The Accessibility Factor: Air Travel From a Wheelchair User’s Perspective


    Illustration: Francisco Javier Olea

    APEX Insight: Passengers have plenty to complain about when it comes to air travel: queues, delays, mishandled baggage. But for those with reduced mobility, there’s a whole other set of challenges. Mary Doyle of Rocket Girl Coaching writes about her experience as a traveler with a wheelchair.

    As a frequent flyer, airport enthusiast and wheelchair user, I have many stories about the care I’ve received from airline staff over the last 20 years. Mostly good, sometimes exceptional and occasionally so poor I was reduced to tears in public, which doesn’t happen often. The best advice I have to offer is to treat me as a human first, a valuable passenger second and, lastly, as a disabled person.

    Disabled travelers are required to report to check-in well in advance of those without disabilities. We must follow a different process, which includes being shuffled via lifts and through corridors not open to the general public and security pat downs that are at best embarrassing, and entail vastly more personal contact than is comfortable in public or behind a screen.

    “If there is any doubt about what a passenger requires, may I suggest just asking.”

    If there is any doubt about what a passenger requires, may I suggest just asking. They may have a personal assistant (PA) with them who may respond on their behalf. A polite question can remove any misunderstanding or awkwardness, and avoid airline and airport employees having to make assumptions about a passenger’s physical or mental ability.

    Before boarding, disabled travelers are required report to passenger service teams at different times, while our peers are in duty-free or dining in an airport restaurant to kick off their holiday experience.

    The boarding of passengers with restricted mobility should happen first, but I am frequently last, through no fault of my own. The change of order means I have to do the “walk of shame” via the aisle transfer chair (a wheelchair made to fit the narrow airplane aisle) in front of hundreds of fellow passengers, some of whom can be disrespectful – as if I were responsible for causing a delay.

    When I’m boarding, I’m thinking about a lot of things in parallel, including the manual handling skills of the staff; the safety and comfort of the aisle chair; and, following the discussion with the chief purser, the location of my expensive, customized wheelchair – usually a combination of overhead bins for its 24-inch carbon fiber wheels and in a closet or the cargo hold for its titanium frame. I’m also keeping track of my carry-on and cushion, and any relatives accompanying me who are not themselves frequent flyers and haven’t before witnessed how strange traveling can be for me.

    “By taking a window seat, I have an amazing view, which is 90 percent of the fun – the other
    10 percent is talking to the other passengers.”

    Once I am in my seat and on my own cushion, which helps to avoid dreaded pressure sores, I usually ask the cabin crew to confirm that my wheelchair definitely made it on board. If they are able to confirm that it has, I may be able to relax a bit. Sometimes I am able to see its frame going into the cargo hold by keeping a close watch out the window.

    My preference is a window seat, although the check-in staff will automatically override that seat selection if
    I allow it. By taking a window seat, I have an amazing view, which is 90 percent of the fun – the other
    10 percent is talking to the other passengers. Sitting by the window ensures that my neighbors needn’t straddle me to exit the row to go to the lavatory. They usually don’t know I cannot stand to allow them out and often we will not have a common language, so the window seat avoids that conversation for me.

    If I have to use the lavatory mid-flight, which I try to avoid, a cabin crewmember will arrive with the aisle chair, making it apparent to my seatmates that I need assistance. At this point, they’ll usually willingly move to allow me to exit. It can be hugely awkward if those passengers are sleeping and I have to go urgently, but it’s a chance I take by limiting my fluids and using prescribed medication. I will have eaten in an airport restaurant known to me, if possible (time permitting),
    as it is unlikely I will eat the airline meal, in case my stomach suffers an upset and I have to visit the lavatory at high speed via the aisle chair.

    If the crew is polite and responsive to my needs, and there are no additional obstacles, the flight is considered a success. Most onboard staff I have met have been top class.

    On landing, it is protocol for the majority of passengers to disembark first, and those with restricted mobility to await the empty aircraft so passenger services can board and assist us. This part of the journey often takes the most time, and the waiting can be tense due to the unknown outcome ahead. Waiting for the passenger service bus with the lift can take much longer than expected, especially if one of the vehicles is on the other side of the terminal or out of service.

    Frequently, we will then board a bus to take us to the terminal. Hopefully, on the bus, I can transfer back into my wheelchair – it is an awful feeling to learn it has gone to the baggage carousel. If reunited with my chair, I check if there is any obvious damage, but the better test is when I am back in the terminal and rolling. At that point, I will do a quick assessment to confirm it is in the condition I handed it over in. Only once I am at my final destination and have used the wheelchair for a day or two will I be fairly certain that it is in good shape.

    Even with everything I have noted above, flying is still a joy to me – the adventure, the freedom, the random in-flight conversations. And it is completely enhanced by the quality of the staff engagements I have in airport terminals and airplane cabins. The care shown and the service received will impact my mood for the day and the rest of my trip, and that is priceless.

    “Human First” was originally published in the 7.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.