Flying While Disabled:
Advice From a Veteran Traveler

By Charlie Squires

 

I 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 procedures—even if you just use a cane but can't walk through the machine while they X-ray the cane—ask 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 you arrive).

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 it—if 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.

Second, buy 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.

Security 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.

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The Department 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.

The National 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

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Charlie 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 squires@execpc.com

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2003