PHOENIX — Sheila and her husband Vernon planned to spend a week fishing in Arkansas. It was one of the few hobbies her husband can still do after becoming reliant on a dialysis machine.
However, Sheila said the relaxation she was hoping for was dashed before she even left Phoenix's airport.
"The stewardess looked at us, and she said, that's not coming on board. And I just -- my heart dropped," said Sheila.
Despite calling ahead and being reassured by Southwest Airlines that medical equipment would be allowed to travel onboard with them -- even pleading their case to the crew -- they were told the bag carrying Vernon's dialysis machine would have to go in the plane's cargo hold.
"I said, 'ma'am, this is his dialysis machine...like his life depends on it,'" she said. "I about cry talking about it."
She said they were promised they would have the machine returned to them on their layover in Dallas, Texas, but it wasn't.
Instead, they were told it would be at their final destination.
"I just had a bad feeling," said Sheila. "When we get to Arkansas our luggage was there, the case wasn't there."
While the airline found the bag the next day, Sheila said the supplies and the machine were damaged and Vernon wouldn't be able to use the machine, a life-saving medical device, during their six-day trip.
"He couldn't walk by the time we got back. He was so swollen...short [of] breath," said Sheila. "He wouldn't go to the hospital, and I don't blame him; I mean there's not a lot they can do but dialyze him, but we just wanted to come home."
On the way home, Sheila said, Southwest offered her vouchers for future flights and checked the now-damaged machine in as a cello, a musical instrument, ensuring it went on board.
"I don't think they, you know, done anything to say hey, we're really sorry," said Sheila.
ABC15 reached out to Southwest Airlines for comment.
A spokesperson said in some cases, dialysis machines "exceed carry-on bag dimensions." However, if the device can fit in an approved stowage location -- under the seat, an overhead bin, or the wheelchair closet -- it can be carried on board.
However, it should be noted, that wheelchairs have priority use of the wheelchair closet, the spokesperson said.
The airline said it would reach out to Sheila and her husband. At the time of publication, Sheila said that had not happened
She also said the refunds for their tickets, which were apparently promised to them at the airport, hadn't been processed yet either.
You can view Southwest's policies when it comes to traveling with medical equipment, here.
Here is the full response from Southwest Airlines:
We are reaching out to [the couple] to address their concerns directly. We offer our sincere apologies for their inconvenience, as well as for any misinformation they received about traveling with assistive devices.
What is the policy when it comes to transporting essential medical equipment?
We are required to transport assistive devices for Customers with disabilities (provided we can do so in accordance with safety regulations). While many dialysis machines exceed our carryon bag dimensions, if the device can fit in an approved stowage location, it can be carried onboard. Approved stowage locations include under a seat, an overhead bin, or the wheelchair closet (though wheelchairs have priority over all other assistive devices when it comes to the closet). In order to carry onboard a device that exceeds our carryon dimensions, the Customer would have to disclose that the item is an assistive device and it would need to be packed separately from all other personal items. Based on the reference to a cello, I surmise that the Employee was suggesting that the machine could be transported as incabin ticketed cargo, for which a Customer typically would need to purchase an additional seat (and the item would have to be strapped into that seat). If a device can’t be carried onboard, the Customer may gate-check it and request that it either be returned at the arrival gate or at baggage claim.
Should the family have been informed of the need to check the bag prior to getting on the plane?
We do not require advance notice that a Customer is planning to travel with an assistive device (or if an assistive device was placed in the closet at an upline station for a pax traveling direct), so we would not have any way of knowing if space onboard to accommodate the item was available unless the item is so large it could not be accommodated in any of the onboard spaces.
Was it appropriate to believe that they would have access to their bag in Dallas?
Gate-checked bags are typically returned at baggage claim. However, with respect to assistive devices, we can return the item to the Customer at the gate if the Customer requests when checking the item that we do so. In order to alert our Ramp Agents that the item should be returned at the gate, the station checking the item would affix a “Claim at gate” tag.