As a frequent flyer with special needs, Pilar Serrano has seen her share of airport trouble. But she is still incensed at what happened to her on June 17, when she landed at Madrid's Barajas airport on a Ryanair flight from Dublin.
After landing, Serrano, 49, says that she had to wait nearly two hours to be helped out of the plane. She has been wheelchair-bound since 2008 due to her multiple sclerosis, which means she must use the airport's service for passengers with reduced mobility.
In desperation, Serrano says that she finally lit a cigarette inside the aircraft - the trick worked, and someone immediately showed up to escort her off the plane. But now the airline and the airport are blaming each other for the case.
Aena, the Spanish airport manager and the official agency in charge of providing assistance to travelers with disabilities, admits that there was a 41-minute delay. A spokesperson said that they had planned the service for Serrano, but that Ryanair failed to warn them about the wait.
European legislation mandates that airports assist people with reduced mobility. Serrano is unsure who to blame for her own delay, but she does know who suffered the consequences.
"It wasn't just the wait. I am incontinent, and I carefully time my travel schedules. I was wet the entire time I was left there waiting. Nobody can understand what that's like until they sit in that chair," she says.
On that day, all the passengers got off the plane except herself and her partner, and two other people on crutches.
"The only person who needed the special wheelchair [a model that fits inside the plane] was me," she explains. In the end, the individuals on crutches decided not to wait any longer and get off the plane without help. And so she was left alone with her partner.
"There were several flight attendants there, but they kept saying they didn't know anything about it," she adds.
After sitting there for one hour and 45 minutes approximately, Serrano lost her patience.
"I didn't know what to do"
"When I couldn't take it anymore, I lit a cigarette. I know it's not right [smoking on planes has been forbidden since 1999), but I didn't know what else to do. It was amazing - they came running. I was crying by the time they took me out of there."
Aena and Ryanair confirmed the case, but would not go into details. The airport manager said it complained to the company that offers the service, Iberia Eulen, "because it took 41 minutes, longer than the established time of 20 minutes."
Aena added that even though Ryanair had warned ahead of the flight that this service would be needed, "it should also have informed us once the aircraft had landed that a person with reduced mobility had to be taken off the plane, and they did not."
Ryanair says that "Aena and Iberia-Eulen were properly warned ahead of the flight date," and notes that "the service for people with reduced mobility causes similar delays on an almost daily basis."
Carmen Valls, who runs the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation in Madrid, notes that complaints are relatively frequent. There are often delays of the type reported by Pilar Serrano, who is a member of this association.
"Public transportation is increasingly better adapted [to people with special needs]," says Valls. "But there are still lots of deficiencies."