I was talking to the Englishman who I sat next to on the flight back from Newark to Manchester. I explained about the lack of an accessible toilet at Newark International Airport. He was a regular traveller out of New Jersey, in the USA. This was his fourth flight departing from this airport in January alone.
He thought for a moment or two and replied, “you are right. I’d never noticed, but there aren’t any accessible toilets on the concourse. I’ve flown out of there so much, I know every inch of it, it had just never occurred to me before. That’s disgusting. Actually there aren’t enough toilets generally at Newark, there is always a queue no matter when you go”.
While I’d been in the Dominican Republic, I’d had the same conversation with my New Jersey born & bred friend, Bill.
He instantly replied, “yeah, Newark’s a shit-hole”.
That’s what is great about Americans compared to us Brits. Straight to the point. No messing around with politeness and a few sentences when one can do. Just say it as it is.
Yeah, Newark International Airport is a shit-hole.
Actually, thinking about it, that’s the problem. If you are a wheelchair user and there’s no accessible toilet, then, quite literally, Newark is LACKING a shit-hole.
But I’m jumping forwards, let me start at the beginning, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.
We go to the Dominican Republic most Januarys (is the plural of ‘January’, ‘Januarys’ or ‘Januaries’?). We go to a lovely little town on the North Coast Dom Rep called Cabarete. We’ve got friends there and it feels like we’re coming home when we arrive. Sadly, over the last ten years, the focus of tourism in the Dominican Republic has been on the East Coast, in Punta Cana, where most of the All Inclusive hotels are. Over the years, the number of flights from the UK to Puerto Plata, where we used to fly to, has steadily dwindled from about fourteen each week to none. Yup, as of October 2018, there are no direct flights to the North Coast from anywhere in the UK.
We considered flying to Punta Cana, then taxi to Cabarete. But that’s about US$370 each way and a five hour drive.
We thought about throwing in the towel and just going somewhere else altogether.
But we settled on flying via the USA. The flight prices with United Airlines was £586.50 return, including luggage, so actually not a huge amount more than Tui used to be (£475 January ’18).
On the way down, we stopped at Newark for 20 hours. Once booked, I quite liked the weirdness of doing a ‘day trip’ to the USA from the UK. In fact, had Newark Airport not been such a… …well, I’ve already said what it is enough… then the blog was going to be about the day trip. I even spent a week or two prior to flying, singing in my head “we’re coming to America [bum-bum-bum], we’re coming to America-TODAY” (there’s nothing like totally mashing Neil Diamond’s classic song!)
While the aforementioned Bill was in the Dominican Republic, as was his dad, the dutiful mother/wife was working hard. She was still in New Jersey, awaiting the winter to truly arrive. Joanne offered to take us out for dinner when she finished work. We decided that it would be too much of a rush to get in to New York, so another New Jersey friend from the Dominican Republic, Corey, recommended a restaurant on the NJ side of the Hudson river, looking out to the Manhattan skyline. We’d been warned to get there early as the window tables couldn’t be reserved and were first come, first allocated. We were there for about 6:30pm and got a table with a fantastic view.
The food, the view & the company at The Chart House were all top quality. At this point in time, I was beginning to be lulled in to a false sense of security. I was even thinking that in January 2020 we could visit New York for a few days before completing the journey to Cabarete.
But that was before I flew out of Newark.
The following morning we arrived nice and early at Newark Airport. The check in was a lot more chaotic than anything I’ve experienced anywhere else. There is a machine where you have to print out the tags for the check-in bags, then another queue to actually check-in rather than both together. I realised (but doubted myself, given the general pandemonium) that while hundreds of people were pushing, shoving and almost queueing for a few desks, at the other end of the hall were other desks with no-one waiting. I went and asked someone, who confirmed that we could walk the fifty yards in the other direction and check straight in. This just didn’t appear to be very efficient, everyone crowding around the machines, then crowding again at the desks. I’m not sure where any time was saved by anyone, including the airline? But hey-ho, different places, different ways of doing things and not an issue. In fact, it wouldn’t have even been remembered if it wasn’t for what came next…
Because next we went to security.
Newark is the only international airport I’ve ever flown out of, where people using a wheelchair have to queue with everyone else, with no ‘priority lane’ for people who have disabilities. There was a zig-zag line already packed solid. Now you could argue, not unreasonably, that this is true equality in action. Why should a wheelchair user expect to queue jump when it suits? And that would be a fair point except for two things.
Firstly, the barriers made the lanes too small to easily navigate in a chair. At one point, the snaked line went past a concrete pillar. The people parallel to me had to pull the barrier in to their lane in order to give me enough space to squeeze past. It’s a bit embarrassing.
Secondly, once actually at the front, there is only one machine that a wheelchair user can go through, so my ‘equality’ only lasted so far. Not only that, but the designated wheelchair user lane was the only one that didn’t have an automatic tray return to place items in. People ahead of me were going and getting trays off a pile. I asked the TSA woman behind the machine to pass me one. Now I know that TSA staff are given training in how to be dour, miserable and downright rude, but this woman managed to look at me like a piece of something she’d trodden in. What an affront to her existence, asking her to help a passenger. Remember lady, it is because of the passengers that you get paid a living! Oh, hang on, Trump’s government shutdown… she wasn’t getting paid at all! I then had to wait for a while until someone trained to use the swab machine turned up to check me through. I told the equally grumpy (equally not being paid) guy that I could stand if I had something to hold on to, so I wheeled to the back of the adjoining x-ray machine and stood up against it, arms & legs spread. “Eyyy, I feel like I’m in an American cop show,” I said as the uniformed guy took the swabs. He laughed, then while awaiting the swab results, chuckled and said to himself, “American cop show, I like that”. Magically, he then became…almost…human. He wished me a pleasant flight and off I went.
That’s when it got worse.
We found our gate on Concourse C. Settled down, had a brew & I considered how many more minutes I could have had in bed and still made it here on time. The usual stuff.
About fifteen minutes before we were due to begin boarding, I said to my wife that I’d go to the toilet. I’d seen a sign for men’s & women’s toilet so headed there. No accessible toilet. I rolled around a bit. No sign for an accessible toilet anywhere. I saw a member of staff, hi-vis jacket, pushing an empty wheelchair. “Well she should know…” I caught her up and had the following conversation;
“Excuse me, where is the accessible toilet?”
“I’m sorry, there isn’t one on this concourse”
“Where is the nearest one?”
“On the other concourses”.
“How far is that?”
“It’s a long way”.
“We board in fifteen minutes”
“I’m sorry sir, you won’t make it there and back in that time”.
So that’s it. Wheelchair users can’t use a hole to **** in… Fortunately, I can walk short distances so I whizzed back to Elaine and got my walking sticks. I then joined the queue in the men’s toilet (my fellow passenger on the flight home was correct, there was a big queue). Obviously, being unable to use a urinal, I had to wait for a stall to eventually become available. Standing up from the toilet was a challenge, a smooth metal wall, I had to try and push my arms out against the walls and stand up then place my forehead on the door until I could gain my balance. Somewhat undignified, but at least I had an empty bladder.
My mood as I returned to the departure gate was not great. When the automated voice said, “we’d like to invite passengers with disabilities to come forward to board. We’d also invite active service men and women to come forwards and we thank you for your service”. I thought to myself, “sure, we thank you, but if you lose your legs to an IED in Iraq, don’t expect to go for a pee in an airport”.
Our return flight, we only had two hours from the first leg landing and the next taking off. In the USA, you can’t transit ‘flight side’, we had to go through immigration, reclaim our bags, through customs, then drop them off and go back through security again. That meant the narrow snaking queue (fortunately not very long this time) and sit waiting for someone who can use the swabbing machine again. We arrived at our gate as the flight was already boarding. With delays going through security, as a wheelchair user, it was too tight for comfort and I wouldn’t want to do it again.
In the style of Neil Diamond, “we’ve been to America, bum-bum-bum…” Sadly, if this is how wheelchair users are treated, I won’t rush back.