Will these Wheels keep me Grounded?
Flying used to be so simple and one of my greatest joys. I traveled regularly for work and for pleasure but never really gave the process much thought. Before, my biggest concern was not getting stuck in a middle seat and my biggest annoyance was taking off my shoes in security. All of that changed when I started having to bring my own chair with me.
I sustained a spinal cord injury 11 years ago and now use a power wheelchair for mobility. While in rehab in Atlanta, I went on a field trip to the airport to learn the new process for flying as a person with a disability. The policy seemed rather simple but the practice often is not.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), was passed by Congress in 1986 and prohibits discrimination by U.S. air carriers against qualified individuals with disabilities. 49 U.S.C. 41705. In 1990, the Department of Transportation (DOT) defined the rights of passengers with disabilities and the obligations of U.S. air carriers under the ACAA. 14 CFR part 382
I recently traveled to Sacramento to attend a national disability rights conference. When setting up my reservation, I listed that I would be traveling with a power wheelchair and that I would need an aisle chair and assistance for getting on and off the airplane. Since I was flying with a carrier who assigns seats, I called to get priority seating. The seat assignments were changed so that I would be closer to the front to lessen the hassle of being carted down the aisle on an aisle chair. While I was on the phone with the accessibility specialist, I confirmed that my medical bag would fly free of charge. She reminded me that for a bag to fly free of charge as a medical device, it could only carry pieces needed because of my disability. I was not allowed to carry any clothes in this bag.
I followed the rules and arrived at the airport with one bag for my clothes and another for my necessary medical equipment. However, when I explained to the check-in agent that I had a medical bag, she stated that it was not in their policy to allow for that. I explained to her that I had already spoken with her accessibility specialist and that even without a specific policy, it was the law under the ACAA. I even offered to let her see the law that I had pulled up on my phone. She told me she would have to call management and remained on hold long enough that another agent assisting her authorized the free bag to get me on my way.
For the return flight, I had a similar conversation with the check in agent. She called her manager over. The manager said, “Yeah, when we have a passenger who knows the law, we have to follow it.”
Next came security. Since the power wheelchair cannot go through standard security, I am required to get a full pat down. This particular time, I had to wait about 15 minutes for a female TSA officer to be available. She is required to give me the full verbal rundown every single time and to pat down my entire body and chair.
I lucked out on the return flight and was selected for TSA pre-check. This allowed me to go straight through security with only minimal checks of different pieces of my chair. It was a much better experience!
At the gate
I always go to the gate immediately to make all of the final arrangements. This is often where my seat assignment is actually changed. This is also where we discuss my requirements for an aisle chair and assistance with a two-man lift. I always ask to speak with the person who will actually be handling my wheelchair to offer instructions for how it can best be handled.
I request to pre-board so that I do not have to go through the entire process with a plane full of people. I drive my chair down to the opening of the plane and am transferred to an aisle chair. This basically looks like a furniture dolly with a seat. Two airport attendants lift me onto the chair. They secure straps across my body and around my legs and tilt the chair backwards onto the two wheels. For this flight, I was seated in row 25. That means I was wheeled backwards all the way down the aisle. When I mentioned that my left hip was hitting the arm rest on each seat, the agent informed me that I had wide hips that were causing it. This made me laugh!
For my return flight, I received a complimentary upgrade to first class. I was sipping my tomato juice out of a real glass even before everyone else started boarding. I’ll take the perks when they come!
I am the last person off the plane for similar reasons as boarding first. This also allows the ground crew to get my chair to me at the gate if requested. With short layovers, I typically check the chair all the way through to my final destination. Instead, I borrow an airport transport chair and am provided with a transport. The first transport I had, acted like it was his personal mission to beat a record in the amount of time to get me to the next gate. The next guy acted like we were on a leisurely stroll, even as they were calling my name overhead for boarding. I had no control over either situation.
Once I reach my final destination, I am reunited with my chair. The question at that point is always will it work and what damage has been done. This time, the armrest was broken and a few plastic pieces were cracked. I had to spend more time filing a claim, making arrangements for repair, and finding time to have a local repairman make the repairs. At least the airline was responsible for the charges.
Getting to the hotel
The final piece is finding an accessible vehicle to get to the hotel. This also requires advanced planning. While many services offer accessible transportation by policy, by practice it isn’t happening. I have been stranded in airports for hours waiting for accessible transportation. I checked Uber and Lyft, but neither offered wheelchair accessible vehicles in the area. Super shuttle was available and accessible in this market, so I made it to and from the airport pretty seamlessly this time.
Now, where to next?