8 Air Travel Tips for Higher Level Quadriplegics

Q. I’m 28 years old and in my fourth year as a C4 complete quadriplegic. I have no movement below my shoulders and drive my chair with a chin control. It has a headrest, and power recline with elevating leg-rests.

A group of friends is planning a reunion in the Florida Keys, and they invited me to go. They’ve found an accessible condo and even offered to rent a van with a lift and wheelchair tie-downs. After reading your previous Travel Matters column, Air Travel 101, I’m tempted to fly to the reunion from my home in Los Angeles. However, Air Travel 101 seems to be geared more toward manual chair users and/or people with lower level injuries. Do people with my level of injury travel by air? If so, what extra steps do I need to take? If I go, I will be traveling with my attendant.
—Shane

A. Shane, great questions! The answer to your first question is, yes people with your level of paralysis travel by air. You are also correct that although “Air Travel 101” will be a good working blueprint for the trip, flying with your level of injury requires some extra steps and planning. Here is an overview.

Surprisingly, one of the first steps to successful air travel is locating ground transportation at your destination. Rental vans with a ramp or wheelchair lift and wheelchair tie-downs can be found in most major cities. You can book one through accessible travel agents such as Able to Travel, or type in “wheelchair van rentals” and the city you are arriving at in a search engine like Google.

If you need ground transportation but don’t plan on renting an accessible van, it is important to plan ahead to make sure you can use public transportation, hotel shuttles, etc. — this is covered in detail in the September 2011 Travel Matters column, Accessible Airport and Hotel Transportation.

When it comes to extensive, first hand knowledge and advice on frequent flying with higher level quadriplegia, the best I’ve ever heard is from a friend of mine, the late Kirk Kilgour, a sports broadcaster, public speaker and C4 complete quadriplegic who passed away in 2002. In his 26 years as a high quad, Kilgour traveled by air more than 200 times, around the U.S., Europe and Asia for business and pleasure.

Kilgour’s adventures are brilliantly captured by his former fiancé Belinda Begley in her book on Kilgour and their lives together, Lucky Break… A Love Story.  I recently caught up with Begley, and she explained travel tips that Kilgour had perfected during his 26 years of air travel. Here are eight tips based on Kilgour’s mantra for air travel, which was “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

1. Understand transfers.
Making the transfers from your wheelchair to an aisle chair, then to the airplane seat, are crucial points where your body and safety are in the hands of somebody else. It is vital to speak up and explain to people how to safely transfer you — make sure the people doing the transfer understand, and make sure there is a clear path to your seat before allowing them to move you to an aisle chair.

2. Customize your travel gear.
Kilgour had an extra seat belt made to wrap around the back of the aisle chair and his chest to support him during transfer. Once in his seat he would wrap the seat belt around the back of the seat for chest support (see Resources for belts you can purchase).

3. Plan for a broken chair.
Before a trip, locate the closest reliable wheelchair repair person/shop — you can often find this by contacting the manufacturer of your chair. Give the shop a call and establish a relationship in advance, in case the worst happens and you need their help (e.g., the airline damages your wheelchair). Murphy’s law is, if you plan for this possibility, it probably won’t happen.

Knowing full well no matter how well you plan, you still need a back-up plan, Kilgour kept his old power chair and a high-back manual chair at home in his garage. In the event his chair was lost or severely damaged during travel he made arrangements with a neighbor to be able to let an overnight shipping agency into the garage to pick up the chair — something he never needed, but was prepared for — including charging the airline for the shipping.

4. Learn how to take care of your chair.
Kilgour was fastidious about taking care of his chair and made sure his attendant and/or travel partner understood how the chair worked and knew the basics of maintenance and repair.

5. Know your rights about keeping batteries in your chair.
The Air Carrier Access Act section 382.41 (g)(I)(i) says batteries labeled by the manufacturer as non-spillable can remain in the wheelchair during air travel, and (ii) if a power chair with spillable batteries can be loaded, stored, secured, and unloaded in an upright position, the batteries can remain in the wheelchair.

6. Travel with proper tools for removal and assembly of chair parts required for chair storage during flight.

7. Have a standard protocol for breaking down the chair.
For example:

• Attendant turns power off. Disconnect battery cables to make sure the power and/or electronics don’t accidentally get turned on.

• Attendant disconnects head rest, swing-away chin control and arm rests and puts them in a bag and carries it onboard the plane.

• Attendant removes leg rests and bungees them to the seat of the wheelchair.

• Attendant shows baggage handlers how to disengage drive wheels to push the chair and shows them how to engage drive wheels to lock it down. Instructs them not to remove batteries and do not remove or move anything on the chair.

• Attendant attaches laminated written instructions to the chair on what to do and what not to do, including: “Do not remove batteries. Do not touch or remove anything from the chair. This is how to engage or disengage the drive wheels …” (Kilgour had these made up in several different languages for international travel.)

8. Adopt a positive attitude.
Even with all of his planning, like any frequent traveler, Kilgour ran into his share of problems, including having his chair delayed and being brought to the wrong part of the airport — in one case baggage claim, another time customs — instead of the jetway. But by speaking up with firm conviction, backed up by a warm smile, things always worked out for him.

“Although this sounds intimidating, most of the time it is going to go well, and Kirk had fabulous times because of the travel he did,” says Begley. He took the opportunity to see the world, from broadcasting three Olympics, to watching the sun set from a tropical islands with his true love, to meeting the Pope — and having the Pope ask for his autograph (see The Call to Vatican City).

Shane, I hope this gives you the information you need. For more pointers, check out the article “Air Travel Tips” from our sister publication, Life in Action. Have a great time with your friends in Florida!

Resources

Able To Travel
BraunAbility — Sunset Mobility of Miami Wheelchair Van Rentals
Lucky Break … A Love Story
Miami Airport Wheelchair Van Rentals
Soft Wheelchair Belt
Wheelchair Getaways Accessible Van Rentals
Wheelchair Lap Belt/Chest Belt

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