Flying While Disabled:
Advice From a Veteran Traveler
travel a lot and often, so through trial and error I've learned
some tactics that might help other disabled travelers.
I've learned not
to assume the worst about how I'm going to be treated but I've also
learned to ask, and then ask again, if I suspect I'm not getting
the right answers. For some of us, simply asserting ourselves is
the most difficult tactic to learn. If you are not accustomed to
doing it, practice being politely assertive; I know it can be tough,
but it can make a big difference in how you are treated.
First and maybe
most important, if you have mobility problems and you are concerned
about security procedureseven if you just use a cane but can't
walk through the machine while they X-ray the caneask for
a wheelchair at the check-in counter, and use it to go through security.
If asked whether you can walk through the scanner, say "no" or that
it would be difficult. You will go to the head of the line, and
will not be asked to stand up or remove anything. At a big airport
with long lines, this will really help.
Be aware that
personnel will frisk you, however; they will examine the seat of
the chair and underneath it. If you go through security on foot
with cane or crutches, and you admit that you can walk a short distance
without them, security personnel will
want to run those devices through the X-ray machine on the conveyer
belt. You have the right to ask to be hand-wanded though to avoid
this. Be polite. They won't mind your request.
As to other assistive
devices, I have had to sit down and remove my shoes, but never my
AFOs (orthotics, braces). I've heard of instances where amputees
have been compelled to remove an artificial limb for inspection.
According to an article in the November/December issue of "inMotion"
magazine, "The Federal TSA [Transportation Security Administration]
guidelines do not require people to remove their prosthetic limbs
unless the security member is suspicious of the person. Only then
can someone be asked to remove the limb, and it should be done in
a private room." That sounds less than reassuring to me, since any
security personnel can judge anyone "suspicious."
The article goes
on to advise amputees " . . . to make the airline aware of their
prostheses when making plane reservations, to remind staff at the
ticket counter upon check-in, and to warn security personnel at
the metal detector that their prosthetic device may set off the
alarm." Sure, it's always a good idea to be forthright about potential
problems, but if they think you look suspicious when you reach the
metal detector, I don't see how all of those "advisories" on your
part will help.
You need to know
that someone can accompany you to
the gate (through security) or go to your destination gate to meet
you without being a ticketed passenger. That person need only explain
at the airline check-in counter that he or she is there to assist
a passenger with a disability (assistance may include pushing your
wheelchair, even it it's a borrowed airport wheelchair). After giving
your name and flight information, and showing ID, the person assisting
you will be given a pass to go through security.
Do not let the
airline suggest that airport staff help you. Just have your friend
or family member explain that you'd be more comfortable with their
help. If you have no one to accompany you, airport staff will push
you to the gate in a wheelchair (and onto the plane if you need
it), and will send someone to meet you. You'll be the last one off
the plane, though, because you'll wait for assistance (even though
they know in advance that you're coming, they're rarely there when
I've used borrowed
(airport) wheelchairs, with striking variation in service from airport
to airport. Memphis comes to mind, where rows and rows of wheelchairs
sit chained up, unusable because they are unavailable for passengers
without an airport employee to push them, even if you are accompanied
by someone willing and eager to help.
Because I don't
use a wheelchair myself in ordinary circumstances, I don't have
firsthand advice about how to manage your own chair when you're
flying, although I've heard disaster stories about damage and loss.
It's my understanding that most airlines will refuse to board even
manual chairs. If your chair must be stored with baggage, which
is likely, make sure you keep all removable parts with you. This
at least minimizes the chances for trouble. Even though you have
made all arrangements beforehand, remind an attendant prior to landing
that you need your wheelchair. This will insure that your chair
is ready for you when you're ready for itif you're lucky!
I've also learned
a couple of things you can do that will not help you at security,
but can reduce your chances of being pulled over for so-called-random
inspection at check-in and at the gate.
First, get a
frequent flier number with the airline, and make sure the number
is on your reservation, even if
you never plan to fly with that airline again.
your ticket with a credit card. Cash, one-way tickets, having
no luggage, and a lack of frequent flier numbers tend to earmark
people as security risks. I was once on a one-way flight with
five business associates. All of us paid the same way, all had
the same itinerary. They all had
all their luggage gone through
at check-in. The only difference between them and me? I had a
frequent flier number with that particular airline, even though
I fly it maybe once a year. You can apply for and get a frequent
flier number on any airline's Website.
personnel at all US airports have been replaced with new federal
staff. Traveling home from Christmas festivities in a wheelchair
and wearing a leg immobilizer, able to stand with difficulty only,
I found that the new staff do a good job of maintaining security,
and they dealt with me much better
than the private contractors had in the past. Whenever they asked
if I could stand, walk, remove the immobilizer, etc., when I would
say, "yes," "no," or "that would be slow and difficult," their responses
and actions were always both respectful and appropriate. So, if
you're concerned about the security horror stories you may have
heard, this recent change might allay some of your fears. I hope
it makes a permanent difference in how we're treated. Let me know
what kind of experiences you have in the months ahead.
of Transportation (DOT) now has an aviation consumer disability
hotline. The toll-free number is 1-866-266-1368 (voice) and 1-866-754-4368
(TTY). DOT invites consumers to use this service if they have "disability-related
air-service problems." I've had no experience with it. I would be
interested in hearing from anyone who has used it.
Safe Skies Alliance and the Amputee Coalition of America are working
together to make air travel more convenient for travelers who use
prostheses. To help their information-gathering effort, you can
complete a Safe Skies survey at www.amputee-coalition.org.
©2003 Charlie Squires
Squires has had diplegic spastic cerebral palsy since birth. Originally
from Long Island, he now makes his home in Madison, Wisconsin with
his partner of over a decade. A software developer by day, and a
frequent business traveler, his many interests include political
activism, especially around LGBT and disability issues. You can
reach him at email@example.com
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BENT: A Journal of CripGay