Flying Limitless: Part 1By Ruth Cheesley -
I travel a lot for my business both within Europe and further afield. Since I started using a wheelchair a couple of years ago, I’ve learned a lot about travelling by air independently (I do not have carers, and it is very rare that I travel with others). Here's some of what I've learned...
This is my own personal opinion. Some people might have had different experiences but this is my experience, based on about 86,000 air miles over 35 flights and 21 airports (being a geek, I use technology to track these kind of stats - http://www.jetlovers.com/profile/6662/).
The opinion differs widely on whether to fly with the same airline or go with the cheapest. In the early days I would fly with whoever, but it was really challenging. Each airline does things differently; they have different systems and different aircraft. I made the decision about a year ago to only fly British Airways, unless there were very significant reasons (e.g. I can’t get to the destination with BA).
The difference this has made is quite significant. I know the process, I know which tags need to go where on my wheelchair, baggage, and so forth. I know their allowances, and I know which aircraft can take my Trekinetic wheelchair without any folding, and on which ones I need to partially fold it down to fit in the hold (the smaller European aircraft, generally!).
I also know the lingo - my wheelchair has to go ‘to and from the aircraft door’ and gets stored ‘in a container in hold 5 (usually)’. BA have a very generous baggage allowance, even in economy (one 23kg bag, plus two ‘mobility allowance’ items which might be wheelchairs/wheels/crutches or could simply be checking in one of your cabin bags if you don’t need it). They are generally extremely helpful in-flight and generally the staff are aware of disability issues.
I should say that I do walk with sticks, so I do not have the experience of using an aisle chair or using the bathrooms without assistance.
If you’re travelling independently, there is a responsibility of the airport to provide support during your journey. This often does NOT include support from your drop-off point to the accessibility desk/bag drop. Heathrow Terminal 5 is particularly awkward for this and my driver often gets infuriated with the unhelpful porters who will not help you into the terminal because it’s ‘not their job, that’s the accessibility team’s job’ - and the accessibility team say it’s the porter’s job. I've given up arguing the toss on that one!
I’ve learned that I need to be able to physically carry my luggage on my person while wheeling - so I invested in a waterproof Overboard holdall (http://www.over-board.co.uk/adventure-duffel-bag-90-litres.html). It has detachable shoulder straps but more importantly a long strap which I put around my back, with the bag resting on my lap. I can then still wheel myself, although visibility is somewhat challenging!
I take a rucksack with everything I need for the flight (hangs off the back of my chair) and my sticks. My laptop sits on my lap in my Trabasack laptop bag (http://www.wheelchairlaptrays.com/) – hands down the best invention I have come across as it also acts as a table when I’m in my chair.