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Friday, March 28, 2014

Flying with a Power Chair. Not First-Class.



I recently completed my first intercontinental trip with my power chair, Steven. I was nervous about the trip in the weeks prior and made several phone calls to United Airlines to make sure that all legs of the journey would run smoothly. Before I left I even googled "air travel with a power chair" to see if there were any helpful tips. One of the first tips I found stated this piece of helpful advice: if possible, fly first-class. As that was probably the least helpful tidbit of information I stumbled across, I thought I would document my own experiences so that someone in my same position (unable to afford a first-class ticket) might have more success than I did.

I flew out of Elmira, New York on a plane roughly two times the size of my parents driveway. Despite the size of the plane however, everything went smoothly. We flew from Elmira to Detroit and then eventually (on a significantly larger plane) from Detroit to Sacramento. The trip went so seamlessly in fact that I let my apprehensions about the flights home completely dissipate. That was a mistake.

Flight number one departing Sacramento was on a relatively small jet approximately the size of the school bus. As Shelly and Kelly and I had arrived at the airport three hours prior to our flight we were confident that the United staff knew that we were coming. In no great rush we made our way to the gate, stopping to buy uncomfortable, overpriced neck pillows on the way. Once safely at the gate we waited to pre-board the plane without any concerns. Indeed it was not until the boarding began and we got to the end of the jetway during the boarding process that someone approached me and said: "I am sorry ma'am, but we don't think this plane can accommodate your wheelchair." They asked me to reiterate the specifications of my chair (50 inches tall, 27 inches wide, 360 pounds) and reacted to these numbers with surprise and concern before saying, "There is no way your chair will fit on this plane."

I am well aware that employees of airlines are the recipients of hundreds of people's frustrations and disappointments on a daily basis, so I tried to maintain my composure but found myself a) frustrated, b) embarrassed, c) disgusted and d) annoyed (I know that at least three of those alphabetically listed emotions are redundant).  I calmly explained to the attendant that I had spent probably an hour and a half on the phone with United prior to our trip, and the airline ensured me that Steven could be accommodated on every plane I was ticketed for. (In fact, one woman spoke to me condescendingly saying something along the lines of: "your chair has to fit, it's the law.")  Nonetheless, the attendant helping us expressed her sympathy and politely directed the three of us back through security and to the ticketing counter.

There, the three of us stood around for another hour while a ticketing agent expressed her frustration that there were no other redeye options on United from Sacramento to either Elmira or Syracuse that night. She eventually gave up and turned us over to the US Air people to try to figure out how to get us home.   Finally the US Air attendant found a flight that would get us into Syracuse the following morning at 9:30 AM, a full hour earlier than we were supposed to arrive with our originally booked tickets. It was an incredibly indirect flight, but they at least upgraded our tickets from Sacramento to Phoenix Arizona. I was sad that the flight lasted only two hours because our first-class seats seemed so luxurious (traveling with a disability actually is easier in first-class!) Especially when compared with the seats we ended up in for the second leg of our journey (the longest leg) which took us from Phoenix to Philadelphia.

The most noteworthy part of the second flight took place before the other passengers had even boarded the plane.  The three of us were already snugly and uncomfortably in our seats after pre-boarding, when the airline attendant halted the boarding process so one of us could exit the plane to help move Steven from the jetway into the underbelly of the airplane. Politely, Kelly got up and offered her assistance. Once off the plane, she was greeted by a borderline irate, unkempt looking man with a pseudo-official looking US Air vest. That is when the fight ensued:

Long-haired, pseudo-official looking US Air man: I can't figure out how to get this thing to go.

Kelly: It is in neutral. You will need to push it.

US Air man: What do you mean I have to push it? Do you have any idea how far I need to go?

Kelly: Yes. I am sorry but it needs to be in neutral so you can lock it into place once it is on the plane.  Plus it is challenging to maneuver if you aren't used to it.

US Air man: You don't need to tell me how to do my job.  I spend at least five hours a day playing video games.  I know what I am doing.  I will be fine driving it.

Kelly: I am not trying to tell you how to do your job.  This is a $32,000 wheelchair and my friend's life depends on it, so it needs to be kept in neutral.  I am happy to help you push it up the jetway.

The man seemed to have no problem treating a ticketed passenger with complete disregard.  As Kelly helped the US Air man push the chair up the passenger lined jetway, the snarky interchange continued.

US Air man (redundantly):  This is ridiculous, I don't appreciate you telling me how to do my job.

Kelly (having stopped pushing, looked at the now fully irate man): Listen, we have had a really long day, I am trying to help you and I would appreciate it if you could show us just the smallest bit of kindness.

One of the 700 reasons I love Kelly is because she has a unique ability to maintain patience, decorum and maturity in even the most stressful of circumstances.  Ultimately, these qualities weren't lost on the irate man after all.  Before our flight departed, he sought us out to apologetically inform us that Steven was safely on board.


Suffice to say we departed on time and arrived in Philadelphia five interminable hours later. Our flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse involved a plane roughly the size of a school bus. In fact, it might have been smaller than your average school bus. When we arrived at the gate and I glanced out the window at our next ride I laughed. If they could not accommodate us on the larger plane out of Sacramento, there was no way the little prop jet would suffice. I was certain. And at that point in the journey, I almost was too tired to care. Surprisingly, they proved me wrong. Somehow, someway these three endearingly determined employees got Steven, and even more impressively, me onto the plane. An hour and a half later we were finally back in the Syracuse.


That was a long story so let me clarify a few tips for people traveling in power wheelchairs:
  • Know absolutely everything about your wheelchair.  Know the height, the width, the depth, the weight. Know about your battery. Is it a dry or wet cell battery?  Know how to put your chair in neutral and know how to lock it in place. 

  • Bring a travel companion who is your advocate. I used to travel alone, and was obviously much more functional at that point. If you do have to travel alone, however, practice putting yourself in stressful and exasperating situations while still maintaining your composure and your ability to self advocate. The above is not my strong suit, that is why I no longer travel alone. (Also, I am unable to feed myself, drink or otherwise survive without the help of others.)
  • Call the airline prior to your trip and insist that the specifications of your chair are double checked with every single leg of the upcoming journey. Get the names of the people you talk to. Make sure that the people you talk to document every thing in the computer next to your name so that all the airline personnel know you are coming well before you are scheduled to board.
  • Oh yes, and how could I forget – if possible fly first-class. It is a hell of a lot easier.






2 comments:

bantal silikon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
nicole monique said...

How exasperating! I could relate to needing an advocate. Especially when I feel vulnerable about my disability I find myself surprisingly inarticulate. Oh, and don't know if this is useful to you but FYI: http://wheelchairtraveling.com/