Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How Qantas Saved Christmas

I have a strange life. I live in one of those perpetual tornadoes of weirdness where cats need hip replacements and ass muscles fall off and occasionally you need to be rescued on a Greek island by wheelchair rugby players or tell a masseuse in Turkey that, no, you don't want that kind of massage. This is not something I complain about, since I also have the kind of life where crappy things tend to work themselves out, usually as a result of there being good people in the world.

Case in point: this morning, I wrote a blog post about how I wasn't able to go to Australia to visit some friends because I failed to recognize that the fine print on my itinerary actually said that my credit card had been declined. (You can read the original post here). Just when I thought my Christmas Down Under was doomed to become a Christmas Sulking On the Couch and Overindulging in Homemade Boozy Chai Lattes, a Christmas miracle happened. Or a Twitter miracle.

I sent my original blog post to the Qantas customer service people via Twitter and they actually responded! Those of you who have heard the story of The Time I Went to France and Air Canada's Baggage Wankers Ripped a Hole in My Luggage and Despite Years of Trying I Never Got Compensated Because I Didn't Save the Receipt For A Four-Year-Old Bag (it's not a very exciting story, truth be told), will understand why I didn't expect an airline to really bother. After all, it was partially my faut; I should have read the fine print.

But Qantas responded, and within a few hours I had my trip rebooked at the same price I intended to pay for the original ticket, plus a complimentary pass to the Qantas lounge on my way back for my trouble. I'll be heading to Australia on the 15th and will arrive on the 17th. When I got off the phone with the Qantas people and discovered that I would indeed be able to go to Australia, it was like that moment in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where the Grinch has a change of heart and throws all the presents down to the town below. (And what happened next? Well in Vancouver they say/ That the Arley's faith in customer service/ grew 4 sizes that day. Also: her butt grew several sizes in anticipation of all the Tim Tam's she's about to eat).

So thank you to Qantas customer service, and thank you to everyone who tweeted/ Facebooked their outrage on my behalf. While it will be strange to not spend Christmas with my family, I'm excited to be able to spend time with some truly awesome friends and explore Australia. Hopefully I will have some adventures worth blogging about! Thanks Qantas!

How the Qantas Stole Christmas

Update: Well, yay.  Qantas rectified the situation. Check out the updated blog post here.

One of the great things about having had a Paralympic wheelchair basketball career is that you have friends all over the world and a place to stay in nearly every country. One of the downsides, however, is that once you're no longer traveling around the world racking up Airmiles points and actually having one of those "real job" things, getting to see some of these friends is tough.

This year, I had planned to remedy that by spending Christmas and New Years with my friends in Australia, most of whom are on the Australian women's wheelchair basketball national team and too busy training for London 2012 to come visit me on this side of the world. I've actually never been to Australia, since the two times I was supposed to go for a basketball tournament I ended up getting sick or injured, so I was excited to finally experience the Land Down Under. What could be better than reconnecting with friends while soaking up enough vitamin D to get me through the rest of Vancouver's grey season?

Because of the last-minute-ness of my book tour, I wasn't able to confirm my travel dates until two weeks before my flight date, so the ticket price to Melbourne was at the top of my price range. I chose, however, to book through Qantas airline's website, since I was assured by friends that it was the most reliable site and Qantas offered the best service of any airline that flies to Australia. I submitted my credit card information and was directed to a screen saying that my flight had successfully been booked. Moments later, an itinerary arrived in my inbox. This itinerary had a booking number and reference number and the word 'confirmed' was written by every flight. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong.

Yesterday, I arrived at the airport packed and ready to go. In anticipation of having to spend some extra time at the Homeland Security Love Fest thanks to the artificial hip, I arrived at the airport 2.5 hours in advance, thinking this would be ample time to catch my flight from Vancouver to L.A., which connected to my flight to Melbourne. Upon checking in, however, I received a shock: I had no ticket.

That itinerary that Qantas sent me? Well, let's take a closer look.

Yup...this all looks solid. Booking number. Reference number. And you'd think that if something was important, they'd put it in those nice, bright blue letters. Right? Let's read on!

Confirmed! Confirmed is a good word! Scroll, scroll, scroll. Yup, everything looks solid! This is the point where I thought, "Okay, all looks well. Back to book touring." Mistake! Let's read on.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. The minor detail that I HAVE NO TICKET was buried in the middle of the email in the same tiny capslocked letters that detailed the enhanced screening measures requiring me to stow my aerosols and gels in a transparent resealable 1 litre plastic bag. But hey, at least they used 10 whole asterisks. And we all know that asterisks in 10 pt. font mean business.

 The email continues on for another page in the same shout-y capslocks, before ending with this cheerful note:
"We wish you a pleasant journey" is apparently code for "Can't wait to see the look on your face when you get to the airport and realize that you have no ticket, sucka!"

Well, damn. No ticket. Now, I am a seasoned traveler. I have been all over the world for basketball and routinely fly for work. If I could get myself out of being chased by wild dogs at 3 am at the dock of a Greek island waiting for my stolen luggage to appear on a barge, I could remedy this situation.

I did not panic. I did not shout. I did not melt down. Instead, I called Qantas. We tried the credit card again. No dice. The nice Qantas rep suggested that I contact Mastercard. After 40 minutes on hold and a few dropped calls, I finally got through to Mastercard. Though my limit was well over the cost of the flight, I got my limit increased just to be safe. The representative at Mastercard suggested that Qantas could call them directly to remedy the situation, but that the payment should go through.

Time was ticking. I had only 45 minutes until my flight to L.A. I phoned Qantas again, waited on hold, but by the time that I got through to anyone and explained my problem, it was too late. The representative informed me that they could only process emergency payments in American funds, not Canadian funds, and would have to transfer me to another booking agent...and by that time it would be too late.

I asked if they could put me on the same flight on a different day, since Qantas did such a terrible job of informing me about the declined credit card. The agent said I should have read the fine print and it wasn't Qantas' fault. I asked if there was anything -- ANYTHING -- I could do. Nothing short of starting from scratch. And then she hung up. (Merry Christmas to you too, frosty Qantas lady).

Still not totally discouraged, I headed home to see if I could snag a cheap fare, but sadly the prices had gone up to over $3500, way, way beyond my budget. And even when I did find a single fare on a non-Qantas airline that was not ridiculously expensive, it turned out that Mastercard had put a block on my credit card. WHY? Because I tried to make a large purchase after increasing my credit limit. Face meet palm.

Between the Mastercard shenanigans and Qantas' refusal to offer more than the basic level of assistance, I will not be traveling to Australia this Christmas. I will not be sitting on the beach with friends for New Years. I will not be kayaking, snorkling, hiking or any of the other fun things I'd planned. I will not be taking a much-needed break from work. Instead, I'm spending this Christmas season getting caught up on work. And now, Qantas, I'm mad.

Because here's the thing. Yeah, I should have read the fine print. But crucial information such as the fact that my credit card was declined should not have been in the fine print to begin with. It should have been in a separate email. Or at the top of the itinerary in large, bold letters. Or anywhere but the middle of an email that appeared to be a flight confirmation, surrounded by a couple of asterisks and a few pages of information about security procedures. Had I discovered this problem quickly, I could have easily remedied the situation and would right now be shaking off the jetlag with an ice cold beer and a bit of sunshine.

So Qantas, you may have lost a customer, but I've lost my one chance for a vacation this year and that makes me terribly, terribly sad.  I hope you'll find some way to remedy this situation, or prevent from happening to anyone else. In the meantime, I will be sending this blog post to all my many Paralympic athlete friends around the world in the hopes that they do not make the same mistake as I did. I hope they will bear that in mind when choosing an airline.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Are the Paralympics Patronizing?

Before my hip replacement, I was a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. I won 2 World Championship gold medals (2002 and 2006) and won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Today, the former athlete (and current disability studies enthusiast) in me was intrigued by a blog post entitled "Are the Paralympics Patronizing?" The article (here: http://blogs.channel4.com/paralympics/2011/12/07/are-the-paralympics-patronising/) reflects on a survey that found that less than a quarter of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. This, the blogger says, "questions the core purpose of Paralympic sport."

I'm not so sure.

First, it's tough to make the argument that the Paralympics themselves are patronizing. Separating athletes out based on biological categories has been around since the advent of sports. Boxers and wrestlers have weight classes. Women have their own teams. There are championships for athletes of various ages from junior up to masters. No one is arguing that some 50 kg wrestler should hop in the ring with a 80kg wrestler. Why? Because sport is better when people compete against their equals.

One of our fundamental beliefs in sport is that champions are not born fully formed, but are created out of hard work and dedication.  Separating athletes into fair categories allows such a principle to be carried out. If sports like boxing or wrestling did not have weight classes, the athlete who happened to be born with the most appropriate body type would overpower athletes who trained harder, were smarter or more skilled. Allowing like to compete against like shows us true excellence, since the athlete who has done the most to maximize his or her natural gifts is the winner.

For this reason, the Paralympics as an event cannot be patronizing. What can be patronizing, however, is the way the Paralympics are represented in popular culture. Just as the lack of popularity of women's sport is less a reflection on women's sport and more a reflection on our culture's beliefs about women, the Paralympic movement reveals society's attitude towards people with disabilities. This attitude is often highly patronizing.

One of those patronizing attitudes is the notion that the "core purpose of Paralympic sport" is to inspire other people with disabilities. Athletes compete in the Paralympics to win. It is an elite sporting event and a wheelchair is just another piece of sporting equipment that allows athletes to achieve this level of excellence. When I competed, I did not get up at 5:30 every morning so that some 50-year-old accountant with polio could learn to follow his dreams. I got up at 5:30 every morning to win a gold medal. Athletes able-bodied and otherwise are notoriously bad at being role models (see: Michael Phelps) because their #1 goal isn't to inspire. Their goal is to win.

The problem is that when the "inspirational" narrative that exists in able-bodied sports gets applied to the Paralympics, it's filtered through a thick lens of ableism. Michael Phelps is inspirational because he won roughly 8 million gold medals. A Paralympic athlete, however, is inspirational because she overcame a disability (bonus points if this disability was acquired in a tragic manner) and is exhibiting hope and courage and rainbows and butterflies by just competing at all. To reduce any sport to a Hallmark made-for-TV movie is to cheapen it and the word "inspirational" as applied to Paralympic athletes has been degraded to the point that it's a dirty word.

This, I suspect, is what the bulk of people with disabilities are reacting to when they profess to be not excited about the Paralympics. Even the question is filtered through a bias. Why should one person with a disability be expected to feel a rah-rah sense of allegiance to someone else with a disability, be they Paralympian or otherwise? Why should a person who has no interest in sports be interested in the Paralympics just because he or she has a spinal cord injury or a missing limb? I imagine that by the time the Paralympics arrive, there will be a lot of non-sporty people with disabilities in Britain sick of being asked by well-meaning people on buses or in shops whether they're excited that The Disabled are being put on TV thanks to the Paralympics, in much the same way that conservative African-Americans must have gotten sick of well-meaning white people asking them if they're excited about the election of Barack Obama.

 Personally, I don't care whether only 22% of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. I care that wheelchair sports are represented in a way that allows both able-bodied and disabled people alike to make up their own minds. When Paralympic sports are treated like the sports they are, we see time and again that people who love sports "get" them. A professional wheelchair basketball league is thriving in Europe not because people want to show their kids that people with disabilities can accomplish great things, but because wheelchair basketball is exciting, fast-paced and fun to watch. When a wheelchair is viewed as a piece of sporting equipment, all that awareness and advocacy and empathy stuff takes care of itself.

My hope is that in London 2012, the "I word" takes a backseat to an intelligent, honest analysis of Paralympic sports. The good news it that it's starting to happen, as more and more journalists (Gary Kingston, for example) and bloggers represent Paralympic sports for what they are. This may mean criticizing a team or athlete for underperforming, or it may mean admitting that some Paralympic sports (like some Olympic sports) are not as exciting as others. Without this honesty, however, the Paralympics become nothing more than an extended human interest story. And if that's the case, there will be a lot more people with disabilities changing the channel.