Travel, and air travel in and of itself, is one of the most fascinating things in the world. The fact that you can be anywhere in the country in just a few hours, and anywhere in the world in less than a day is mesmerizing. Planes, trains, and automobiles have come a long way. However, traveling with a spinal cord injury can be so intimidating it discourages you from even trying. I’m here to tell you to face it head on.
Prior to my accident, I LOVED flying. Trips to Florida, trips to the West Coast, trips anywhere. I couldn’t get over the fact that I could wake up in my bed one morning and be somewhere completely new by the afternoon. I loved it all. Getting to the airport early, going through security, staying busy at your gate to kill time. However that all changed after I got hurt.
I spent two summers in Louisville participating in some studies at the Frazier Hospital. My parents and I drove there. 16 hours from Massachusetts. Both ways. Both summers. We also spent a week in Disney during my spring break, Junior Year. My father, cousin and I drove 12 hours to North Carolina. Spent the night. Eight hours the next day to Disney. And drove home, 21 hours straight, Orlando to Massachusetts. Sure, I always thought of how much easier it could have been, but I just wasn’t ready.
It took me 6 ½ years after my injury to get on a commercial flight again. However, come this October, it will be 3 trips in 14 months since. What made me do it? Vegas baby, Vegas. My sister wanted to celebrate her birthday out there and there is no way I was missing that trip.
What we did:
Once you figure your destination, it’s time to do some research. Start looking at flights as early as you can. Reach out to the airline you will be flying with. Let them know about your situation and ask questions. This is pretty self-explanatory but if possible, fly direct. The other thing is to try and get a seat as close to the front as possible. I will explain later.
Going Through Security
Get to the airport early. Leave yourself plenty of time because this step is going to take a little bit longer for you. Knowing that you are not in a rush is going to help your well-being. As for the actual act of going through security, there is nothing to be worried about. A TSA agent will see you in line and signal to another agent. You will not go through the detector or camera imaging. Instead they bring you to a station area just on the other side of the checkpoint and began asking questions along with running some tests such as swabbing your chair and clothes and feeling around your chair. You should be through security in only a few minutes.
Getting on the Plane
By reaching out to the airline early, this lets them know that someone is going to need assistance on one of their flights. This allows the airline to have a representative at your gate to help things go as smoothly as possible. You will be the first to board aircraft and the last to get off. Depending upon your level of injury and depending upon your type of wheelchair, these next few steps can go a few different ways, so bear with me here.
Because you will be transferring out of your chair and into a seat on the airplane, you will be put into an aisle chair. An aisle chair is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a chair with wheels that is skinny enough to fit down the aisle of an airplane with you strapped in so you can get to your seat. This is where trying to get a seat as close to the front of the airplane comes in. The aisle chair is not by any means the most comfy seat in the world. Having a seat in the first couple rows means being in the aisle chair for the minimal amount of time. There is also more room near the front. More room always makes anything easier. Because you and your party will be taking a few trips in and out of the airplane, having everything at the front is the easiest.
Once you arrive at your seat, depending upon your level of injury, you will transfer over from the aisle chair. For myself, a C4 – C5 quadriplegic, this meant a two-man lift. I’m sure if you have the ability, you could transfer yourself over or use a sliding board.
Where Does Your Chair Go?
As all this is happening, your wheelchair will be getting ready to be brought down below and put in storage as the other passengers start to board. This was what I was most nervous about. A wheelchair is not like all the other luggage. It’s an essential part of your everyday life. Do not be afraid to stress that. We put signs and notes all over mine, letting the handlers know what the wheelchair means to me and to please handle with care.
Before your chair is brought downstairs, be sure to take anything off that can come off and keep it with you. Secure anything that could come loose. We even bungee cord stuff down and wrap sensitive spots with bubblewrap.
Arriving At Your Destination
Take everything that was said above and reverse it. Because your wheelchair was one of the last things to be put underneath, it will be the first thing to come out. As the fellow passengers gather their belongings and make their way off the plane, your wheelchair will be making its way to you. After the plane is clear, the aisle chair will make its way back in and you will be transferred back into it. Once all the modifications to your chair are done, it’s just one more transfer and you are on your way.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be in communication with the airline leading up to your trip. For all of my trips we have used JetBlue. They have been wonderful. Plus, the extra legroom makes all the difference with transfers and people trying to get in and out. I understand why you or someone you know with a spinal cord injury could be skeptical about air travel. I was there once. Breaking through that barrier will open so many opportunities.