Welcome to the airport ticket counter! So far you have done all the right things. You’ve got your tickets, and notified the airline of your assistance requirements. Now imagine you hand your passports and e-tickets to the ticket person, they look it up, and what do you know? There’s no record of you notifying the airline. Is this a major problem that will keep you from enjoying the trip of a lifetime? Not at all. In fact, it happens as often as not. If the ticket person is experienced they will know how to handle it. If not, they will call their supervisor. Either way it is important to remember: everything will be fine. The airline representative will note in the computer that you need assistance onto the plane and into your seat.
Now you have a couple of choices at this point. Where will you sit on the plane? What is the most advantageous spot? The most comfortable? Our opinion is that the best seat for you (assuming you are going coach) is to get an aisle seat (of course) but in my opinion an even better spot would be the bulkhead aisle seat. First, there will only be a wall in front of you with plenty of extra legroom. Secondly, this seat is probably closer to a bathroom which could be helpful. The bulkhead seats are almost never assigned in advance. The person at the ticket counter may tell you that the attendants at the gate can assign them. At this point I would recommend you ask her to get her supervisor. They have the power to assign you the bulkhead seat. They have done it for us. Don’t be afraid. If you still don’t get the bulkhead seat after these initial attempts give it another try when you get to the gate. You are your own best advocate!
The other decision you’ll need to make is what to do with your wheelchair. Do you want to check your wheelchair and have an aid push you around through security and on to the gate, or do you want to keep your wheelchair and travel through security with it to the gate? The only advantage to transferring to the airport aid is you might get through security faster. Other than that you have lost some of your independence for the next 3 hours until you get on the plane. My wife prefers to stay in her travel wheelchair waiting to check it until just before entering the plane. We get through security easily enough. They thoroughly check her and the wheelchair. After getting through security she is free to go to the gate, go to the bathroom, or shop till she drops at the duty free! If the wheelchair aid is in charge you are at their mercy which may include them depositing you in the wheelchair area until it is time to board your flight, which depending on when you arrived, might be a while.
Now that it’s time to board, what’s next? At this point, one way or the other you will be at the gate. This is where it is important to keep in mind some of my advice from a previous blog-make sure you give yourself enough time. You want to make sure you have enough time to go to the bathroom because as a general rule you will be among the first to board the plane. 90% of the time you will be first. It is actually a rule that is generally followed unless an unusual circumstance occurs. Someone will accompany you down to the plane with either your chair or the airlines chair. At the entrance to the plane they will transfer you to a narrow straight-back chair that will be used to get you on the plane and escort you to your seat. Before you actually get on the plane you will be given a baggage ticket for your chair, in the instance that you are still in possession of it, to claim it when you arrive. Fortunately our experience is that by some miracle the wheelchair always gets there. Another helpful tip, if your partner/caregiver has an extra hand, take the footrests as they usually come off, or the seat cushion. These are the two items that could possibly be lost or misplaced in transit and no footrests will definitely make the trip pretty uncomfortable. A cushion you can always find but to find a footrest for your wheelchair may be very problematic. Finally, with regard to transporting your wheelchair, the wheelchair has a manual mode. Without putting the chair in manual it will be difficult for the baggage handlers to get your chair to the cargo hold. Just switch it over before they take it. They will appreciate it.
The straight-back chair provided by the airline is very narrow and they strap you in. Sometimes I help my wife into it and occasionally the people helping her onto the plane do it. One of the reasons they put you on the plane first is that if the aisles are filled, it can be difficult to navigate the chair to your seat. (While I like to also think it makes the process less of a spectacle, I doubt that is the reason.) There might be a small step from the gateway to the plane but they will lift or pull the straight-back chair onto the plane. They will then pull you back to your seat. We fly coach so it could be 30 rows of pulling through the narrow aisle, but it always works out fine. Once you reach your designated seat, you now you have to transfer into the airplane seat from the straight-back chair. You will almost always have an aisle seat. The armrest on most aisle seats will lift up if you push a button underneath it. This can be a little complicated and it amazes me how few flight attendants know how to do it, but have them try. If they lift the armrest it is obviously easier to transfer you to the seat, or you can transfer yourself if it is easier. If not, the people who helped you on the plane will lift you into the seat. One will grab under your arms, one your feet. They do it easily and it is nothing to worry about. Before you know it you will be on the plane, in your seat, buckled up, and about to be on our way to Paris. Ooh lah lah!!