Wheelchairs and Airplanes

I have written about me and my brothers first experience on a cruise ship with a wheelchair, and how vastly better cruise ships are today, in terms of wheelchair accessibility. The same is true of hotels. In our early wheelchair traveling days, hotels were generally a major hassle, with narrow doors, totally inaccessible bathrooms, etc. In the last few years, however, nearly every hotel we have stayed in has been relatively accomodating, with many barrier-free showers, larger rooms (or rooms with less furniture) to make in-room navigation easier, public areas all ramped, etc.

The only part of the travel industry that steadfastly refuses to change is the airlines. And, honestly, I think they have gotten worse rather than better. In my opinion, the airlines are a perfect example of why laws and regulations are sometimes counterproductive. It is fascinating that cruise lines, under no legal obligation to do so, have so vastly improved their product, simply becaused it drives business their way, while the airlines insist on doing exactly what the law requires, and not one inch more.

Any of you who have flown with a wheelchair know what I mean - first off, just getting a rez agent to commit to a bulkhead seat is almost impossible, requiring referral to a special department. Of course, having that special department probably costs more than taking a few seats out of the plane, so people in wheelchairs could get in the plane. But airlines don't think that way. Squeezing in more seats, even though an 80% occupancy rate is considered extremely high, is the name of the game. Of course, no matter how many times you talk to a rez agent, and email the special department, when you get to the airport, the gate agent (more on gate agents, later) has no idea you are expected. Apparently the special department exists only to take calls from rez agents, and has no outgoing phone lines to the rest of the company.

And then we come toTHE TRANSFER CHAIR, originally designed by Torquemada during the Inquisition, and since modified by a committee that has had a disabled person described to them, but has never actually seen one. Now, my brother, like many wheelchair bound people, has multiple wheelchairs, including one that will easily fit down an airplane aisle, which still has a high back, movable arms and swing out leg rests. It would be a simple matter to wheel him on to the plane and do a standing transfer to the assigned seat. But NO, we are forced "by regulation", to transfer to THE CHAIR, which has no armrest, and a back that hits him right where he suffered a compression fracture of the spine a while back. He is then (apparently in the name of respecting the dignity of disabled people) strapped about the legs, chest and abdomen, (rather like a violent mental patient or someone awaiting lethal injection), and wheeled into the plane by an airport employee specially hired for his strong back and weak mind. Because, God forbid we trust the guy who just pushed him 4 miles thru the parking lot, past Security and all the way to gate 4,682B to get him that last 35 feet safely. Then we have to do a standing transfer with a chair that generally WON'T go at an angle to the seat, and whose legrests are fixed, requiring lifting his inboard leg over the legrest, and transferring at a hugely awkward and unbalanced angle. Of course, on arrival the whole tawdry affair is repeated, in reverse.

Generally, on the flight itself, the Flight Attendants are helpful and friendly, and if you scmooze them a little while you are doing the transfer, they will pay attention to you during the flight.

Now, back to the Gate Agent - because this is the key to wheelchair travel on airplanes. The first few times I flew with my brother, I got angry that the Gate Agent never seemed to know what was going on. Then I realized the anger is counter-productive. You see, in the airline world, the Gate Agent is nearly God-like in his/her powers. This one person has more ability to make your flight great or awful than all the pilots, executives, rez agents, and the special department put together. And they are so used to dealing with upset, angry or arrogant customers, you can't rattle them. But here it is folks - THE SECRET to (relatively) successful air travel with a wheelchair - KISS THEIR BUTTS. It is that easy.

These days I try to get to the airport early enough to be at the Gate when the Gate Agent shows up. I then put on my best humble, hangdog look, wheel my brother up with me and say something like "I don't mean to bother you, I know you are busy, but did THEY tell you to expect a wheelchair? I know those HQ dummies don't care about making your job easier, but we do. Could you please check and make sure we have a bulkhead seat?" Since adopting this approach, I have had Gate Agents clear seats near the gate for us, or come to where we were sitting in the terminal to give us a "two-minute warning" so we could get up to the gate before boarding, I have even been upgraded to Business Class. We always get a good seat, there is always an attendant with THE CHAIR waiting for us, etc.

So, while it is still nothing to look forward to, air travel with a wheelchair can be made tolerable.

But I really wish someone would ask me, I could think of a few things that could take it from tolerable to enjoyable.

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