US Airways / using the police to scare customers
This is a copy of a letter sent to the CEO of the Tucson airport after a US Airway's supervisor falsely accused me of threatening her:
Ms. Bonnie Allin
Tucson Airport Authority
7005 S. Plumer
Tucson, AZ 85756
Dear Ms. Allin:
This is a long letter, but before dismissing it you may want to go to your computer, go to this link (http://edition.cnn.com/2007/US/10/04/airport.death/), and watch Carol Anne Gotbaum, a lone woman, being tackled by several policemen at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on September 28, 2007. This woman died while in police custody at Sky Harbor Airport. This is the image and story that my friends, from San Francisco to New York, have of Phoenix Sky Harbor. Then, take the time to read my somewhat lengthy narrative about my experience at Tucson International Airport (TIA).
Yesterday, Saturday, August 9, 2008, a US Air employee, Wendy, tried to use the TAA police force to punish me for expressing a legitimate grievance. My domestic partner, Timothy Taylor, was flying back to Wichita, KS, to visit his brother who is terminally ill with a malignant brain tumor. Like most working people, Tim had only a few days to see his brother and this time was valuable. Unlike most people, Tim has severe, adult-acquired hearing loss which is partially alleviated by a cochlear implant. However, his hearing is not good enough to negotiate difficult situations or to hear announcements made over loudspeakers in areas of high ambient noise like airport terminals.
Tim had a seating assignment from Tucson to Phoenix on US Airways, but could not get a seating assignment online from Phoenix to Wichita the evening before his flight. We suspected the flight was oversold. We drove to the airport early to obtain a seating assignment and I spoke with the US Airways staff as Tim has a communication disability. He frequently misapprehends what has been said to him, especially if the context is unusual or uncommon.
At the US Airways ticket counter, Jessica informed us that Tim could not get a seating assignment in Tucson; rather he would have to fly to Phoenix to get his seating assignment. I asked why this was so, and Jessica replied that the flight might be oversold. There was not offer to reschedule the flight from Tucson, and the implication was he had to fly to Phoenix and take his chances or lose his ticket. This was accompanied by a disparaging remark about the ticket being purchased through Priceline.com.
I told Jessica that Tim would not be able to hear announcements regarding flight status and possible standby arrangements. Still, Jessica did not have the authority to obtain Tim a seating assignment, so I asked to speak with her supervisor, Wendy, who supposedly had the authority to assign Tim a seat. Jessica made the first call to Wendy a 3:10 PM. After a second call and waiting 20 minutes I told Tim to catch his flight and text message me if things went wrong. Only then did Jessica think to write up a notice of disability to alert Phoenix US Airways staff of Tim’s communication difficulties.
Since I had already waited twenty minutes I asked Jessica to place a third call to Wendy, and Wendy arrived a 3:35 PM spoiling for a fight. Without giving a blow by blow description, our interaction resulted in my fleeing the airport with Wendy chasing me down. The TAA police officers who determined that I had done nothing wrong, Officers Losada and Summer, sent me on my way shaken and disillusioned.
Late yesterday afternoon, when safely in my own home out of TAA police jurisdiction, I called the TAA police at 5:40 PM to inquire whether Wendy had committed assault. I was told an officer would call me back. At 6:24 PM, I called back and was put through to Corporal Neil Brown. We discussed whether Wendy’s actions had risen to the level of assault, and he took down my statement and assigned a case number A08080110.
I called the airport police again on Sunday morning, August 10, 2008. I talked with Sergeant Furgeson (sp?) Sgt. Furgeson explained that airline and rental companies involving the TAA police force in disputes was common at TIA, and it was often unwarranted. Further some airline employees were frequent callers for police assistance in situations that do not warrant police involvement. (The TAA police were, on the whole, balanced and professional. They were surprisingly forthcoming, but I know how to chat people up.)
Sgt. Furgeson characterized the incident involving Wendy from US Airways and me as a misunderstanding, perhaps a situation that got out of control. I think she believes that to be true. However, that is not my analysis or my perception.
My perception is that Wendy, the US Airway supervisor, was angry that I had the audacity to ask to see her. That I had the temerity to have her subordinates call her three times. She was fuming because I had the endurance to wait twenty-five minutes and not walk away angry and impatient. She was furious and determined to act punitively, even if that action required deception and false accusation. Why do I come to this conclusion? There are several reasons.
She did not go to the staff side of the counter; rather she walked up to me on the passenger side of the counter and stood uncomfortably close to me. Could she address my problem without the use of a computer terminal? Her demeanor was hostile and aggressive. Wendy’s statement that “she didn’t like my attitude” was both condescending and irrelevant. This statement was meant to provoke. When I told her that if my partner were to be stranded in Phoenix I would write letters of complaint with her as the primary focus, she cynically chose to characterize this as a threat.
When she asked me, “are you threatening me, ” I knew this was a thinly veiled attempt to construe this as a threatening situation: it was a set-up.
When I replied, “I am not threatening you physically, I am threatening to write letters, ” I was purposefully dispelling the notion of physical threat. Perhaps if I had been more quick witted I would have said that I was informing her of the consequences of her poor customer relations. In any case, it was clear that there was no physical threat.
However, Wendy, unable to accept that I would not fall into her trap, decided to act as if I had: she screamed for the police, and because she was so threatened (I am being facetious) she followed me without police escort outside the building and several hundred yards down the sidewalk toward the street while I repeatedly told her that I was walking away and I wanted her to leave me alone. In between screaming for help she spokes less audible remarks of “getting me.” Her actions were deliberate, cynical, and calculating.
When threatened, I and most people try to distance themselves from the person who is threatening. Wendy’s choice to follow me, hounding me down the sidewalk towards traffic, was not the choice of a threatened person. It was the choice of a disgruntled, angry person who wanted to cause me harm. My question is why did she feel the airport police (or security) would back her up?
What is the institutional culture of the TIA and how did this contribute to her libelous accusations? Again, Sgt. Furgeson told me that this type of incident, airline and rental car company employees calling the police to resolve customer conflict is common and that seldom does the dispute rise to the level of criminal threat. Further, Sgt. Furgeson told me that some employees routinely call security to resolve what should be resolved with good customer relations.
If this is routine, apparently there is no repercussions for those employed at the airport that make hyperbolic accusation and use airport police as de facto goons. Has airport security replaced the railroad goons of the 19th and 20th centuries? Are airports, including the usually friendly Tucson airport, virtual police states where legal and legitimate disputes are resolved with the threat of police force? This kind of behavior would not shock me in Newark, but it shocks me in Tucson.
After speaking with Corporal Brown and Sergeant I now know that the TAA police force are not goons, but how would I know that while being pursued by a harpy like Wendy who was screaming for them to do what? arrest me for threatening to write letters of complaint. How was I to know that I would not be shackled to a bench like Carol Anne Gotbaum who died in the custody police at Phoenix Sky Harbor in September on September 28, 2007.
When faced with apparent misuse of authority and poor institutional culture, I often find it useful to follow the revenue stream. Your website contains the following statement:
TAA does not receive any local tax dollars. Operations are funded through revenues from parking, space rentals, land leases, fuel sales, airline landing fees, and concessions. Capital improvements such as runway and terminal construction are funded through state and federal grants.
If airline landing fees and concessions such as car rentals are major sources of revenue, do these financial interest either directly or indirectly affect the use of TAA’s police or security forces? Is it in TAA’s financial interest not to upset their sources of revenue by instating repercussions for companies whose employees use TAA police to intimidate passengers and customers? Is this why company employees feel free to use TAA’s police to resolve disputes that should be resolved by good customer relations? How well does this serve the economic interest of greater Tucson?
I realize the TAA police do not feel that they are threatening, but when TIA patrons are faced with police with badges, weapons, and handcuffs, most are intimated and, to some degree, threatened.
The current issue of The Economist features articles about Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the headline is: Speaking the truth to power. If you are the power at TAA, I must speak the truth to you. Using police force to intimidate TIA’s customers is wrong. Unless there are repercussions for airline and rental car company employees who de facto use the TAA police as a force of intimidation to quiet customers who are voicing grievances, the TAA is tacitly condoning this behavior. This is the United States of America, and we have the right to state our grievances. In a perfect world these grievances would be reasonable and legitimate, but that is not a requirement. Acting within the law is a requirement.
Unfortunately, my experience at TIA is probably indicative of more widespread deterioration of service in the airline industry. I travel relatively often and I usually fly coach: I see how employees treat the least of travelers. I have seen hints of disgruntled airline employees using the threats of police intervention to quell the dissatisfied of those suffering through delayed, overbooked, and cancelled flights. I’ve had a TSA security agent bark at me like a drill sergeant during a random search at Logan International Airport while I was being a model of cooperation. This bad behavior, or power run amuck, is done in the name of security. How does this make us more secure? I like Tucson. I think of it as a special place to live, but after this experience I feel I might as well be living in any major city in the USA.
The events of September 11, 2001 are a great tragedy. The cynical use of the threat of terrorism to instill compliance and fear in the traveling public cheapens the lives lost and the bravery of those who responded. It is shameful. If TAA is passively complicit in promoting this, TAA is responsible. TAA is as responsible as Wendy who cynically made false accusations and as responsible as US Air who promoted an irrational and vengeful employee like Wendy to a position of authority.
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