One Night in Newark Liberty International Airport
Background: I need wheelchair service, because I cannot walk very far without agony. On December 17, 2022, I was flying from Portland, Oregon, to Wilmington, North Carolina, changing planes in Newark, New Jersey.
My flights were on United, but Alaska Airlines subcontracted the first flight. So my first flight was on Alaska for United. At the Portland airport, I went to the United desk, but they referred me to the Alaska desk for my boarding passes. Alaska printed them for both flights.
At Newark, I disembarked my plane wishing to visit a restroom but concerned that if I did, I would lose my ability to ask for wheelchair service. I stayed at my arrival gate, asked for assistance, and waited. Tina, Sahaludin from Ghana, and Felicia discussed how best to help me.
Sahaludin took me from Terminal B on a train to Terminal C and delivered me to the United Special Services desk there, which was swamped. Several passengers waited for wheelchair service.
The African-American young woman running the United desk, Malissa, told Sahaludin he should bring me directly to my gate. Malissa said it was Sahaludin’s job.
Sahaludin said he could not and called his supervisor.
The Alaska supervisor told Sahaludin not to bring me to the next gate; he said it was United’s job. The supervisor asked to speak with Malissa, who refused to speak with him.
I asked to speak with the supervisor. The supervisor told me they were not allowed to bring me to my next gate.
Alaska will do the flight for United but not the wheelchair service?
I asked Malissa if she would like to speak with the Alaska supervisor. She said she was not allowed to speak with the Alaska supervisor.
I relayed his words to Malissa, gave Sahaludin his phone, and Sahaludin left.
Passengers sat around waiting. Wheelchairs would arrive, and Malissa would decide who got taken away next. She took my information, and I waited my turn.
Malissa at her post.
Despite a three-hour layover, as I sat there I began to fear I would not make my connecting flight. I asked Malissa if I should just walk. She said that was my decision, but because Alaska had refused to bring me directly to my gate, I would have to go through security again. I was surprised and dismayed, and after security I would not know where to go. I told her I would stay and wait for another chair.
Malissa assured me I would make my flight. Shortly thereafter she asked Qumruz from India to take me to my gate.
Because the boarding pass Alaska had given me for my second flight was not good enough (“This is not a boarding pass,” everyone said), Qumruz took me to a kiosk to print a United boarding pass. Then he took me through security, which I never would have been able to negotiate by myself. If I had chosen to walk, I would have been on the regular line, and I probably would have missed my connecting flight. Qumruz took me through the super-duper-quick line and advocated for me with the TSA and other passengers, caring as much as if I were a member of his family.
After I got through security, Qumruz told me to wait for him in the wheelchair. I could not understand what he was doing, going through trays and possessions though I had already got all my things back. Then he came and we continued.
Qumruz explained that for the first time in his years at the airport, the TSA had just made him go through security too. I had had to wait while he had got his electronic devices back. He was mad!
I asked him to drop me off at the restroom closest to my gate, gate C87, so I could finally visit a restroom. Afterward I went to the gate and asked the woman there if I had time to buy food. She said yes, I had thirty minutes before the flight to Wilmington began boarding passengers.
With a three-hour layover, it took 2.5 hours to go from one gate another. If I had tried it on foot, I would not have made it due both to my physical condition and the size/complexity of Newark airport. I would have got lost. I would still be on the security line.
The only reasons I made my connecting flight were Malissa and my decision not to give up on the wheelchair service, and Qumruz getting me through security and to my gate far quicker than I would have otherwise. This gave me 30 minutes to buy a mango/yogurt smoothie for supper from a yogurt place that had run out of half its menu.
To me my experience reflects an insane turf war. Alaska, under contract to United, should have helped a passenger they had just flown. Until I reached my next gate, Alaska should have seen me as its responsibility, which was Malissa’s position.
Today I feel tired not from the flights but from the stress and nonsense at Newark Airport. Thanks, ALASKA. And thanks to United for rectifying the situation.