Travelling in cars, catching trains and flying on aeroplanes should be all part of life for anyone of us who lives life, needs to get somewhere and likes going places.
If you happen to be a wheelchair user, that doesn’t change.
I guess we are in the middle of holiday season and everyone’s jetting off and enjoying time in the sun (real sun, that stays clear from clouds for more than ten minutes). So, I thought it might be helpful to a few people to let them know what it’s like flying with a spinal cord injury or as a wheelchair user, as I get asked about it a lot, with a few different people expressing a fear of the unknown. Well have no fear, i’ve written a guide to let you know what to expect.
I wouldn’t call myself a frequent flyer, but I guess it’s easy to say I’ve done a fair bit of solo travelling, before I chose to tie myself to uni for at least three years, and still do. This Summer I’ve been on holiday. An actual holiday that I booked through a travel agent because I wanted to relax, get a tan and have fun. No stressing with booking last minute rooms and coaches, which I will admit is all part of the fun of travelling, but for once I just wanted to get away with my best friend, without much effort.
I’m writing this from my own experience and from how I function. Everyone does everything slightly different, and I want to make it clear that this is just a guide on what to expect when you get on a plane and have a wheelchair as extra baggage.
Booking a flight
It’s all pretty simple. Every airline is different and if you book through a travel agency or even better, one that sells holidays specifically for people with disabilities, then they sort booking assistance with airlines out for you. I used Enable Holidays for my holiday recently and everything went very smoothly, so i highly recommend them.
However, if you are booking a flight yourself simply:
Look up what you need to do to inform the airline of any assistance you need.You book your assistance with your airline whilst you book your flight/s and they organise the exact assistance you require with the airports you’ll be travelling to and from.
At the airport
In my case, when I am travelling alone I arrange to have assistance when i arrive at the airport. There’s often a sign where you arrive directing you to the assistance desk.
- Make your way to the assistance desk and the people their will help you through to departures. Often, once your checked in, through to departures and if there’s time, they let you do your own thing until boarding.
- If you’re travelling in a taxi and fully alone and in a wheelchair and can’t carry your bags, just ask your taxi driver to watch your bags whilst you find a member of staff or internal phone to help you to the check in desk.
- My best piece of advice i can give to anyone travelling alone is “be vocal”. If you need to ask something, ask.
Getting on the plane (the exciting bit)
So once you’re at the gate you do all the usual passport checking and are usually met by another assistance person. It also differs depending on the airport. At places like Manchester and Heathrow you roll down a tunnel and transfer into an aisle chair at the entrance of the plane. As i mentioned, I’m strong enough and have a level of spinal injury that enables me to independently transfer. The reason you don’t transfer onto the plane seat straight from your chair is because as you may know, the aisles are too thin for even a chair as skinny as mine.
However, if you’re at a smaller airport getting on the plane is bit more of an “adventure.”
As you can see in the picture, everyone who’s unable to walk up the steps to the plane, goes up a lift into this interesting van contraption. It can get a little cramped, which shows just how many people with physical impairments travel.
In this case, i was the only person who needed the aisle chair and transferred once we were docked onto the side of the plane.
One you’re in the aisle chair, you’re strapped in and guided down the aisle by the assistants.
As i mentioned, i have the strength to transfer myself from the aisle chair to the seat. But not everyone does. In this case, the people who take you on the plane lift you over to a seat. (don’t worry, this is part of their job) and that’s that.
Now, i know a lot of you are thinking “where does my beloved chair go?!”
Again, this depends on the airline and type of plane. When i fly to Canada, it’s a long haul flight and big plane, so they keep my chair on board. However, with short haul flights they tend to put it in the hold. I can’t say to anyone to be “100% worry free” about your chair not getting lost, but i can say that it’s never happened with me. I find emphasising how important your chair is to you, helps.
Extra bits I’ve worried about and dealt with (mainly for people with sci)
Ok, long haul flights. 10 hours and no intermittent catheterisation is a big worry. So this is what i’ve done about it.
The first flight i went on post-injury was to New York. I think it was around 5-7 hours. My bladder is extremely temperamental, but i thought i’d be able to hold on. I wasn’t able, and so i didn’t leave a puddle in the chair, transferred into the aisle chair and had a wee (i can do ic in my chair) behind a curtain at 30 000ft. It’s probably one of my finest achievements.
Once i needed to travel to Vancouver, i gave in and used an indwelling catheter. The first time, my bag seriously needed emptying. To solve this problem, i transferred back into the aisle chair and was able to empty it over the loo. (That just proves how tiny plane toilets are!)
Leaving the plane
The same applies getting off, as does getting on. Once you’ve done it once, you kind of know how everything works and the more polite and friendly you are, the more polite and friendly people are going to be to you!
I hope this helps. If you have any questions, feel free to comment or message me with them. If i don’t know the answer straight away, i will be sure to find it out for you.