Working my way up to flying, with my wheelchair in tow

By Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


Since becoming a paraplegic 10 years ago, I have overcome challenges.


I can dress myself, bathe myself, drive my van to the market and write this weekly column.


There is, however, one challenge I haven’t tackled yet: I haven’t taken a plane trip.


Until recently, I haven’t really had the urge.


Perhaps that is because I was able to travel a fair amount before my disorder left me wheelchair- bound. I was already weary from the hassle of long lines, security checks, baggage fees and lost luggage.


Add the pandemic and unruly passengers, and I could only imagine what air travel would be like in a wheelchair.


But I am getting a bit of wanderlust. I have done some research and now have an idea of what taking a plane in a wheelchair might entail.


The first step would be to know my rights.


The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to airlines, but Congress has passed the Air Carrier Access Act.


Under the ACA, all domestic and international flights with the U.S. as its destination or origination are required to provide certain accommodations free of charge to people with disabilities in a way consistent with providing safe travel for all passengers.


That means, for instance, that airlines may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of a disability, may not limit the number of persons with a disability on a flight, may not require a disabled person to travel with another person and must provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections.


When planning a flight, it is advised that I give the airline 48-hours notice that I will need assistance, probably in the form of a smaller aisle chair that fits in the plane’s aisles. I could use the smaller chair to board and deboard the plane and use the lavatory, if there is an accessible one.


Finding the right seat when making a reservation is crucial. There are, however, no perfect seats.


A bulkhead seat seems an obvious choice. But there is a problem. Bulkhead seats provide the leg room I would need, but the armrests typically don’t move. Not all disabled passengers can climb over the armrest into the seat.


It then becomes a choice: A window seat or an aisle seat somewhere else? No matter the choice, somebody will be disrupting somebody else to get in or out.


Given a choice, I would take the bulkhead seat, figuring I could climb over the armrests. I would rather do that than climb over passengers from my window seat or have a passenger climb over me to get out.


That brings us to travel day and security.


Passengers who can’t walk or stand aren’t required to go through the metal detector. That’s me.


I would, however, be expecting to be screened by way of a pat-down and my personal wheelchair inspected. The chair would also be tested for explosives and any removable pouches would undergo X-ray screening.


Hopefully, once I got through security and had my boarding pass scanned, the smaller aisle chair would be awaiting at the gate. I would transfer into the smaller chair and use it to board the plane.


What would happen to my personal chair?


Some wheelchairs are small enough that they can be stored in a closet on the plane, but mine and most others, including power chairs, would be put in the cargo area.


I would make it very clear that I expected my personal manual wheelchair to be at the gate when I arrived at my destination. What could be worse than arriving at my destination without my wheelchair?


Unfortunately, airlines have a terrible track record when it comes to wheelchairs.


Near the end of 2018, U.S. carriers had to start reporting the number of wheelchairs and scooters that were mishandled.


In a little more than two and a half years, airlines damaged or lost 15,749 wheelchairs and scooters, according to the Department of Transportation.


There is one obstacle that may keep me from flying.


U.S. law only requires airlines to provide an accessible toilet on wide-body airplanes with dual aisles. While some airlines have installed accessible lavatories on narrow-body planes, disabled travelers can’t count on one.


So, what to do? Some people avoid drinking before the flight. Some plan on “holding it.” Others catheterize and use a leg bag.


What would I do? I am not telling. Some things are private.


(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)