How to Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

by Tara Wood on April 1, 2000 - 9:36am

In a perfect world, the ideal itinerary for a wheelchair user traveling by airplane goes something like this:

  • Check in at ticket counter, check in luggage, proceed to gate.
  • At boarding time, check wheelchair at gate.
  • Proceed to seat, via airline's modern, comfortable aisle chair, with any necessary assistance provided at your direction by helpful, knowledgeable airline employees.
  • Arrive at destination on time. Disembark, again via readily available aisle chair with assistance from airline employees.
  • Find wheelchair, in perfect condition, waiting at gate, along with knowledgeable, friendly airport employee to escort you to connecting flight or baggage area.

Sound like a dream? It's a plan that, when properly executed, can mean a smooth start to a business trip, vacation or other adventure.

But when one of these steps doesn't happen as planned, travelers with disabilities can experience anything from an irritating inconvenience to a humiliating disaster. Just ask Kim Leahy who, when traveling to meet with President Ronald Reagan several years ago, encountered bumps still too typical when wheelchair users fly.

Leahy of Orlando, Fla., works as a market research analyst for Disney World, and has nearly completed a master's degree in recreational studies with a specialty in commercial tourism at the University of Florida.

At the time, she was living in Michigan and received a volunteer award. She was scheduled to be honored at a luncheon with the president and tour Washington.

But Leahy, who has spinal muscular atrophy, had to get around in the nation's capital without her power wheelchair, thanks to her Northwest Airlines flight.

Check-in, boarding and everything else went fine, up to the point when Leahy checked her chair at the gate.

Then, "we looked out the window of the plane to see if we could see what was going on down there, and they literally pretty much threw it into baggage. It landed on its side," she said. A discombobulated chair, with disconnected wires everywhere, was waiting for her when she landed in Washington.

"It was unrepairable, basically. We worked for a couple of hours at the airport, and could not get it to work. The whole time we were in D.C. — four days — we could not get it to work. I was pushed everywhere, and Northwest ended up buying me a new chair," Leahy said. Leahy's experience echoes that of thousands of people with disabilities whose wheelchairs have been damaged, destroyed or lost on flights.

Although her trip singles out Northwest, no U.S. airline appears to be immune, according to federal statistics that track disability-related complaints. Add to these nightmares the scores of horror stories about encounters with insensitive, uninformed airline and airport employees, and it can be enough to keep even the most adventurous soul grounded for good.

So how can you defend against such travel disasters?

Plan, prepare, prepare some more, and double-check all your plans, said seasoned traveler Alexandria Peck Berger.

"This is hard work. Traveling when you're disabled is actual hard work, and it takes twice the planning that it normally would for somebody to just get on the plane," said Berger, who lives in Portsmouth, Va., and is a member of MDA's National Task Force on Public Awareness. Berger, who writes a syndicated newspaper column about disability-related issues, estimated that she's traveled 200,000 air miles in one year, taking business and pleasure trips all over the world. She's affected by myasthenia gravis and polymyositis. She uses a manual wheelchair and requires oxygen when she travels.

Know your rights

Before even making a reservation, any traveler with a disability should become familiar with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), Berger said.

Enacted in 1986, the ACAA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires U.S. air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. Provisions include specifics about what airlines may and may not do for passengers with disabilities, accessibility of facilities and other accommodations. (See "Air Travel Resources" for how to find a copy of the ACAA.)

Here are some of the act's highlights:

  • Air carriers may not require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling, although they may up to 48 hours' notice for certain accommodations that require preparation, such as ventilator hookup or transportation of a wheelchair.

  • "New" aircraft — planes ordered after April 5, 1990, or delivered after April 5, 1992 — with 30 or more seats must have movable aisle armrests on half the aisle seats.

  • New aircraft with 100 or more seats must have priority space for storing a passenger's folding wheelchair in the cabin.
  • Airlines are required to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections for passengers with disabilities.

  • And, a new rule passed in fall 1999 that governs the act lifted the cap on liability that airlines must pay for damage, destruction or loss of wheelchairs or assistive devices. Previously, the cap was $2,500, which didn't begin to cover some power wheelchairs. Now, airlines must replace such equipment at current cost, and provide you with an equivalent loaner while yours is being repaired or replaced.

Plan ahead

[Flying with Ease]
Airline or airport employees should be on hand to assist with transfers.

Travel plans shouldn't end with making flight reservations, Berger said. Whether you make reservations through a travel agency, with the airline itself or over the Internet, the next step is to contact the airline. When the staff person brings up your confirmed reservation (usually available 24 hours after the ticket is purchased) on the computer, you need to ask for the locator number.

The locator number will reference an area of the reservation where special notes can be made, such as whether the traveler requires extra assistance. "The locator number is very important, because you can request they put a note in the locator that says you have requested oxygen, or you are traveling with your own wheelchair and you will need assistance," Berger said. Having that information in the computer system can help you make sure all plans are in place. More important, "what that means is that if they goof, you have even more recourse against them," Berger said.

Travelers should also contact the "medical help desk" or appropriate medical person with the airline, particularly if you need supplemental oxygen. These officials will tell you about any necessary paperwork or doctors' letters you should have on hand when you travel, Berger said. Head to your computer, too. Most airlines have Web sites that outline their policies and procedures for passengers with disabilities, and some include diagrams of airplanes. This will help you select the most ideal seat in the plane, such as a roomier bulkhead seat, or a seat near the restrooms, aisle or window, etc.

The airline's medical desk should help you reserve the seat that would be the best for you, Berger said.

For seat selection, the ACAA also backs you: Carriers are required to provide bulkhead seats to passengers with service animals or immobilized legs. But if such a passenger fails to reserve a seat at least 24 hours before the flight's departure, or doesn't check in and confirm seating accommodations at least one hour before the flight departs, the air carrier isn't required to relocate another passenger to accommodate the disabled passenger's needs.

Label, label, label

As your travel day nears, Berger and Leahy advise taking some extra steps to ready your wheelchair.

"I tag every part of my wheelchair," Berger said. Labels or signs attached to the chair should include your name and address, plus directions to baggage handlers for assembly or transporting (i.e., "unlock brakes before moving" or "battery is dry cell").

Berger said she also labels any chair parts as being a part of a wheelchair. That's because once an armrest came off her wheelchair in the baggage compartment, and it was mistaken for a pipe bomb. That resulted in the evacuation of the airplane, and a lengthy delay of her flight.

Such preparation seemed to help when Leahy took a recent flight, and her chair arrived unscathed. "I printed up a sign that said, 'Please handle with care, do not handle like luggage.' Basically, I told the bag handler to please be careful and it has to stay upright," Leahy said.

Batteries for power wheelchairs are another special consideration. Airlines often remove wet cell or acid-filled batteries, handle them like hazardous materials and package them in special containers they must provide. Dry cell batteries usually don't require any special handling, but be sure to inquire about the individual airline's policy.

[Flying with Ease]
Aisle chairs are designed to get wheelchair users down the plane's narrow aisle, and into their seats.

Just in case, attach specific instructions on how the battery is to be removed and reattached, and any other pertinent information.

Berger, who used to travel with a scooter, advises having airline employees remove the handlebar and store it in the overhead bin or closet so it doesn't get damaged.

Last, before you board, if you've gate-checked your wheelchair and planned to retrieve it at the destination gate, ensure that airline employees attach a "gate delivery" tag so baggage handlers know where to deliver it.

Know the lingo

In Berger's travel experiences, knowing some key airline lingo helped her communicate most effectively when problems arose.

On board the plane, ask for the "senior flight attendant" to assist you with any special accommodations. At the airport, asking for the "duty supervisor" is the key. Also, the ACAA stipulates that airlines must make available a "complaints resolution officer" or "C.R.O." to respond to complaints from passengers. If you do encounter a problem while traveling, "make friends with the dragon," when dealing with airline employees, Berger said. "I can tell you that the best way is to smile a lot.

"When something happens that you can change with force, be assertive and flat-voiced. Don't raise your voice and don't act hysterical. Act demonstrative, and give them solutions for making things right," she said.

Final steps

Before you depart, double-check that everything possible is in place.

"Reconfirm every single specific thing you need. Don't take it for granted that everything is in the locator," Berger said. It's also worth clarifying whether an airline is sharing the flight with another carrier. When airlines partner on flights, some information can get lost, including details in the locator, something Berger has experienced mostly on international flights.

Remember that another stipulation of the ACAA is that wheelchairs, including collapsible power chairs, have priority for in-cabin storage space (including closets) over other passengers' items brought on board at the same airport. If, that is, the passenger with a disability chooses to preboard.

Translation: Get there early.

"Get there two hours before flight time, and don't be the last one at the gate, because you will be the first one on the plane," Berger said.

Although so many details and steps may sound a little daunting, frequent travelers with disabilities also share stories of flights that went especially well.

Berger said she feels baggage handlers are being more careful since the new rules about replacing wheelchairs went into effect. And Leahy's most recent flight, on Southwest Airlines, went glitch-free.

"Southwest had somebody special come up and he was working on my chair. They didn't disconnect anything. When we got to Nashville [my wheelchair] was waiting for me. It was a very, very positive experience," Leahy said.

Nevertheless, be prepared, she said.

"Ask them what their procedures are, and then follow their procedures, but then have your own itinerary," Leahy said.

Part 2 of our report on flying with a neuromuscular disease, "When Getting There Isn't Half the Fun," Quest, June 2000, describes your recourse when things go wrong during air travel; how to complain to the appropriate authorities; and what's being done to improve air travel for people with disabilities

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