Flying – it’s still no fun

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on November 04, 2016 # Travel

I have been flying on commercial airlines as a T-10 paraplegic for twenty years now and the experience has not changed one bit. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The seats are smaller, the aisles narrower, they charge for everything besides, “Hi there, welcome aboard,” which may soon cost extra as well. “In time they’ll be charging a handling fee for storing your chair in the belly of the plane. “Feel free to hold it on your lap, Mr. Rucker. We’ll strap it on tight.”

For whatever reason, airlines really don’t want people with actual disabilities on their planes. Maybe it’s a cost factor. There are simply not enough passengers to make even the most modest accommodation cost-effective. I see a lot of people who need wheelchair assistance because they are frail or for a broken leg, but I have never flown on a flight with another paraplegic or someone living with paralysis. And the reason for that is pretty simple: it is one big freaking hassle.

The dreaded aisle chair, of course, is at the top of the list. As Chicago wit Mike Erwin, perhaps the funniest quad in the business, once wrote, getting roughly transferred and secured into an aisle chair to go four feet to your seat has Hannibal Lecter written all over it. They strap down every appendage to the undersized chair, like Hannibal and his freight dolly. All that’s missing is that hideous mask with bars over the teeth. And no matter how many times you’ve been through this procedure, it always seems like this is the very first rodeo for the guy wrestling with the straps. The more time he fiddles around, the antsier the planeload of passengers backed up behind you get.

I have taken to flying only Southwest mainly to avoid the aisle chair. They wheel me in my own chair to the very first row, the bulkhead, and I jump into the closest seat. Works pretty well, actually, until on my last trip, this one to Nashville, they introduced a new plane where the aisle-side arm no longer lifts. Now two palookas have to pick me straight up and plop me in the seat. Given the new, tighter seat width, without a lap tray, mind you, I spend the flight bunched up against the outside arm rest, trying to balance the free soft drink, People magazine, and iPhone on my lap.

I know, compared to the extreme difficulties many people with disabilities face just living their lives, this sounds like whining. Okay, it is whining, but it’s the accumulation of small irritations that makes me sour on the whole experience and avoid the benefits that travels offers. If they could configure the cabin so that one measly row of seats could be more accommodating – a seat that swings out, rises and falls for easy transferring. For instance, or an aisle, at least up front, wide enough to avoid an aisle chair all together, or at least people trained to deal with these matters – that would change everything. I’m sure there are a million innovations I haven’t thought of that would make flying darn close to fun.

The scariest thing – and this is beyond whining – is when they damage or lose your chair all together. A few years back, I was again flying to Nashville for a big country music telecast. I got off the plane in an aisle chair and my own chair was gone, baby, gone. Apparently one baggage guy took a smoking break and forgot to load it on the flight.

For the next three days I got around in a creaky rent-a-chair until word came that they had found it. It was at Dulles Airport in DC and ground attendants were using it to tote Grandma from curb to gate and back. The fact that I got it back at all was a miracle.

There are only two solutions to this flying thing. One, a full-time assistant, or as mobsters say, a goombah, to run interference, solve problems, and make sure they don’t leave youlast to get off and on the plane as they head home (that’s happened, too.) The second is to only fly in private jets where there are a half dozen aides-de-camp eager to rub your feet and drop grapes in your mouth. Since both of these are laughably beyond my family budget, I will gamely go along with the requisite rigmarole on the flying buses that now pass for air travel and just pray that a Sumo wrestler and his twin brother don’t decide to sit next to me for the next six hours.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

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