We’ve all seen those enticing airline advertisements: Let’s Fly Together… Our People Set the Bar Pretty High. Sky High in Fact… Building a Better Airline, Not Just a Bigger One… Make Every Journey Count… Welcome to Our Sky...
Unfortunately our sky is not as accessible or inclusive as it could be.
As a traveler who has a disability and requires assistance, I’m guaranteed an adventure even before I arrive at the airport. The initial step is to trumpet my travel plans to the airline’s special assistance services. The customer representative is usually friendly and assures me all will go well. Over the years I’ve learned that this individual is not personally responsible for the assistance provided and that I will be totally at the mercy of the effectiveness of the airline’s internal communications system.
The second step is to seek out accessible transportation to and from the airport (never readily available and always very costly). Step three is figuring out how to pack all my required equipment: wheelchair battery charger, toilet seat support, wheelchair emergency repair toolkit, communication technology... and still have room for my toothbrush. Of course, my baggage is always overweight (= $$$).
Upon arrival at the airport, I head to the special services desk to check in. If the folks at the desk have received the message that I’m coming, this part of the trip usually goes as planned. If they haven’t received notification, well, that’s a whole other story.
Security is always interesting… Though I’m thankful security staff take their job seriously, I do feel a bit like a wanted criminal. I’m always pulled over to the side, and two security guards loom over me. They lift me bodily out of my wheelchair while another guard inspects the seat insert. Wands with mirrors are employed to check under the chair. All this happens under the watchful eyes of other travelers, who look like they’re thinking, “He doesn’t look like a security risk… but maybe?”
After security the real fun begins. Because my wheelchair is too wide for airplane aisles, I’m transferred and strapped in to a mini chair. At this point I take one last longing look at my wheelchair as it is taken to be loaded into the baggage compartment (at least I hope it will be loaded). One thing I know for sure is that some part of it will get damaged or lost – so far the airlines have a 100% track record in this category.
Once I’m settled, one of the flight attendants reviews safety procedures with me. AlthoughI’m typically seated in the first row, I learn that in the event of an emergency all the other passengers will be escorted off the plane first and then staff will assist me. This is a logical approach, but the way the instructions are sometimes delivered leaves me with the distinct impression that my life isn’t as valuable as the other passengers’.
I try not to eat or drink en route because most airplane washrooms aren’t accessible. To make things worse, when we land I’m instructed to wait for assistance until after all the other passengers have disembarked. It’s a good thing I can’t speak because my mind is yelling, “Washroom break, please!”
The final step of my trip is always the same: retrieve baggage, fill out the necessary forms for the wheelchair damage, search out the previously-arranged accessible transportation (always a 50/50 chance it will show up), deal with Customs, administer CPR to the companion or family member who has accompanied me, and celebrate my safe arrival. The best part is I get to do it all again to come home.
So, airline CEOs: Before you sign off on your marketing campaigns, come fly with me...