Once upon a time, a Fairy God Mother pulled up to the Delta departure gate in a pumpkin-colored chariot to deliver Prince Charming and Cinderella to their first adventure in the sky. The crowds gathered around as they watched pumpkin’s drawbridge lower down where Cinderella exited her chariot in her magical high-speed fancy set of wheels. Cinderella’s God Mother pushed out yet another set of wheels behind her that she created for Cinderella’s journey, which would allow her to fly with the greatest of ease. This simple yet elegant set of wheels may have seemed ordinary to a passerby, but they would allow Cinderella to fly the great skies knowing that the small foldable chariot could fit into the cabin so as not to be crushed by the big bad airlines.
Cinderella’s Fairy God Mother placed both sets of wheels right next to each other as Prince Charming gracefully lifted Cinderella from her motorized Mercedes-Benz of chariots to her simple and reliable, yet humble, manual chariot. As onlookers watched Prince Charming dance around the many obstacles in his way with his love in his arms, he looked as though he was in the midst of a delicately choreographed waltz. Once Cinderella was safely secured her Fairy Godmother kissed them both goodbye and drove off into the sunset as Prince Charming & Cinderella were about to embark on the beginning of a new journey high in the sky. Little did they know their journey would be met with fire-breathing airline dragons and fraught other seemingly insurmountable challenges, but as long as they had each other they would overcome whatever stood in their way!
If only air travel for a complete C6 quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down were so easy! Since my accident nearly 8 years ago I have flown a handful of times. Most of my flying expeditions consisted of me moving across the world to China back in 2013, which involved flying an aircraft for over 15 hours at a time. Back then flying seemed incredibly daunting, but I always had a village of the family to help me along the way. I had never flown with just one other person before.
When I flew to China I took my power chair and manual wheelchair on the plane. I would take my manual chair in the airport and I would check in my power chair, which I had my uncle devise the most incredible way to break down my power wheelchair so the airlines would not break my power wheelchair as many wheelchair folks are all too familiar with. For such a long journey I did fly business class years ago because I’m extremely prone to pulmonary embolism’s and being in a plane for over 15 hours my family and I was not willing to take that chance of injuring me before arriving at my destination. So, my only experience with flying was pretty much in business class, which is not realistic for long-term air travel because the business class is definitely not affordable!
When I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from China back in 2015 I was hesitant to ever fly again. I knew that I would not always have an army of family members to help me fly from here to there as life went on. When my boyfriend and I became serious I knew that we would want to start traveling one day, but I kept pushing off the thought of flying together. Frankly, I was just so nervous at the thought of only one person being able to help me in the airport. I have read dozens of blogs from fellow wheelchair users on flying, but nothing can really prepare you for your own journey as every spinal cord injured person is so different, and has different needs. I was armed with as much information as I could and the time came to finally take a leap of faith, and go for it.
Several weeks ago I told my boyfriend that one day I really wanted to go explore Costa Rica, but I needed to take an experimental flight to see how the two of us would do together. I have read too many stories on power wheelchairs being broken by the airlines and I certainly did not want to fly with two chairs, and only one person to assist me. So, I was going to have to take only my manual chair with me, which I designed years ago. I had no desire to take my power wheelchair in case the airline damaged my chair, which would have left me in quite a bind indeed. My manual wheelchair is foldable and according to the Access Carrier Act, airlines are required to stow a foldable manual wheelchair directly into the cabin even if they have to kick other passengers off! I can only imagine the outrage that would’ve caused the passengers who would’ve been kicked off the flight.
“If an airline has chosen not to install the wheelchair closet required by the ACAA, it must secure manual wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin using the seat-strapping method.
The seat-strapping method is a way of tying down a folding wheelchair to a row of seats on the airplane. Seat-strapping is permitted and allows carriers to forgo installation of the large wheelchair closet.
However, when an airline makes this decision, it must accommodate a passenger’s wheelchair in the cabin by strapping it to a row of seats. The airline is obligated to do this, even if the flight is fully booked. Passengers displaced as a result of their seats being used to secure a wheelchair are entitled to denied boarding compensation as outlined in 14 CFR Part 250.
As a result of these requirements, most carriers do provide the wheelchair closet onboard.”
The major challenge for me, in particular, is that when I had my second spinal surgery in China in 2013 to save my life it left me with severe chronic neck pain, which is exacerbated by sitting in a manual chair at a certain angle for more than eight hours at a time. Needless-to-say I was not particularly thrilled at the idea of spending several days with only my manual wheelchair. I did not let this deter me though and I proceeded to look at flights, and decided to take a four day weekend to go visit one of my best friends in Orlando, Florida. This would involve a two-hour plane ride and I would be able to go to my best friend’s house where I had supplies sent so I could pack light. This would also give me the peace of mind knowing exactly what kind of mattress I would be sleeping on in order to prevent pressure sores, having the support in case things went sideways, etc. Let’s call this trip a controlled experiment.
I read many reviews on different airlines and I decided upon Delta Airlines. I was looking at prices and I knew I wanted to fly economy because if I wanted to travel in the future saving money for business class would take away from money I could spend on adventures to wherever we would be flying to. However, I decided to take baby steps. I sprung for an extra $100-$200 and upgraded to Delta Comfort. Delta Comfort Class is essentially Economy Plus. This gives you a few extra inches of legroom, which I thought for our first mission would be appropriate considering that I needed the extra room for my knees because I am so tall.
As our journey approached I printed out my detailed packing list, chopped it in half, and tried to fly as light as I possibly could. Thankfully when you fly with any airline you do get one medical suitcase free, but since I did send medical supplies down to my best friend I was able to pack pretty light this time – not an easy feat for me!
I booked a flight at a reasonable time of day so as to give me enough time to get to the airport, check-in, and not have to get up at the crack of dawn. My mother drove my boyfriend and me to the airport in my van where I was still in my power wheelchair. When we got out of the van I had my boyfriend lift me “oh so” elegantly from one chair to the next and I could see folks around us watch in amazement how easily he lifted me up. I did feel like a princess!
I was now in my manual chair and ready to roll so to speak. I have a pretty serious shoulder injury that doesn’t allow me to push much in a manual chair because every time I do I slightly dislocate my shoulder, which is why I do not use a manual chair on a regular basis either. So, we had two suitcases that my boyfriend had to push on top of me. All I could think was how much work he was going to have to do over the next few days, which made me tremendously nervous too because so many of us in wheelchairs sometimes forget how much our loved ones do for us in addition to how exhausted they get as well.
Oh TSA … I only recently learned about Pre-TSA checks, which I will definitely look into so you can skip all of the “fondling” part of the security check. There was a long wheelchair line, which I found utterly amusing because once these wheelchair users got to the point where they needed to go through the x-ray machine they just got up and walked through 🙂 When many of them walked through the other side of the screening x-ray machine they continued to walk to their gate. I’m sure many of them just wanted to cut the long line!
When my turn came up they wheeled me to a different section since I could not get out of my wheelchair and fit through the x-ray machine. I had been through this before, but I’d forgotten how “Hansie” they get. The TSA agent gave me a long speech about exactly how she was going to pat me down or rather fondle me 🙂 I’m a pretty relaxed person, so I was just going with the flow. I tried to explain to her that I am paralyzed from the chest down and that if she pushes me forward to get behind my back I was going to fall forward. I don’t quite think she heard me correctly because she proceeded to do exactly what I told her not to. Fortunately my boyfriend caught me, but naturally, there was no apology from her. I still try not to sweat the small stuff. It took about 10 minutes of patting me down, pulling my shirt up (and not pulling it back down by the way), moving my legs, swiping my chair for any type of bomb residue, etc. When she was done with me I looked like a discombobulated mess. My boyfriend had to bring me into a corner to pull my pant legs down, pull my shirt down, sit me back properly my chair, etc. It’s a good thing that I’m not shy or embarrassed because we were definitely putting on a show!
Next up … Boarding time. I am intimately familiar with how to board an aircraft from my previous flights, but I was definitely not looking forward to it. For those of you who have not flown before the airlines have this teeny tiny little chair, which is really made for someone who is about 100lbs, that you have to transfer into in order for them to roll you down the aircraft aisle & into your seat.
Honestly, many may disagree with my opinion, but flying in a wheelchair is completely undignified. I think you absolutely must have a sense of humor because you can get injured at the drop of a hat, you are gawked at by employees, passengers, etc. I asked the lady at the terminal to please bring this teeny tiny chair prior to boarding so I could transfer into the chair safely and fold up my manual chair, tie it down, and get it ready for the aircraft. Usually, they roll you and your wheelchair down to the door of the plane before transferring you into this teeny tiny chair, and then you only have a few moments to quickly collapse your manual wheelchair or power wheelchair before boarding the plane. I find this can cause one to rush and not properly secure your wheelchair before it is either stowed with the other luggage or put in the plane because everyone is looking at you to hurry up. I did not want this to happen.
Thankfully, the boarding agent acquiesced to my request and brought out the little airline aisle chair 20 minutes before even early boarding started. I had two airline attendants that were assigned to help me. On the way to Orlando they were great and on the way back they were utterly useless. I don’t think you can really expect these folks to be properly trained with how to deal with someone paralyzed from the chest down … there simply is just not enough training by the airlines. Anyway I told the guys to stand back and let my boyfriend lift me into this little chair and they could help strap me down. While my boyfriend was breaking down my foldable manual chair I had the two airline attendant guys strap in my thighs, put a chest harness on me, and I was ready to go. I was sitting there watching all of the passengers on the plane curiously watch this delicate dance of chair transfers with amazement.
The time came to finally board the plane. On most planes when you enter the aircraft you have to have two guys physically lift you into the plane from the boarding gate because there is a large lip to physically get into the plane. I can’t for the life of me think of how one would fit into this teeny tiny wheelchair if they were significantly overweight in a wheelchair… Truly. Again, when you enter most planes the aircraft is one straight line down the aisle to your chair. I happen to be on a Boeing 717, which I DO not RECOMMEND for anyone in a wheelchair. There is a slight zigzag in the aisle, which my chair got caught on. They literally had to lift my chair with me in it to get to my seat down the aisle. We just made it, but we did. I then had to put my wheelchair cushion on the airline seat, which I know some people in wheelchairs don’t do, but due to my serious history of pressure sores, I was not willing to take that chance. Once I was lifted into my chair and was sitting properly I was like a bobble head because I was sitting so much higher on the chair due to my cushion. I will tell you it is not remotely comfortable, but at least I was in the seat.
Thank God that I purchased an economy plus seat because my knees were still almost hitting the tray table and my feet were definitely dangling. I had to use my boyfriend’s backpack to prop my feet up so they wouldn’t dangle and create pressure points under my thighs. The airline attendant tried to tell me that I could not put the backpack under my feet and I had to stow it under the tray table, but I looked at her and very politely said “Nope. That will not work for me. I’m going to leave the backpack right where it is. I appreciate the suggestion though.” They didn’t argue with me 🙂 The next challenge we ran into was that my knees were flailing all over the place and thankfully I brought some stretchy bands with me so I could tie my knees together so the passengers coming into the plane would knock my legs with their luggage.
Finally I was all set up, extremely uncomfortable, and definitely wishing I had saved up money for business class even though I knew it was just a pipe dream. When we were finally up to cruising altitude the flight was going as smoothly as any flight can, but the mere position of how I was sitting was so incredibly uncomfortable. I cannot imagine taking a flight for any more than four hours unless in business class in my particular circumstance because by the time we landed I felt like I had little knife blades slicing open the back of my neck. Despite being uncomfortable we laughed, played games, took a little snooze, drank some tomato juice, and giggled together over the absurdity of flying with a wheelchair.
Once we landed we ran into an incredibly interesting and horrifying problem. The aisle airplane seat in Orlando was too big to fit in the aircraft. It could not get past a little zigzag on the aisle, and the staff started to panic. I suppose I could’ve waited there for an undisclosed amount of time until they found a smaller chair around the airport, held up the next flight, etc., but I really just wanted to get the hell off the plane. So, I told everybody to calm down and that my boyfriend was going to lift me under my arms from behind and one of the guys assigned to help me out of the plane was going to grab my feet. They were literally going to fireman me out of the plane. I wish I had a picture of this, but I was literally carried in the air down 15 rows and out of the airplane with everybody watching in complete horror wondering if this poor girl in a wheelchair would be dropped on her ass. More likely they were probably thinking the lawsuit in the back of their mind 😉
We made it work, but I can imagine many folks in my situation would not have been very pleased. I’m not sure if we were sitting 20 rows back what we would’ve done because I don’t think I’ve could have been carried that long in that position. When I got out of the plane my boyfriend made quick work of putting my chair back together and getting me seated. We survived!
I’m not going to go into the journey on the way back, but we ran into similar challenges with the exception that in Orlando they finally did find a smaller aisle chair to get me into that awful little plane on the way back.
AIRLINE TRAVEL CONCLUSION:
Well … Frankly, flying is just not fun for me. With that said I suppose you have to look at it like this … Can you suck up the indignity, the pain in the ass, the uncomfortableness, and the challenges of a few hour flights to get to an incredible destination? If you can, well, then you just have to grin and bear it with a little bit of dark humor 🙂 For those of you who know me, I thrive on dark humor! I don’t know what is like to fly as a paraplegic who can do a lot of transferring themselves, but as a complete C6 quadriplegic flying is just not fun unless you probably have your own private jet.
Everyone with a spinal cord injury is completely different and I can only tell you about my personal perspective, but I will say that you have to be very methodical and make a plan of attack for everything that could go wrong that you can think of. What happens if your chair breaks? Do you have a backup plan? Are you flying to a foreign country, and if so, what happens if you are injured along the way? What about your chair? Perhaps finding and contacting a durable medical supply equipment in the city you are flying to in case your chair breaks is not a bad idea for a backup plan. What about if you get a pressure sore in the airplane? Is there a nearby hotel you can hang out for a few days to recover? The list is endless, but I definitely made a long list of things that could go wrong, which I was prepared for. I just wasn’t prepared to be fireman lifted out of a plane, which I will be for next time. It made a great story though and I live life for the stories 😉
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