Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chairs on a plane

This blog talks about public transportation. Many people don't think of air travel as public transportation but it meets the characteristics required: you share a vehicle and space with other people to get from one location to another. So here is the first ever air travel blog entry for Priority Seating!

One of the things that people might not see everyday is a wheelchair user getting on a plane. I find it fascinating that airports are places where you are likely to see a wheelchair but most of the time it's a rented/borrowed "hospital clunker" chair and not a permanent wheelchair that you usually see from a long-term user. Of course, those chairs are meant to be used for a few hours at a time and usually belong to the airport or airline, and they are left at the airport once the flight leaves.

The "hospital clunker": often seen at airports as rental wheelchairs.

But what about people who use their own wheelchairs? It occurred to me that this is something that able-bodied people and people with disabilities (who have never flown) often wonder about. Some people may not know the procedure. So for this entry, I will outline the general procedure using a recent flight I took from Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia.

To start with, I don't use a "hospital clunker" but rather a "fancy sleek wheelchair," which obviously looks/performs a lot better since it is usually designed for those with long term or permanent disabilities.

The "fancy sleek wheelchair": similar to mine.

Of course, with a wheelchair like that, you want to make sure it is taken care of. As well, you want to use your own wheelchair as much as possible until you have to board the plane. At most North American airports, this should be fine.

One very important thing to ask for when you check in is a "gate tag," also sometimes called a "door tag"." Basically what it does is allow you to bring something (in this case, your wheelchair) right to the gate and have it stowed in the cargo hold once you board.

This is something that is commonly done for those with other mobility devices such as walkers as well. As standard practice, wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices do not count as another piece of checked-in luggage; airlines are supposed to take them for no extra charge.

The "gate tag" on my wheelchair at the airport.

One of the upsides of being in a wheelchair is that airlines sometimes bump you up a class when selecting your seating. This is mainly for practicality reasons, if economy class is far from the plane's entrance. For my particular flight, I had this happen, but it made little difference since the plane only seated thirty or so people.

One of the downsides, however, is that you are the first person to board the plane and last person to get off. That means that you should arrive earlier than most people and leave more time to get to where you want to go after you land.

For airport security, wheelchair users have to swallow their dignity in a way. Able-bodied people usually go through a metal detector. Guess what – wheelchair users are sitting on metal! In addition, wheelchair users often have metal rods in their spines from previous operations and whatnot, which can set off the machine. The solution? The good ol' pat-down.

You are allowed to ask to get the pat-down in a back room instead of out in the open. Usually it is not a big deal. They will ask if there are parts of your body that are sensitive to pain. The pat-down is usually thorough enough without being intrusive (and those that aren't usually end up on the news). The security person should have done this before, so things that you have such as leg-bags, colostomy pouches, etc. should be obvious enough; my security guy at Vancouver airport asked, for confirmation, but he already "knew." It was not a big deal (and it shouldn't be).

Now here is the real question from many people – how do you actually board the airplane? This will depend on two things. The first thing is the type of plane: for example, whether you board from the tarmac or from a jet way. The second thing is your ability level: whether you can walk well, or with difficulty, or not at all.

Jet ways are easy. However, my flight was on a small plane and boarding was from the tarmac. Usually for those planes, they have small flights of stairs that can be used. Obviously that is not an option for me, so they have a special foldable ramp that can replace the stairs when needed. At the end, what you basically have is a ten- or fifteen-meter ramp leading from the tarmac to the plane. (Of course, with jet ways, this doesn't apply.)

Your ability level then becomes the second factor. For jet ways, those who can walk with difficulty or short distances may be able to go from their wheelchair directly to their seats. However, I belong to the category that isn't able to do that. In that case, something called an "aisle chair" is needed.

An airplane aisle chair (my nickname for it: "Hannibal Lector chair").

To board the plane, I must transfer from my wheelchair to this aisle chair. At this point, it is best to grab any loose parts from my wheelchair (such as the cushion or side guards) because this is the time when they will take your wheelchair away to be stowed in the cargo hold. Also, if you have limited sensation in your lower body, sitting on your wheelchair cushion during the flight may be a good idea anyway. (For those who don't know, we sit on wheelchair cushions to distribute pressure and reduce chances of pressure sores.)

The aisle chair is designed to be narrow enough to fit through the aisles of the plane, which are much narrower than conventional aisles on trains and buses. The user is strapped in like Hannibal Lector, which is why I nicknamed it the "Hannibal Lector chair." Even those with good trunk balance may need it because assistance from airport crew is required to use the chair, and the ride can be a bit bumpy/rough: it is not possible to use it on your own. As someone who likes his independence, this was one of those times when you have to "suck it up" and accept assistance from others.

The plane I had was a regional plane so the aisles were narrower than larger international planes. Because of that, I had to tuck my arms in like a mummy. This is a good precaution to take regardless of which plane you get. The aisle chair will be rolled to your seat, where you can transfer onto it.

When you get off the plane, it is the opposite procedure.

With that said, air travel does tend to have drawbacks for wheelchair users. One big issue for some people I know is the potential for your wheelchair to get damaged. Some people recommend taking photos of your wheelchair before you travel in case something does happen.

Another issue is that if your ability level is a concern, you will need to communicate very directly to the airport crew, especially during the aisle chair process. Leave no room for mistakes.

Also, for longer flights, those who cannot walk independently may have to refrain from drinking too much. While some planes have aisle chairs on board, others may not. The bathroom itself may not be accessible (or not as accessible as you need it to be). Dehydration is not a good thing but in this case it may be slightly necessary.

That is more or less all I can think of for airplane travel as a wheelchair user. I am sure there are other points that I am missing but I will add those later as I come across them.


UPDATE: Here is an example of what can go wrong during this process.

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