Travel & Holidays

Accessible airports? More like aggravating airports

If you have a disability, many of you know all too well the nightmare that getting through an airport and onto a plane can bring. So Lorraine Gradwell’s account of airport ‘adventures’ will come as no surprise.

I love holidays, especially in warmer climes where I can read, swim, and relax, and maybe do a little writing as well. But why oh why does getting to my dream destination have to be made so difficult?

It all starts with the lengthy and convoluted check-in process. Once you’ve logged yourself in with whatever company is providing assistance, it’s time to head to the check-in desk for a round of badgering and harassment about how heavy my chair is and what’s in the batteries. This is followed by them insisting I get out of my chair an hour before we’re due to board, which I of course refuse to do.

You’d almost have thought they didn’t want you to fly. On one famous occasion the exchange got to the point where an officious airport staff member was threatening to not put me on the plane.

But wait, it gets worse. These, although infuriating, used to be the only questions, but now there are more hoops to jump though. Now, after getting our luggage receipts at check in for our bags, but before my chair is ticketed, we are sent across to Customer Support where we are made to answer the very same questions about the chair and are given a small form, which is then tied to my chair.

Once that it done, we are directed back to the check-in desk, where of course we have to wait in a new queue. It seems only when you present with the small form tied to your chair can they label and ticket the wheelchair to check it in. But they won’t do the form until you’ve been to the check-in desk. Madness.

So your average flyer can get out of the taxi, check in, go through security and trot off to the shops in the time it takes a wheelchair user to say ‘dry cell batteries.’ We on the other hand have to go through four separate face-to-face transactions before you can say ‘frequent flyer’.

And security? Ah yes, we can’t go through those body sensors in a wheelchair, and so we have the delights of being ‘frisked’.

Then there is getting onto the place. If you’re a non-walking wheelchair user like me, you’re labeled as ‘wheelchair Charlie’. No, honestly. A ‘wheelchair Charlie’ is asked to go to the gate as soon as it opens and wait there for assistance. Sometimes it comes on time and you get boarded ahead of the other passengers. But sometimes it all goes awry and you end up being boarded after all the other passengers, providing them with some early in-flight entertainment.

Being boarded entails being manhandled onto an ‘aisle chair,’ which is only half as wide as you are and has no sides to it, so if you have no balance like me, you’re constantly on the brink of falling off.

Then you are further manhandled into your window seat: now I like a window seat, but I can’t get past the notion that the airline prefer you to be there so that you don’t get in the way of other passengers should there be an emergency.

Back to the ‘manhandling’. Really, an airplane is so inaccessible it’s hard to see how else they could get you onboard, and so it’s advisable to build camaraderie with the assistance staff from the word go. Usually they’re put-upon but good for a laugh. My only real complaint with them is when you get what I call ‘the equal opportunity team’: usually a slender teenager who has just about managed puberty and still has muscle to come, and a rather elderly, perhaps portly guy who is gamely pushing back retirement.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of equality, and I’m really not ageist. But if I’m going to be lifted three or four times in a row without injury then, I’d rather have someone strong and hunky – they could be male or female, I don’t mind.

On the plane things are pretty tame, and preferably it consists of a lot of sleep. Just don’t drink too much (which is against all the advice of course) because you’ll never get to the loo if you can’t walk. How and why they get away with putting an access symbol on the loo I really don’t know, so it’s crossed legs all the way.

When you land it’s all the boarding process in reverse, except, if you’re lucky, your chair will have been loaded onto the plane in such a way to mean it can be brought to the aircraft door when you land. If you’re unlucky though, it may have had the battery dismantled by some over-zealous handler.

If you’re really unlucky, it may have been left behind (Paris circa 2003), leaving you without a chair. Or, as usually happens, it’s sent to the carousel, meaning you’re expected you to sit in a rubbish airport wheelchair while you collect your own custom-fitted chair. The sense of relief when you sit once again in your own chair, and it’s working as it should, is almost tangible.

But how can things be improved? Well, better communication between airport staff, handlers, and airline staff would be a good place to start so that we’re not constantly wasting time repeating ourselves.

In addition, airlines could be a bit more practical about where they seat people with limited mobility and us ‘wheelchair Charlies’ – halfway down the plane is not good for us nor for the assistance teams.

Also helpful would be clear and consistent guidelines from airlines to passengers and staff about checking in powered wheelchairs, whilst the handlers would benefit from liaison with manufacturers over best ways to stow and carry our chairs. Above all, services and staff need to remember they’re dealing with people, not baggage, and treat us accordingly.

Because I fly for enjoyment, honestly I do, it’s called a holiday.

By Lorraine Gradwell

Check out…

Wheelchair disasters and triumph on the far side of the world
Airline accessibility: a campaign that’s taking off
The freedom of flying with a disability

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