When traveling in a manual wheelchair, ideally it is most convenient to have someone drop you off at an airport or use an airport shuttle service such as Super Shuttle. The next best option may be to take some form of public transportation, but then you’re responsible for transporting your own luggage. Lastly, you may have to drive yourself. Long-term parking is costly, but some airports allow people with a disabled placard or plates to park in the short-term lot for a lower fare. Both lots should have ADA accessible parking. To the best of my knowledge, there is no service that provides you with an airport attendant at your vehicle to assist with your luggage to the airport.
Clever packing and luggage carriers enable you to maximize carrying space and keep your hands and lap free. Some people will even bungee a suitcase with wheels to the chair itself. Specially designed bags and water bottle holders are available for manual wheelchairs. You can also utilize the space underneath the chair with a pouch, shelf, undercarriage net or a combination of these. I routinely use a backpack on the back of my chair as my carry-on and place my main bag on my lap and personal bag around my shoulders.
The soonest you can receive assistance with your luggage is at the curbside check-in. Ask at the desk and someone will assist you or find the appropriate airport personnel who can. They can carry your bags or push you, but if you want to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat, then you will need to manage your carry-on items. To minimize dealing with your carry-ons, check them as luggage — many airlines do not charge a baggage fee for medical equipment.
Moving Through Security
Some airports have wide security checkpoint lines accessible to wheelchair users — otherwise look for the designated line. Within reason, your traveling companions are also able to go through this line with you. Often designated lines are a shortcut through security checkpoints and a perk of being a wheelchair rider.
The screening process by TSA should take no more than a few minutes. I leave my shoes on and place the rest of my belongings in the basket as instructed, then inform them that I need a “female assist” for my screening. I am usually asked if there is anyone else with me to watch my belongings. If not, then the agent will grab your things once they’re on the secure side and place them near you.
You should always be asked if you would like a private screening. I have never opted for this and instead get straight to business. I spread my arms as wide as I can while the TSA agent gently pats my body with her hand in search of restricted items, namely weapons. Before the pat-down begins, notify the TSA agent of any sensitive areas if you are not asked first. Afterwards, my chair and I will be scanned for destructive chemical residue by an agent grazing a cotton-like swab lightly on my hands, clothing, shoes and chair (some manual chair users have been delayed at this point because their hands picked up something off their wheels). Once this swab clears, then you are free to go.
Boarding the Airplane
Most airports have carpet, which slows down manual chairs. Occasionally you will find people movers that you can take advantage of, and if no one else is in front of you, you can pick up good speed. Once you reach your departure gate, it is imperative that you check in at the desk and get your chair tagged. The brightly colored tag is attached to the wheelchair and identifies the owner and notifies the ground crew that upon landing, the chair needs to be brought up from the plane’s carriage immediately.
Speak up if you need assistance on the jetway. With smaller planes there may be no jetway, in which case you will be manually lifted up the stairs. Some airports have hoists or lifts or long ramps to accomplish this.
Southwest is the only airline that has enough space in the front bulkhead seats for my manual wheelchair to get close enough to the seats to transfer, so I do not need an aisle chair. For all other airlines an aisle chair is needed to board the plane. You need to tell the airline what assistance you will need when making the reservation, but more importantly, you need to bring this up again when you check in for your flight. There are a limited number of aisle chairs in any given airport, and hunting one down on the spot can delay the flight and require you to board last instead of first.
If you need assistance with transferring to an aisle chair and know the best method, then speak up, but do so kindly and use hand gestures if helpful. Once on the aisle chair, you will be secured with seatbelts. Sometimes the ground crew is right there to take your chair. I remind them that no luggage should be placed on top of a wheelchair as it can cause damage. If the ground crew isn’t there, then I tell whoever takes the chair to please relay the message. You can also attach any directions (sometimes in different languages) to the top of the seat. Waterproofing the directions isn’t a bad idea, either. I am usually assured that nothing is ever placed on wheelchairs, which I do not entirely believe, so just in case I always bring Allen wrenches in my carry-on.
Typically manual wheelchairs are stored in the cargo compartment, but if your chair can collapse enough to fit in the priority stowage spaces in the plane, then you have this right under the Air Carrier Access Act, but flight attendants are not always eager to comply with this. Rely on the flight attendants to assist you with your carry-on items. In addition to bags, these items are anything that could fall off of your chair, like your water bottle holder and side-guards. Be sure to also carry on your necessary medical supplies and medications. And for optimal protection against skin breakdowns, sit on your seat cushion for the plane ride. If using an air cushion, monitor the air pressure during flight, deflating a little if needed, and be sure your pump is packed with your carry-on in case more air is needed once you’ve landed.
At your seat a flight attendant should be able to assist you in lifting the armrest for a clear transfer. However, not all attendants have this knowledge and not every seat has an adjustable armrest. If available, a seat with this feature can be arranged ahead of time.
On the Plane
During flight it may be possible to use an onboard aisle chair to use an “accessible restroom” with grab bars, a call button and a lever faucet. Planes with more than one aisle are required to have an onboard aisle chair and accessible restroom, and planes with 60 or more seats that have an accessible restroom are also required to have an onboard aisle chair.
There is no standard design for the onboard aisle chair. Some are more comfortable than others and some may or may not have a footrest. When you are in need of it, you simply notify a flight attendant, but the attendant cannot assist you in the transfer to the onboard aisle chair. The attendant or your companion then pushes you into the restroom where you have to be able to make a frontal transfer using a small handrail or the countertop.
Some people have been known to use a leg bag just for the flight or catheterize themselves under a blanket at their seats.
Just before landing, remind the crew that you have a gate-checked wheelchair and whether you’ll need an aisle chair. When the flight is over, you will be the last to disembark, which is good to keep in mind for transportation plans or if you have a brief layover. You can ask the attendants for assistance through the airport and they will call for airport personnel.
If a problem does occur, contact the airline’s complaint resolution official who has been specially trained about Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation disability regulations. You can also get travel insurance specifically for your wheelchair or bring a spare for extra added security.
Most importantly, if you need help, ask for it and know your rights.
• Transportation Security Administration, “Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions,” www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/travelers-disabilities-and-medical-conditions
• United States Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection, www.dot.gov/airconsumer
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