By Javier Robles
If you’ re a person with a disability and really love to travel you may already know that traveling by airplane can be both frustrating and humbling. This is especially true in today’ s security climate. If you have not traveled on a plane before and have a disability, especially a physical one, we hope this article will give you the tools you need to travel from point A to point B without too much hassle.
In this article we will tell you 7 things you must do to ensure a comfortable and hopefully stress-free itinerary.
While destination is important for the purposes of this article we will only concentrate on airport-to-airport traveling. Meaning that we will talk you through what happens when you get from one airport to the other. In future articles we will talk about the destinations that we believe are accessible and enjoyable for people in the disability community.
If you have a disability and need assistance at the airport or getting onto the plane (boarding) then the time to ask for the assistance is during the ticketing process. Many people believe that they can wait to get to the airport to request any assistance that they may need. However, we are taking an unnecessary risk of missing their flight. Airport personnel may not be equipped or staffed to handle every need that arises in the moment. Therefore, avoid unnecessary headaches by requesting from the airlines directly; the assistance you may need. For example, a person in a wheelchair that has limited mobility and is unable to self-transfer, may need airport personnel to transfer them to a straight back wheelchair, wheel them onto the plane, and transfer them into the airplane seat. In many instances this may take 2 or 3 people to accomplish, depending on how much assistance the individual with a disability can lend. If the person is blind or visually impaired, they may need assistance navigating through the airport and onto the airplane. This may require the use of an individual to guide them while navigating the building.
Make sure the ticket agent is aware if you are traveling in a wheelchair or scooter. All wheelchairs and scooters that are not stow able on board will be stowed underneath in the baggage compartment of the airplane. You will receive a ticket either from the gate agent or the ticket agent. One part of the ticket is attached to your wheelchair the other one you keep.
Inform the ticket agent if you will be traveling with a service animal and any special needs you will have on the plane. This includes, dietary restrictions, as well as special meals for religious reasons.
One of the most important things and one of the things least thought about during the travel experience is packing. If one is not organized during the packing stage of the trip the, odds are things will be forgotten or there will be a hefty price tag at the ticket counter for all the unnecessary things you're bringing.
Today many of the major airlines charge you for bringing one bag, 2 bags, or more. Some are starting to charge if you bring on more than one carry-on into the plane with you. Therefore, if you are on a budget it is extremely important that you pack light.
What to bring?
As people with disabilities there are things both medical and not that we use every single day. These are the things that are top-level on our packing list. For example, a quadriplegic may use splints, special utensils, straws or seating cushions. Another individual, may use, special skin cream, medications, or a CPAP machine. These are things that the individual must have in order to be comfortable and safe when vacationing.
As vacationers with disabilities you'll bring things depending on the location you're traveling to. Therefore if you're going on a ski trip, you want to pack warm clothing, ski equipment, gloves socks etc. However, if you're going on a Caribbean vacation, you want to pack light clothing, such as shorts, short sleeve shirts, suntan lotion (this will not be allowed in your carry-on pack with your bags) and comfortable shoes.
Many people today do not leave home without a multitude of electronic devices such as iPhone's, iPad's, tablets etc. While these may be important in your day-to-day activities, ask yourself, "Do I need this electronic device with me during vacation?” If the answer is no, then is it is safer to keep them at home. You should of course carry at least one cell phone with you in Case Of Emergency.
What not to bring!
This is as important as anything you will put on your packing list: the temptation to bring a pair of shoes for every outfit, matching sunglasses for every T-shirt or cologne and perfume for every occasion can be high. Bringing these things with you can also be costly. The more things you bring the more that your suitcases will weigh and the more you will be charged by airlines struggling to get every nickel and dime from you. Therefore, think like a hiker, if you do not need it, do not bring it!
3. Getting to the Airport
Today planes run on tight deadlines. Although, you may have heard stories of planes sitting on the tarmac for hours, rest assured that a majority of them board on time and leave the gate when they say they will (does not guarantee take-off time). Therefore it is imperative, that you arrive at the airport at least 2 hours ahead of flight time for national fights and 3 hours for international. If you use public transportation, Para transit systems, or have to call ahead of time to arrange for a trip, schedule your trip way in advance of your trip to the airport. The same rule applies when you land back at your home airport. Remember this is extremely important, especially if you need transfer assistance through the airport or help getting onto the airplane (transfer). If you drive again give yourself time with traffic, and remember to check out the airports website or information line concerning handicap parking, reduce rates, or links from parking decks to airport terminals. Most airport websites have sections that discuss airport accessibility, parking, assistance, and rules and regulations.
4. What Do I Do at the Airport?
Many airports are massive in size to say the least. Some are so big that they have monorails that take you from the ticket counters to the terminal such as Orlando and Las Vegas. If you are a first-time traveler and have a disability or traveling with someone with a disability please give yourself plenty of time to get through the airport to your terminal.
If you are traveling alone and need assistance getting to the gate immediately tell the ticket agent at your airline that you will need help getting to the gate. If you need help once you are at the gate transferring from your wheelchair to and aisle (straight back) chair inform the ticket agent that you will need physical assistance transferring so that they can ensure that personnel are available at the gate for you. Also alert the ticket agent if you will need assistance at the security checkpoint, which may include removing your shoes, your bags and carry-on etc. Although, they may have put this request in the system when you initially booked your tickets, do not depend on ticket agents or airport personnel to know or anticipate your needs. You must be your own best advocate.
When you check your suitcase make sure that things, which could easily break, are well packed or are taken with you as part of your carry-on luggage. This may include such things as, CPAP machines, glucose monitors, computers, cameras, etc. Remember, you will want to place any liquid medications in your suitcase at this time. Airport security can and will throw out any liquids which exceed their minimum requirements, yes even medication. When in doubt put in your suitcase not your carry-on, or you may lose it.
At this point if you have or are thinking of buying beverages such as water, sodas, juice be aware that they must be consumed before you get to the security check. Many airports offer beverages and eating facilities immediately after the security check. Therefore, our suggestion is that you buy food and beverages after going through security. Security will confiscate and throw out these beverages at the security point.
5. What to Expect the Security Checkpoint
For many travelers with a disability the security checkpoint can be very stressful and confusing. If you are ambulatory then you will go through the same processes most travelers do. You will be asked to empty your pockets all contents, take off your shoes, and store any bags, cameras, and computers in the conveyor belt which runs the items through a scanner viewable by security personnel. You will be asked to walk-through the metal detector and pick up your belongings on the other side if you are cleared.
If you use a wheelchair or have a mobility issue your belongings including bags, computers cameras etc. and shoes will be run to the conveyor belt and scanned. You can ask for your bags to be hand checked if there's sensitive or expensive equipment in them. Note. You may be required to have a doctor’s note for such things as, CPAP machines, or other medical apparatus. Security personnel will ask you to join them in an open area where they will use their hands to pat you down if you are unable to stand. They may also use a hand metal detector called a wand to scan you for contraband. Most of the searches are thorough and other passengers we'll see you being searched. If you feel uncomfortable at any moment or even before the search starts you may ask personnel to conduct the search in private. There are rooms adjacent to search area or in some cases curtains provide privacy. Airport personnel will swab your wheelchair or scooter for chemical explosives. This usually means that cotton like pad is rubbed on different parts of your wheelchair or scooter and then fed into a machine for analyses; the machine looks for explosive residues or compounds. Once you wheelchair and person have been thoroughly searched you may retrieve your items from the conveyor belt including shoes and belts and head to the gate. Note: This process can be time consuming!
Note on service animals:
If you use a service animal, your service animal must remain under your control and will be patted down or a wand may be used. In addition, if you service animal wears a uniform this may be run through the scanner and then replaced on the animal.
It is important that you remain calm through this experience. Plan on cooperating fully with airport personnel as they are only doing their job to keep us safe.
6. Waiting at the Gate
While waiting at the gate you will find that there a number of restaurants and fast food places, including, coffee shops like Starbucks and franchise restaurants like McDonald's. Many people find it better to purchase their food and bring it on the plane as it may be cheaper and sometimes the quality may be better.
When you arrive at your gate, alert the gate agent of any special requirements you may have, such as, needing assistance to board the plane: or needing a guide to show you to your seat. If you need to be transferred out of your wheelchair or scooter be specific with the agent as to what you need. For the most part if you are an individual that needs assistance such as a straight back so you will be boarded 1st. For example, if you are a 230 pound six-foot male and are in a power wheelchair and unable to assist in a transfer you will need:
- Two to three very strong and tall individuals to transfer you from your wheelchair to a straight back or aisle chair and roll the straight back through the plane to your seat. Once there, they will need to lift you from the straight back into your seat. This is sometimes easier when individual selects an aisle seat and the aisle seat handle can lift out of the way. This is usually not the case on older planes.
-Someone will have to take your wheelchair, tag it with the right papers, and store it with the luggage underneath the plane. You may want to remove and store any loose or breakable parts from your mobility device. Including, head rest, foot pedals, cup holders, etc.
*A Note about Seating: As you may know or have heard airline seats can be small, tight and uncomfortable for someone with a disability to spend numerous hours. It is also, an excellent way to end up with a pressure sore if one is not careful. We suggest, wearing comfortable and breathable clothing. If you use a wheelchair cushion specially made to prevent pressure sores consider using it on the airplane seat. Do be careful that the cushion not buckle or fold-in as this may also cause pressure sores. Some people use a board under the cushion to keep the cushion flat; similar to the way you would have it on your wheelchair. Although difficult for some people weight shifts are critical to maintaining proper circulation and avoiding skin breakdowns, try shifting your weight often.
Restrooms: Unless you are ambulatory using restrooms is very difficult on any airline. We recommend very light drinking!
7. What to Do When You Arrive at Your Destination
When you get to your destination you will be the last to leave the aircraft if you are not ambulatory. Make sure that the flight attendant knows you will need your wheelchair brought to the gate before you unload. Note: airport personnel will try to get you to get off your seat and wait in either an old wheelchair or straight back chair. Both of these options are uncomfortable and depending on your weight could cause pressure sores. Therefore, inform the flight crew that you will wait in the airplane seat until your chair has arrived at the gate. While this often gets them to move quicker since they have to clean and board the plane, you may still have to wait a bit for your wheelchair to arrive. Make sure that you request exactly what you need, if at anytime you feel uncomfortable with the personnel that has been provided to you ask for a supervisor. Explain to the supervisor exactly what you requested. Have them there until you're transferred and on your way. Do not be shy about making a request that will keep you and your equipment safe. When you arrive after being transferred to the aisle chair make sure that you inspect your wheelchair or scooter for missing parts, broken wires, dents and scratches. If you find any such thing inform the supervisor and have them make a written report. If your equipment is damaged the airline should pay to have it fixed. At this point you should have prearranged for transportation if you cannot use a regular cab or commuter type bus. Many cities now offer accessible wheelchair cabs, such as Las Vegas, Austin and in some cases Orlando. Do not assume that there will be will chair accessible transportation when you arrive. If you need this type of transportation research the Internet and call ahead to make arrangements. There are also options such as wheelchair accessible buses within and around airports that may get you to your final destination.
Enjoy Your Trip!