Wheels on the airplane

Priority Seating blog picture of an airplane aisle chair.

An airplane aisle chair. Remind you of Hannibal Lector?

A little more than a week ago I pushed myself physically in a new — and arguably crazy — way.

Six weeks after surgery to repair the separated pelvis I sustained during the birth of my son in January, I flew to Northern Virginia and back for a meeting.

My husband had the busiest weekend of his year at the same time so he basically had to help me get out of the car at 5:30 a.m. Oct. 5 and leave so he would make it back in time for the volleyball tournament he had to run.

Airplane travel in a wheelchair taught me several lessons. First, the reason people in wheechairs have a special security line is (at least in part) because the security screening process takes more than 20 minutes even if you have no specialized equipment.

Because I am unable to stand I had to be patted down by a female TSA agent. Each of the agents I encountered was patient, kind and stuck to exactly the same script. They wear gloves, pat down outstretched arms, across the back, inside the waist band, down the front, the legs and feet. They pulled away my cushions so they could be scanned, then put them back in place as I held myself up with my arms.

Second, being the first one on the plane may sound good. But in the case of a wheelchair, it means you’re the last one off, too. Ever had a connection to make and not been able to get up to get to the next flight? Stressful! (More on that a little later.)

Here’s how it went down.

  • When it was time to board, airline transportation staff came to help me. They pushed my chair down the jet bridge just before the door to the plane.
  • My chair was lined up next to an airplane aisle chair like the one pictured here and I transferred from one to the other.  I was able to do this myself, but the staff members I encountered were obviously trained and personally careful and concerned with my well being.
  • They secured the straps over my torso and my legs.
  • Finally, they wheeled me down the aisle to my seat. In all but one case I was able to make the transfer from the aisle chair to my seat on the plane without help.

The process reminded me of a roller coaster ride. I was all harnessed in and when they tilted me back to make the transition onto the plane it was like the click-click-click-click climb up the coaster. (The power of positivity!)

A few tips:

  • If you’re ever in this situation, keep your arms in as you are being wheeled to your seat. I was advised to cross my arms over my torso, holding the opposite shoulder with each hand. This protects your elbows.
  • If your chair has loose parts (the break grips and bolt caps in my case), take them off. I had one grip and one cap that fell off while the chair was in the belly of the plane and were not recovered.
  • Don’t forget the staff knows what they’re doing but they don’t have total control.
  • If you use a transfer board, figure out a way NOT TO LEAVE IT in a restroom! I forgot mine and in the 15-20 minutes it took me to realize it, someone decided it would be useful for them. I got a heck of a workout and met three different members of the Detroit airport janitorial staff in my quest to find that plastic board to no avail. It wouldn’t have been hard to replace, but it turns out my arms are a lot stronger now and I haven’t missed it.

On my way home from the DC area, my connection was only 35 minutes. I had a very important reason to be home on time and was extremely anxious that missing my connection would mean a morning re-booking that would have been devastating.

I worked with the Delta staff to figure out which airport – Memphis or Cincinnati – would be the most likely to hold the plane for me. Apparently, four different gate agents agreed, there was no policy that required a plane to wait for a passenger who was assisted by transportation staff. Instead, each airport decides. In DC, the agents told me, they would wait. But they don’t have as many connections as others.

My ticket was changed so my transfer was in Cincinnati and the gate agent told the lead flight attendant about my concern. He assured me there was enough time built in that I would make it without a problem.

When we landed in Cincinnati about 10 minutes earlier than scheduled. I sat and waited for what seemed like forever as the plane emptied and the transportation staff came for me. In that time, the pilot himself came to talk to me. He said the pilot of my connecting flight to Kansas City was a friend of his and we was going to walk do to tell him about my situation.

Phew! Finally, I began to believe I would make the flight.

The staff got me off the plane without incident and I took off for the gate. The two men told me they needed to get another cart because their cart’s battery was dead. I had no idea how much time there was and a cart would have meant transferring out of my chair into the cart — which I could not have done on my own. No thanks, I told them. Instead, I booked it. I even used the moving side walks to save some time.

I got to the gate with time to spare, got into the aisle chair and into my seat. And about three minutes later the KU Women’s Tennis team got on the plane. They were a big enough group to merit holding the plane. And I had enough time to text my husband (and my mom) to let them know I would make it. We would get where we needed to be on time.

Check out this blog for more information about traveling on an airplane, or other forms of public transportation, with a disability: http://priorityseating.blogspot.com/2012/03/chairs-on-plane.html

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