AIRPORTS & FLIGHTS

Flying with a disability can be challenging, but it need not be daunting. In fact, with the right planning and attitude, it can be easier than for travellers without a disability!

Below you will find info on:

Booking Your Flight

If you require assistance and want to request a meet and greet (have staff assistance), reserve an airport wheelchair but with your own carer or taking your own wheelchair etc – you will need to phone the airline to make the flight reservation by phone rather than online (or have a travel agent like us do it for you).

Some airlines have restrictions as to how many assisted passengers can travel on any flight (e.g. Virgin domestic has a two passenger limit). If you book online and arrive at the airport to request assistance, it may be denied. I have always found them helpful and they don’t charge for the personal service.

Just a quick note on the business end of things. Cane & Able Travel has wholesale contracts in place with Virgin Australia, Air Pacific, Air Vanuatu and other international carriers. A lot of people think it is cheaper to book flights direct with the airline online but that’s not necessarily the case. It certainly won’t be more expensive booking through us because we don’t get whacked with the credit card fee and often we can access much cheaper fares. Of course, if it is just a cheap domestic sale fare you are after it is probably easier to grab it while available, but for international destinations we may be able to save you a bit on both flights and accommodation.

Airport Parking

There are four tiers of airport parking options for travellers with a disability. If it is for dropping someone off or picking up, there are usually designated spots in the drop zone where you can get a bit more time than the others who pretty much have to keep moving.

The airport car parks are usually disability-friendly with handicap parking spaces near the lifts, exit and pay booths, but these are very expensive as a long-term option.  Some airports offer long-term parking but this may be a bit away from the airport and require a shuttle service. Being located in Queensland I frequent Brisbane airport and use one of the private parking companies. You drop the car off and they bus you to the terminal. This works fine as long as you can transfer or hop into a small bus.  Personally, I go for the seat next to the driver – there is a handle to assist getting up and the view is better. Last time I used them it was $8 a day – for a week’s stay that’s still less than a taxi from the city and back.

Airports

It’s pretty common for people to have a fear of flying… and unlike abled passengers, many disabled travellers have a greater fear about what happens before take-off and after landing. The flying bit is a breeze. Apart from potential bathroom issues at 30,000 feet, there are potentially far more hurdles on the ground.

There’s the worry of traffic, parking, getting to the terminal on time, checking in, going through security, getting to the gate, getting from the gate to the plane and getting onto the plane and into your seat.  On landing, getting off the plane, getting into the terminal and luggage collection, then getting to your transport. And doing all that with possibly bladder and bowel unpredictability.

Like shopping malls, airports come with open spaces, corridors, escalators, noise, queues and generally lots of people, many of them in a rush. This can create a heady mix of vertigo, claustrophobia, acrophobia and I-wish-I-could-run-away-phobia. Then there are baggage check-in, the security checks and x-ray machines not to mention the check in counter, which I will now…

Checking In

These days airports have streamlined – they like passengers to do most of the work, like use the electronic machines to provide the boarding pass etc – and, for some reason, the queues seem even longer to bag drop off because of the automation. A cane and a limp, unfortunately, doesn’t come with automatic privilege (unless you have requested an airport wheelchair, in which case you will be directed to the right place and assisted – having your own wheelchair will automatically have someone approach and direct you away from the snaking queue to a real person who will process baggage and give you (and those travelling with you) your boarding pass.

Airport Security

Like all passengers you will have to put carry on luggage through the x-ray machine and go through the electronic beepy check. If you can walk, you can go through the ‘normal’ screening. I have noticed that most provide timber canes to assist in case travellers, like me, have a cane with metal parts. If you are mobile enough to walk, they will figure you are mobile enough to remove shoes if they set off the beepy machine. In a wheelchair they have the right to give you a quick body frisk and run a mobile beepy machine over you. My wife thinks this is a humiliating process. I prefer it to having to clumsily walk and perhaps be on show for the shoe shuffle. Mind you, Dr Tammy Banovac from Oklahoma City (right) protested against invasive ‘pat downs’ by dropping her trenchcoat to confront security wearing just her bra and panties.

Customs/Immigration

If departing on an international flight, wheelchairs usually get a priority access over mobile passengers. Apart from the efficiency/time-saving factor, travellers in a wheelchair are probably more likely to get a rare smile from the Customs official.  They enjoy being looked up to. It’s a wearing the uniform thing.

On arrival to clear Customs in a wheelchair your passage through may be faster as long as you fit the ‘legitimate’ disabled traveller profile. If you are unfortunate enough to have the face of a shifty drug mule they may decide to give you and the chair the once-over.

Airside

Whew! Got through the official bit!!! From memory they don’t have bathrooms between the terminal and airside… Once through the main panic is over – there are bathrooms, places to eat and drink, newsagents and most people not rushing because they are just biding time until the boarding call.

Boarding

If travelling with your own wheelchair or with an airport assist one, the boarding staff will be aware of your plans and request that you board prior to the other passengers.

If you are travelling with a cane to assist, you can request an early board because you may take longer than others to cover the distance (and without others moving faster around you). I have always found these staff members to be super helpful.  Or perhaps that’s just compared to the security and Customs officials who must have ‘look surly’ as part of their contract.

In-flight

Don’t be shy to say you have a bladder urgency condition – they will be more than on your side to allow you access to the Business Class bathroom that may be closer, or to allow you bathroom access if the fasten seatbelt sign is on.

On that front, it can be a good thing for peace of mind to wear Depends or a similar incontinence product. It can sometimes take an age from ‘fasten seatbelts for landing’ until inside the terminal. And I can’t think of a worse scenario than busting with limited sphincter control, hanging in the aisle off Row 14 and staring down the rear end of a bathroom queue located the other side of the drinks trolley.

Long haul flights are most daunting. Rather than looking at them as a sentence of imprisonment, look it as an opportunity to relax – read a book, watch a movie, meditate… the hours seem to fly quicker if you are calm rather than tense.

On long hauls try to get some sleep. This is easier if the flight isn’t full.  Perhaps ask a flight attendant prior to take off if it is okay to move seats once in the air – he/she may ‘reserve’ a couple for you.

Travel light – a small bag with wheels will be fine. I travel with a ‘man bag’ with strap – it is big enough to carry a book, writing pad, toiletries etc and small enough to go under the seat in front to save having to get up and open the overhead locker.

And contrary to bladder dysfunction concerns, drink lots of water. Being well-hydrated lessens the effect of jetlag and potential constipation.

Disembarking

If you have requested assistance you will be asked to wait until the other passengers have disembarked. That will not add any time to the overall travel duration because it will take that long to get the baggage off and transferred to the terminal. And if it is a flight where they will have your own wheelchair at the plane door, they need that time to fetch it.

If there is no access via an air bridge into the terminal (tarmac arrival) and you aren’t able to negotiate the stairs, they have ‘forklift’ type assistance to lower people in wheelchairs.

Baggage Collection

I always find this bit tricky when travelling solo, whether in a wheelchair or with cane assist. The other passengers will have moved from relaxed mode to get-a-move-on mode – they want to get home or to their hotel and to the front of the taxi queue as quick as possible. My only tip is to be patient and wait until there is a nice break in the traffic.

Some Tips

Don’t show up looking like an obvious terrorist like the poor old bugger on the right.

Allow plenty of time, both to get to the airport and to check-in and get through security. You don’t need the stress and there’s always a bar or coffee shop to occupy your time.

Don’t request an exit row seat for the extra leg room. They are there for people who can assist other passengers in the event of an emergency.

Do request an aisle seat – it is easier for people to get past you than you past them to get to the bathroom and access to the food and beverage trolley is better.

Let people help you. Most people are pleased to be asked to help and like to feel useful… Perhaps to hold something while you rearrange your stuff… to help you put things in the overhead locker.

Being a bit of a gimp cuts through conversation barriers. Mind you, would you assist me in attaining mile high club membership is possibly a tad extreme.

Wear a shirt with a top pocket! Seriously… It will come in handy for your passport, boarding pass, pen etc. It will save having to rummage through a bag in a confined space when pushed for time.

Some Bastards

I have one pet hate. People who use parking spaces reserved for people with a disability when they don’t have one. I guess some people do it without thinking, but I have seen abled people use a friend or relative’s sticker to get the good parking spot. I didn’t realise until recently that there are people without disabilities who request wheelchair assistance at airports. Apparently some requests are just to avoid the queues and get airside quicker (and then have miraculous recovery on arrival). I asked a Virgin flight attendant about this and she said that it is common with people who are just bone lazy but more with people who are at the obese end of the scales who run out of puff when confronted with a distance to waddle. What irritates the helpers even more is that they are twice as hard to push!

My Personal Airport Journey

Curiously I have never been queried about travelling with a walking stick as carry-on. Flying back from Alice Springs once I was not allowed to take a light bamboo didgeridoo souvenir on board as it could be used as a ‘weapon’ – it went in the hold and arrived on the carousel with a split in the side. However, when flying with my solid, carved walking cane that would inflict more damage than a baseball bat, I wasn’t questioned. The attendants even stowed and retrieved it from the overhead lockers. Guess they can pick gimps easier than terrorists.

Many people with MS, like me, also have unpredictable mobility issues, and sometimes stress makes the physical capabilities even more limited. The first time this was driven home was in December 2011 when I returned a hire car to Melbourne Airport to catch my Virgin flight to Brisbane. A hurried hotel checkout, driving in traffic to the airport, fill car with fuel and drop off at the designated spot… all fine so far except the hire car drop off was at the end of the international terminal, meaning a long walk through it, with a bag, to domestic check in… then a queue to get that done… and a queue through security… where the x-ray machine demanded I remove my shoes and belt… after clumsily getting dressed again, I discovered that my boarding gate was the furthest away… and time was running short…  To cut the story short, I made it with a shabby cane-assisted limp and vowed ‘never again’…

The ‘never again’ didn’t mean no more travel, just better planning. On the next trip (Brisbane to Sydney with Virgin in March 2012) I requested wheelchair assistance both ends. Once over the mental issue of being wheeled around, it made everything so much easier and not at all tiring. Check in came with no queue, wheeled through security, to the departure floor in the lift, wheeled to the plane door prior to the ambulatory passengers and I’m fine to make it from the door to my seat. They usually give you a seat a few rows from the front. If you are unable to make your way to a seat without assistance, the airport wheelchairs fit down the aisle to allow transferring.  The other end was also easy – met at the plane door, wheeled to collect baggage and then to the taxi rank.

The following June I took a school group to Vanuatu for a 7-day geography excursion. I used an airport loan chair with a strapping student as my ‘carer’ (why push yourself if you can enlist help?!). With flights that have airport bridge access passengers with disabilities are usually seated just behind Business Class near the front (and are allowed to use the Business Class bathrooms to save the long ‘walk’ to the rear of the aircraft. With flights that land/depart from the tarmac (as they do in Vanuatu) I like to request a rear aisle seat – this means you are near the stairs for disembarking, right next to the bathrooms and handy to the food and beverage! On arrival in Port Vila it was another meet and greet at the plane, whisked through Customs to the baggage carousel where I doubled a luggage trolley as a ‘walker’.

In September 2012 I invested in my own wheelchair – it is about 12 kilos so easy to lift – the wheels and footrests also come off if needed. This purchase was to make travel to the UK easier. The flight from Brisbane went via Singapore for a fuel stop, to Dubai for a couple of night’s stopover and on to London.  After a train across to Paris, the return flight was from Paris to Brisbane via Dubai and Singapore.

The wheelchair was an investment for so many reasons. I was able to keep my own chair right up until boarding and was given (along with wife and daughter) express passage through check-in, Customs and security plus priority boarding. In Singapore was greeted by a friendly airport employee who not only did the wheelchair transfers but stayed with me the whole time and gave me a lap of the shops and the food court.

In Dubai – it was another meet and greet and whisked through Customs to the baggage carousel where my own wheelchair was waiting. This is an enormous airport (right) and there would have been no way of walking the distance without camping en-route overnight. Heathrow Airport was also wheelchair friendly and welcoming, as was Paris. In fact I was asked twice if I was okay mobility-wise to make my own way onto the plane and while on board and the reason for this – we were upgraded to the pointy end.  Woo-hoo! Very hard going back to economy in Dubai…

In December 2012 I travelled Brisbane to Cairns and Brisbane to Sydney with my own wheelchair. It’s now as important a travelling accessory as shoes. Since the Cairns trip there have been visits to Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and, in December 2016, to the south coast of New South Wales.