. And then he asked, If I would like (he did not command me as they do in many other airports) to follow him. Just in case some of the elevators did not work after the power went out. So I did. The elevators worked and he fixed me free admission to the VIP lounge. So then I sat there in a comfortable lounge chair with free wifi waiting for my flight.

2014-10-02 21.47.43
In Bole International Airport they only had plastic cups. Not like the coffee we had in Addis.

Turns out assistance was slow in Addis as well (could it be thanks to you SAS?) and I had to board the plane last again. And this time I had miscalculated the distance to the toilet. 15 rows! Guess who was happy when the captain announced that we were going to have a short stop in Wienna before Stockholm? Even more hours without toilet. Oh joy! Why didn’t you write about this little stop in Wienna on my travel document SAS? Would be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

2014-09-30 21.23.55
The food in Ethiopian was better than average.

Anyway, I managed not to pee in my pants (it’s just a question of not eating and drinking….isn’t it?) and I exchanged travel stories with the Austrian woman who came in to the slightly chaotic plane in the middle of the night – with blankets and half asleep people all over. I also got the whole story behind the rastafari movement from a guy in the row in front of me. And I also overheard the conversation between the world’s lousiest pickup-artists and an American girl. She actually gave him a phonenumber…I doubt that it was hers though.

Once again I paranoia checked that I would get assistance at arrival. And they came eventually (the guys at Arlanda are usually late it seems). I rushed through Arlanda, holding on to my assistance people. Since my plane from Addis was delayed, I only had about one hour to the next flight. And it was when I got to the gate, the problems really begun:

SAS:     You don’t have a ticket on this flight to Oslo.

Me:      Oh, yes I do.

SAS:     No, you don’t.

Me:     Oh, yes I do. YOU changed the flights, and I am so going to Oslo with this plane. Here is a paper copy of the ticket YOU gave me, when you changed my flights.

SAS:    (Looking at the paper). Oh, I see. You are right. I guess you have checked in luggage then? Do you remember if it is checked in all the way? Because I cannot find it in the system.You cannot get on board unless we know.

Me (thinking): Where did I put that bloody tag? When you have been travelling for x number of hours, it’s not always easy to remember…

SAS:    Well, now I have tried all our systems. You are not in it. Let me try Schengen, and the tag you have on your wheelchair. Maybe the numbers are close.

SAS:    Yep, found it (eventually).

Schengen and the FBI knows everything. Obviously…

And then I was mercifully allowed to board the plane. Knowing that I was not registered on the flight, there were obviously not any assistance registered either. But when I got on the plane, I forgot to be paranoid. I was so tired, I fell half asleep. Besides, I was going to Oslo. Everything works there…

But when I woke up in the window seat in row 11, the entire plane was empty. Yes, you did read correctly. Empty. The crew and captain was obviously in a hurry. When all the passengers left, they left too. Without me…

So there I was. Back at Oslo Airport Gardermoen. Alone in a plane.
What the f*** do you do?

All by myself. Or forgotten, not forgiven...?
All by myself…

Suddenly this Polish looking guy came in to check some boxes I said: “Uhm, hello…?” He gave me a strange look. And then…he left.

Ok, stuck again. Really helpful of you Polish guy! I must say…

Then I remembered: “Google is my best friend!”. I turned on the 4G on my cellphone and googled the assistance firm at Oslo Airport (OSL). Turns out they were named Aviator now and not Medema as they used to. They took the phone in just 1 minute.

Me:     Hello, my name is Ingunn. I am a wheelchair user, and the SAS forgot me in the plane in gate 27.

Aviator: They did what?

Me:     I am forgotten in the plane. I have a wheelchair, and I cannot get out by myself and the crew just left. I don’t know where my wheelchair is (hopefully not in Stockholm).

Aviator: They left??

Me:     Yes, they left.

Aviator: We well be there as soon as possible!

Me:    Great!

Then this other technician guy came in.

Me:     Hey, what are you doing?

Guy:    I am moving the plane…

Me:     I suggest you wait for a while. Because I would kind of like to get out first. And I don’t know where my wheelchair is.

Guy:    Yes, of course. Did they forget you? That is not possible! Really…? Forget you?

Then he went to fetch an SAS guy from the gate. And he repeated the same mantra.

Guy II:    This should not have happened.

Me:     No. And you know the most ironic thing? I have been to Ethiopia. Everything went smoothly there. Don’t you find that slightly ironic…?

Me: And all this started with your customer service f***ing up my assistance and changing my flights. The SAS can expect a complaint.

Guy II: (silence and slightly more grumpy face)

Then Aviator came to resque. My wheelchair was far gone in the luggage department (well, at least I hoped it was). So they wheeled me down to collect the luggage. My wheelchair was there (hooray) but not my bag. It was left in Stockholm. Or Wienna. Or Addis. God knows. I got it 12 hours later delivered at my flat.

And that was the end of story. A sort of happy one, but the moral is:

  1. Always empty your internet cookies before ordering assistance from SAS online!
  2. Never believe SAS customer service when you are on the phone!
  3. Always get a written confirmation!
  4. Double check everything – at check-in, at the gate and before the plane lands!
  5. If your airline has a subcontractor – other rules apply for assistance, onboard wheelchairs and other stuff. Triple check everything!
  6. Be paranoid!
  7. Never give in (or up), when someone tells you that you are wrong (when you are most definitely right)!
  8. Don’t worry – be happy!
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5 thoughts on “Dear SAS – Come Fly With Me I”

  1. Wow! You must be a sound sleeper. Still, I can’t believe they left you on the plane.

    You’ve inspired me. I’ve recently had less than stellar experiences with British Airways and received an entirely unsatisfying response from their complaints department. An open letter might make me feel better.

    May you next flight but smooth and uneventful.

  2. Hi Ingunn.

    Please send this blog to a national paper In Norway.

    BTW – it is NOT sufficient to delete your coockies – Enter private browsing method In Internet Exolorer. I dont remember what it is called In Chrome, Firefox and Safari.
    When you do this you will also get cheaper prices.

  3. This is a general question I got. I post both the question I got and the reply here, since it is related to SAS and assistance for people who require WCHC:

    Hi. my name is Seoyoon from Seoul, Korea.
    I have spinal cord injury so I use manual wheelchair (WCHC)
    but I also can’t stop exploring the world as you 🙂
    I am planning to travel Europe on this September alone,
    I need to get some flight information and your blog is quite helpful for me.
    I just want to ask some question
    because sometimes ‘real experience’ is better than official website.

    In my plan, I will gonna visit Scandinavian countries
    like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland taking SAS.
    Plus, Belgium and Netherland by Using SAS.
    I do not have much time to travel by Eurail, so SAS mightl be my major transportation at Europe.

    From the official website, SAS DO NOT have special wheelchair at European line.
    I was so shocked 🙁
    I am so curious about that SAS doesn’t provide any onboard wheelchair at European line?
    I read your travel diary to Ethiopia, and I think you used WCOB(onboard wheelchair) to Oslo.
    Is that right?

    It might be a foolish question to you, but I have to adjust my plan clearly.
    i don’t want to have any stressful problem, I think you can understand what am I saying 🙂

    This message could be surprised to you,
    hope I can get the answer from real experienced person like you.

    Please reply to my email: seoyoonhong@gmail.com

    If you have any questions about Travelling Korea by wheelchair, I can give you a lot of information.
    Thanks.

    • Dear Seoyoon.

      Thank you so much for your question! I am really happy that my blog can be of help to other wheelchair users with the travel bug. I have traveled a lot with SAS in the Scandinavian countries and also to other European countries. Usually it does not cause problems similar to those in this blog post.

      From what I can see on the SAS webpages, your information about the onboard wheelchair is correct:

      “SAS: On our intercontinental routes (A330/A340 aircraft)

      A special wheelchair is available for the use of passengers with reduced mobility. You can use this wheelchair for access to/from the toilet.

      At least 1 extra large toilet is available which allows you easier maneuvering inside the toilet. These toilets are also equipped with assistive handles allowing easier maneuverability inside the toilet.

      On our domestic and European routes
      No special wheelchair is available.
      Standard-size toilets are available. They are equipped with an assistive handle allowing easier maneuverability inside the toilet.”

      More information is to be found here:
      https://www.flysas.com/en/uk/travel-info/special-assistance/reduced-mobility

      I am not suprised by this, and I think the main reason is that the need for a toilet visit is not that big during shorter flights. There is also less opportunity for the crew to assist you on a shorter flight (because of tight schedule). Several companies have onboard wheelchairs only in longer flights.

      However it is important to say that the European airports are obliged to give you assistance to get to and from the seat with an isle chair. In Oslo airport this service is provided by the company Aviator. You can read more about their services here:
      https://avinor.no/en/airport/oslo-airport/plan-your-trip/assistance/#!bestill_assistanse-850

      It is important to have the WCHC confirmed on your ticket. And I would also get this confirmed at check-in, gate and with the crew before landing (also ask to have your own wheelchair delivered at the door). Usually this is not a problem in Oslo. Aviator is usually there when you are ready to leave the plane. And in 95% of the cases, you will get your own wheelchair at the gate without any problems. Because of construction work going on at Oslo Airport (for several years) it happens that the plane has to land on a gate without an aerobridge and you have to be carried out of the plane. They do not provide a car with a special lift at Oslo Airport (as far as I know) and being carried can be quite unpleasant. However most big planes do get a gate with an aerobridge.

      The airports in Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki are all very nice and should cause no problems. In Oslo and Stockholm the airport express train is also wheelchair accessible. Schiphol in Amsterdam is also very easy (although long distances) with a wheelchair and I seem to remember that Brussels was ok too. However Brussel is not easy with a wheelchair and neither is Amsterdam (takes some planning ahead). Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen are easier. The main challenge in Oslo are that it is not flat, sidewalks are uneven and that it can be hard to find a wheelchair friendly toilet. Copenhagen is the least wheelchair friendly of the 4 Nordic capitals, where most of the buildings in the city centre have one or more steps to enter. And it is very hard to find a toilet. But it is absolutely doable. Also the city is quite flat and easy to wheel.

      Feel free to ask me for more travel advice regarding these cities. I can also give you advice on Gothenburg, Bergen or other Norwegian cities if you need it. And for Amsterdam – read my old blog: http://www.wheeltheworld.net/reports/amsterdam/amsterdam.html

      Have a nice trip and enjoy Europe!

      Ingunn

  4. The European Commission (EU) has a webpage with useful information and links about disabled passengers’ rights regarding air travel: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/passengers/air/

    There is also a video explaining your rights in European airports and flights:
    http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/energy_transport/video/prm/mpg/prm_mpeg1_en.mpg

    If you want more detailed information – see Regulation (EC) No 1107/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air :
    http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32006R1107

    Regarding passenger rights in the US or on international flights with the US as a destination:
    http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2012/06/05/air-travelers-with-disabilities-here-are-your-rights/

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