Ashley Lyn Olson demonstrates how Southwest Airlines’ bulkhead is roomy enough to allow for a transfer. Photo courtesy of wheelchairtraveling.com
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