Thoughts on Flying for Our Fellow Passengers, from a Wheelchair User

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on May 09, 2016

For those who are walking upright on your own two legs and don't need any type of assistive devices, I would like to explain why those of us who use wheelchairs or scooters do not want to hear you complain about what you endure when traveling by air. Yes, I know that travel is no fun for you either, but your problems pale in comparison to those of my friends and I who get around on four wheels. Before you continue your complaining, it is important that you consider what many of the passengers seated in the same plane must go through in order to get to the same destination.

We do get to bypass the long lines waiting to get screened at airport security checkpoints, but the ability to use the same check-in line as airline personnel comes at a cost. You may have to stand in line for up to two hours to get to those X-ray scanner belts, but once you put your shoes and laptops in a bin and walk through the scanner you'll be on your way. My friends and I may still be waiting for someone qualified to be found to pat us down or "frisk" us; apparently not every TSA employee is granted the authority to do that. It must take special training and a deft touch to be able to search us without fondling things that shouldn't be fondled by strangers; even those strangers wearing blue shirts with a badge on them.

Not surprisingly, most of you who were backed up and standing in that security line arrived at the waiting area by the gate before we did. That might be because we were forced to stop to use one of the airport's accessible restrooms since we know that there is no such facility on the majority of the planes in this world. The Air Carrier Access Act has done a lousy job of bringing that promise to fruition.

If the proper personnel could be found to escort a wheelchair down the jet way for boarding, we were once again first to head for the airplane. That is where the real trouble starts, as we are transferred onto a hand cart, also known as an aisle chair, for the remainder of the journey to our seat. At that point our wheelchairs normally leave our sight in order to be stowed beneath the plane.

Every wheelchair starts the trip being treated as a fragile or complex instrument, which it is. As one example, my power wheelchair was designed by a team of engineers in such a manner that it is very difficult to repair, even for those who are trained and paid to do so. It is also very expensive, with a "retail" price tag hovering around $30,000; I am sure that must make it the most expensive piece of "baggage" being stowed on this trip.

Initially, multiple people pretend to understand what they're looking at as they inspect our wheelchairs and approve us to move on to the next step in boarding. That all changes once we relinquish our chairs and disappear from sight to enter the plane. At that time they turn our very expensive and extremely fragile mobility device over to the most untrained employees at the airport to handle as just a normal piece of baggage that might get lost, broken, dropped or thrown into the belly of the airplane.

In the scramble to secure prime seating on the plane, those of us who were boarded first may have appeared to have an advantage once again--the entire cabin was empty when we entered. Unfortunately that does not mean that we could be seated wherever we chose to sit. Most planes do not have removable armrests in first class and those who are pushing us in aisle chairs don't like to go any farther down the aisle than is absolutely necessary before they plop us into a seat.

There are disadvantages to being boarded first and seated near the doorway, as we had to wait for all of you to carry or drag your bulky carry-on items down the aisle. In the process they banged against us and left a trail of bruised arms and shoulders.

When you open the overhead bin to store the items you banged everyone with while walking down the aisle, don't be surprised to find the bin above my head already full. That is because it contains my backpack full of important items that I need for this trip and which I must have on hand if my suitcase doesn't arrive at our destination at the same time that I do. It may also contain my fragile wheelchair seat cushion and the very expensive electronic control for my wheelchair that I could not risk having damaged, so I brought it with me on the plane.

If that bin is already full, don't try to force more inside. Move down the aisle to the next one.

The skirmish to get boarded is no fun for those of us who are paralyzed. Since we are seated on the aisle and cannot stand to get out of the way, some awkward situations occur as people climb over us to secure the window or middle seats. That will happen several times during the flight as well, depending on the duration of the trip and the bladder capacity of those passengers.

If you happen to be seated next to one of us who cannot stand or walk, it would be appreciated if you would refrain from consuming liquids for about an hour before we fly. Since I am unable to relieve the pressure in my bladder throughout the trip it seems only fair that my fellow travelers should suffer as well.

Once we have landed and you head for the exit of the plane, you are unlikely to see us again. That is because we must sit through all of the bruising and banging that comes with people trying to quickly maneuver their carry-ons through the aisle again in order to be the first to arrive at the baggage carousel. Those of us who need a wheelchair to disembark will likely still be sitting in our seats on the plane beyond when you retrieve your luggage and head for ground transportation. Those waiting periods can vary, from a few minutes after the departure of the last passenger to sometimes over an hour.

If our wheelchairs can be put back into working order when they are finally returned to us at the door to the plane, we will head for the baggage claim area; there we will probably find that our suitcases are missing. That is because they were the last items left circling around the baggage carousel and no owners were in sight. With luck, our luggage items have not been lost or stolen but instead will be waiting for us to prove our ownership of them at the baggage claim office.

In retrospect, I hope you now realize why those of us who use wheelchairs are not smiling as we begin the process called an airline flight, to anywhere. No matter how long or uncomfortable the ordeal of flying might seem to you, we spend about two hours longer in order to travel the same distance, on the same plane. In the process, we are 'manhandled,' unable to access restrooms during the flights and face the risk of losing the continuing ability of our valuable mobility equipment to keep us healthy and independent. That is an inexcusable situation in this modern world that is supposed to provide accessibility for all.

© 2016 Michael Collins