By Jeanine Schmitz
Jenny lives in Seattle because of its unique offering of mountains, water, culture, and cool weather. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Her passion is travel, which has become a multi-adventure experience since her MS required a transition into a wheelchair.
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Flying with a wheelchair can be no problem. If the ground crews are responsive and efficient, the equipment works, and nothing gets damaged or lost, then flying with a wheelchair is similar to the typical cattle-car experience known as flying today. If, however, something goes wrong – especially the loss or damage of what amounts to an extension of your legs—it can be an unforgettable and unforgivable nightmare.
You can find blogs about flying with a wheelchair all over the internet. I wanted to add my voice to the information feed, but I felt that in order to differentiate my post, I should compile the most comprehensive list of advice out there, so that an information-seeker need not look further to feel prepared. Well, that was my problem with grad school, as well. I would spend so long gathering information, trying to be as complete as possible, that I would only reluctantly and much belatedly get started on the research itself.
I recently flew with my husband, Ted, from our home in Seattle, WA to Monterey, CA for a long weekend. As an experiment, I took the GRIT Freedom Chair as my only wheelchair. I decided to use this experience as a jolt to my preparation penchant and to finally write something. So, no, this is not a complete list, and yes, someone serious about flying with a wheelchair should gather additional advice before embarking. But this is my meager contribution to a small but important field. And now it’s out there.
1. Plan Early and Often
I like to plan; it’s ingrained in my personality, and it makes me happy. However, I am married to someone who doesn’t believe in planning. He is able to use a “Field of Dreams” sort of Jedi mind trick: If you want it, we can make it happen. Sometime it works and the results are all the more gratifying, because you haven’t wasted your time sweating the details. However, sometimes the results are disastrous and you end up not being able to go to the bathroom for twelve hours. Life with a wheelchair, unfortunately, demands planning in advance – especially when travelling solo. Flying with a wheelchair, in and of itself, does not require advance planning, but seat selection does. If you have seating requirements (for example: location, not in a bulkhead row, armrest that moves), it is important to book as far ahead of time as possible to ensure that you get your choice of seat location. Caveats: bulkhead seats aren’t usually given out until passengers arrive at the airport, and desk agents often don’t know which seats have movable armrests or even where the lavatories are.
2. Arrive at the Airport Early
Are you sensing an “early” theme? Even after multiple years of using a wheelchair, I am still guilty of never believing that things will take as long as they do. They do. I strongly advise wheelchair travelers to check in at least two hours early for domestic flights, because of the possibility of waiting in lines, trying to sort things out with clueless agents, and going through security, along with the necessity of being at the gate at least 45 minutes before departure time (you will be the first to board). You may not need this much time; then again, you may get the TSA agent who is intent on doing everything possible to protect the airlines from dangerous wheelchair-driving passengers.
3. Tell an agent ASAP that you will need an aisle chair for boarding
Sometimes they already have your information and requirements in the computer. Sometimes they are organized and prepared. But sometimes at least one of these things is not true. Given that, I try to flag an agent as soon as I can to let them know that I’ll be needing an aisle chair, giving them time to find and request one before boarding begins. Some airlines prohibit passengers flying with wheelchairs from checking in at the kiosks, in which case you’ll meet with an agent at the check-in desk directly, but you’ll probably have to ask to figure out which line to use (hopefully they will direct you to the premiere/VIP line). Some airlines have all passengers (even those with wheelchairs) check in at the kiosks, in which case you’ll have to hunt down an agent, who may or may not care (in the latter case, that means you’ll first tell the gate agent at the departure gate).
4. Take as few suitcases as possible
Remember that you have to carry what you bring. Even if you check baggage, you have to carry it to the departure check-in desk and from the baggage claim. For some reason, many airports seem to have uphill ramps to get outside, adding an additional degree of difficulty. When travelling by myself, I like to check as much of my luggage as possible, so I don’t have to carry it (don’t forget to make use of the curbside luggage check, when possible). The downside, though, since you are invariably the last one off of the plane, is that you will be so late in getting to baggage claim that you will have to go on a search for your luggage. Travelling with someone is much easier; that person can carry all sorts of luggage – or better yet, they can load you with luggage on your lap so that you can’t see, and then they can blindly push you through the crowded airport. Smaller bags can sit on your lap. If you must carry a rolling suitcase, there are suitcases made especially to attach to wheelchairs. Or you can just use a carabineer to attach the suitcase behind your chair and hope that it doesn’t twist around too much. You can buy a small bag (purse size) through GRIT that attaches to the third wheel of the Freedom Chair. Also, remember that medically-necessary items travel for free (but you should remember to bring your prescriptions).
5. Security might not be as bad as you fear
You might get to bypass the long waiting line in favor of the expedited VIP line (ask), you don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security if you can’t (or if it’s too difficult), you don’t have to go through those new full-body scanners, and you get a full-body massage (the manual pat-down).
6. Be Proactive
As soon as your things get on the conveyor belt to go through the scanner, wheel in front of the gate that bypasses the full-body scanner. Make sure one of the harried TSA agents knows you are there and waiting and calls for a “(Fe)Male Assist!)
Do not wait until everyone ahead of you in line has gone through the scanners to do this. You may feel like you are cutting in line; this is not true – you are not in their line; you are just crossing over to yours. This is the weakest link in the TSA process, since you have to wait for a free assistant of your sex to come and let you through the gate and conduct the scan. The sooner you can start the process, the better.
7. Designate a Helper
Assign someone to be responsible for your things as they come out of screening. Many times a TSA agent will ask; sometimes they forget. If you don’t have a travel companion to take responsibility, make sure you remind your TSA screener to do so. Your screened items will invariably finish screening long before you do.
8. Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Be prepared for screening to take a long time and be unpleasant, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Everyone who cannot walk unassisted (without holding onto something) must submit to a manual screening, the pat-down. After waiting for a gender-appropriate screener, you will be taken to a quieter spot in the midst of the turmoil for your screening. Remember that you have a right to ask for a private screening. Personally, I have never asked for a private screening, because I can’t even imagine how much longer it would take and because I figure that the number of people who find it titillating to watch a middle-aged woman get a pat-down compared to the number of people in a hurry to catch their plane put the odds in my favor. If all goes smoothly, you may even beat your travel companions through security; you may also get a screening agent who training someone, is new, or is maddeningly thorough. After screening you, the agent will test the wheelchair, by wiping some paper on various points on the chair and sticking the paper in a mysterious machine. If you haven’t removed your shoes, the agent will probably clean your soles with this magical paper as well. Final warning: if you have been spending time on manicured grass, it’s possible that the mystical machine will not like the results; I am guessing that it’s because well-manicured grass demands fertilizer, which contains nitrogen, which is also used in making bombs. This can cause anxiety, the need for multiple supervisors, and lots of wasted time.
9. Ask to get a gate-check claim ticket at the gate
Since your wheelchair will be gate-checked, you should ask at the gate (where you board) for a gate-check claim ticket. You will need to answer questions about the presence and type of battery (most of them are dry-cell) and the weight of the wheelchair. This is a good time to double-check that an aisle chair has been ordered and will be there for you.
10. Different crews and planes allow different boarding methods
Usually you take your own wheelchair down the gateway to just outside of the entrance to the plane, where you transfer to an aisle chair, and then the staff wheel you onto the plane and to your seat. Sometimes you transfer to an aisle chair at the gate, and then the staff wheel you to the plane and then to your seat. Sometimes, if you ask, you can roll your own chair to the bulkhead seats (assuming you are sitting there), without transferring to an aisle chair at all.
11. Put all of your removable wheelchair parts in a large bag before boarding the plane.
I always travel with a canvas bag large enough to fit all of the detachable wheelchair parts. At the entrance to the plane, while I transfer to an aisle chair, Ted transfers all detachable parts from my chair into my canvas bag, which we carry on in addition to our two bags. For the GRIT Freedom Chair, this included the seat cushion, my under-cushion wedge, the levers, the scapula pad, and the foot strap. In retrospect, we probably also could have also taken the back sling.
12. Give the ground crew specific instructions
Detailed instructions about how to move and store your wheelchair (every chair is different, as is the level of knowledge of every crew member) will help ensure nothing is damaged.
The GRIT Freedom Chair is too wide to fit through the door from the jetway down to the tarmac, so we instructed the crew in how to remove the wheels (it fit then). Keep in mind, however, that just because you inform the departure ground crew, the arrival airport crew may have absolutely no idea how to operate the chair. You could ask the departure crew to call the arrival crew and let them know the important information (for the GRIT Freedom Chair, it’s that and how the wheels detach). They may do so; or may not! For example, when we landed in California, the crew was not aware of the GRIT Freedom Chair width, and they had difficulty bringing my chair to the plane, since it was too wide to fit through the door. Worse, the release pin on the wheel had gotten stuck on the door frame, and so the entire wheelchair was stuck. Luckily, my aisle chair took so long that Ted managed to help them get the GRIT Freedom Chair unstuck, and it was ready for me when I arrived. Travelling with an able-bodied person and sitting near the front may help solve such a problem, because that person can exit the plane at the beginning of the line and wait outside the plane door to instruct the ground crew.
13. Prepare to be first on the plane and last off it
Passengers needing assistance are the first ones on and last ones off the plane. This lateness can be a problem for retrieving luggage at the baggage claim and the gate.
Usually, Ted disembarks with the rest of the passengers and waits by the plane entrance, so he can offer advice to the ground crew in charge of the wheelchair and make sure that nobody takes the wheelchair. (Really! It happened twice: When Ted and I finally got off of the plane, my wheelchair was not there. Both times, we finally found it in the parking lot, leading me to believe that someone mistook it for an airport wheelchair – even though I had removed the foot plates, seat cushion, and the back! Next time I’m going to spray paint my name and a skull and crossbones on the seat sling). The other option is for the able-bodied person to exit early, have a chat with the ground crew (advice about the wheelchair and making sure they save it for me), then going off to baggage claim to claim the bags before it’s too late. Of course, these strategies work much better if you’re near the front of the plane.
Bonus Advice: Travel with a Rock Star
I read in someone else’s blog that an important key to travelling with a wheelchair is to travel with a rock-star support person/travel companion. I realize that that isn’t possible for everyone at all times, but I admit that it is my most important piece of advice as well. I have been able to do and see so much more just by travelling with an able-bodied person who thinks creatively and is willing to help. At the most practical level while flying, it helps to have another person monitor, collect, and/or carry your luggage and make sure nobody takes your chair.
There are horror stories about flying with a wheelchair; there are also great experiences. Make sure you allot more time than you’d ever think necessary, and don’t assume that anyone knows anything about your chair. Remember that most airplanes are not covered by the ADA. In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, mandating the Department of Transportation to develop new regulations ensuring that passengers with disabilities would not face discrimination. These regulations were published in 1990, and a summary can be viewed online at: https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities
Additional sites with advice about flying with wheelchairs (not an endorsement; just some links):
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The GRIT Freedom Chair is the most versatile chair on the market, designed from the ground up to handle any terrain. From trails to grass to snow, the Freedom Chair is built for you to push yourself. Born out of research at MIT, the Freedom Chair's patented easy-push levers reduce shoulder strain and put you in control of your mobility. Ready to hit the trails. Learn more about the GRIT Freedom Chair at www.gogrit.us