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ON THE SPOT | BY CATHARINE HAMM

Help wanted

July 22, 2007|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: My mother, 84, wound up stuck on a plane because of bad weather while trying to get from Long Beach to Rochester, N.Y. After nearly five hours on the tarmac at JFK, her connecting JetBlue flight was canceled, the plane returned to the gate and she said passengers were told no flights were available. She was tired and confused. A seatmate helped her get a bus to Syracuse, where my husband picked her up. Who's to blame?

NANCY ESTABROOKS

Wyoming, N.Y.

Answer: In this case, Mom is to blame -- Mom Nature, that is. That flight was one of hundreds grounded by late June thunderstorms, over which no airline has control.

That raises an important issue for the more than 200 million people traveling this summer, especially older passengers. Blanche DuBois may have relied on the kindness of strangers, but we cannot.

With my own octogenarian mom, who likes to fly to the East Coast once or twice a year, I've learned some difficult lessons, thanks to bad (or no) planning on my part.

When her artificial hip set off the metal detector, I saw her struggle to obey the security attendant's commands. (Lesson: Ask for a private security screening before the detector goes off. If I am not flying with her, I must request a pass that allows me to accompany her to the gate.) I panicked when she was lost in the Detroit airport. (Lesson: Choose a nonstop, and if I can't, I choose an early morning flight that is less likely to be grounded by weather.) And I kicked myself watching her limp from the gate to baggage claim. (Lesson: Request a wheelchair at least 48 hours in advance and ignore those "I'm perfectly fine" protestations.)

It is that last lesson about requesting help in advance that may have most benefited Estabrooks' mother. (JetBlue, incidentally, says flights were available.)

"A 'meet and assist' is a free service available for customers who need extra assistance getting from the check-in counter to the gate or from the gate to the baggage claim area," said Sebastian White, a representative for JetBlue. "This could be for customers who have a disability or customers who just need some extra help."

The biggest obstacle to safe passage may be the failure to speak up and ask for help, said Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit that works on accessibility issues in travel and hospitality.

And, he says, older travelers should check in twice: once when they arrive at the airport and again at the gate, especially if they need extra help.

They also need to bring medication in their hand luggage and, most important, they need to stay hydrated, says Dr. Robert Roush of the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Failing to drink enough -- and it may be tempting to think margaritas, but we really mean water -- can lead to confusion.

Bette Davis is often credited with the saying, "Growing old ain't for sissies." And these days, neither is airline travel.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel @latimes.com

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