I’ve been up in the air
Out of my head
Stuck in a moment of emotion I’ve destroyed
Is this the end I feel?
Up in the air
30 Seconds to Mars
I’m sitting at an airport again. I’m waiting for my flight back to Oslo after a short business trip to Helsinki. Only 24 hours away this time. Hand luggage only. No big deal. But every time I travel, the check-in and security people are equally surprised that I know the drill..
Boarding pass ready.
Liquids in sealed plastic bag.
Shoes and jacket off.
Wait to enter the gate.
Lift your arms.
No, #MeToo does not apply here.
They will touch your boobs and your behind.
It’s because of security, you know.
Security beats everything…
“Oh, you’ve done this before…?”
As if wheelchair users never travel…
Of course I have! At the moment I have tickets to 18 individual flights in TripIt – my travel app. So don’t be surprised if I we meet again in a few weeks, months or days.
And yes I know the drill. The many trips I have made since I became a frequent traveler have tought me some lessons. The most important one?
Well, it sounds like a short story from Roald Dahl:
Expect the unexpected!
Because according to Murphy’s Law – most things can go wrong, with the worst possible timing. And they do. And that leads me to my second most important discovery:
Most things work out eventually. Don’t panic!
And don’t stress too much – even if you are allergic to airports!
Just be creative, flexible and a little bit paranoid.
And preferably a little bit stubborn. Sometimes airport personnel feel the need to be unneccesary paternalistic if you happen to be in a wheelchair. Sometimes they blame it on security. Other times they only blame it on the rules, that are suprisingly different from airport to airport. And they can also change from time to time. Which also means you can bend the rules. But only to a certain extent, if you are stubborn enough…
When I was leaving for Helsinki some 24 hours ago, quite a number of small things went wrong. When I was checking in at the new universally designed Norwegian counter, I discovered that I had forgotten to book assistance. At another airline or airport, this could have been a major disaster. But the lady at the Norwegian check-in dealed with it in a very relaxed way.
However – learning from past mistakes, I went straight to the Norwegian ticket office after check-in, and booked assistance for the return flight the correct way. While I was there, I checked my seven other planned Norwegian flights. Turned out to be a smart thing. Assistance was only booked correctly for one of the trips! And this was not because I am chronically forgetful. It turned out that there was a bug in Norwegian’s booking system for disability assistance.
Booking assistance for two disabled people at the same time with different codes (WCHC and WCHS), turns out to be too much for the system. At one of the flights I had gotten a WCHC (carry to the seat), the next WCHS (not able to walk steps) and the third nothing. Even if I had booked it completely the same way. Wheelchair users are not supposed to travel together, are they? And definitely not without a personal assistant. And when one of them can walk to the seat and the other can not….then it’s just too much to handle. Of course. Any idiot must understand this. Robot or human.
Even if Norwegian at the moment has one of the easiest and most convenient solutions to order disability assistance online (2-3 extra clicks before you pay the ticket), you cannot really trust the system. If you don’t get an e-mail confirmation with the right code on it, you should call and double check. That’s what we do as wheelchair travelers.
We double check.
And triple check.
And then you ask to confirm.
Again. And again.
Healthy paranoia I call it. It makes the end result more successful and the trip potentially less annoying. You avoid some disasters. And discover problems at an early stage. And some people wonder why disabled people are so good at logistics…
Pulling off a big international conference with 250 participants? No big deal. I’m used to traveling internationally with a wheelchair….
Oh, but I only mentioned the check-in. When I came to the gate it turned out that the bridge to board the plane was out of function. Obviously it could not handle more than minus ten degrees celsius. It was frozen. No problem! I had booked assistance. Assistance guys were there and they had an ambulift (see photo) that would take me into the plane instead of using the bridge. Turned out that the ambulift was frozen and stuck as well. Some short minutes of knocking and swearing later – the ambulift was working again and I could board the plane. Don’t panic until you really really have to.
And if you panic. Alchohol usually helps. But not too much of it.
(photos from Brussels Airport).
So here is my piece of advice to the beginners in the air travel game:
Always order assistance in advance!
Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not. And double check if you are in doubt.
Don’t accept no for an answer!
Sometimes you might have to argue an hour on the phone with a guy with the worst French accent in history. Because you are not supposed to be able to walk 3-4 rows when you bring your own wheelchair. In Singapore Airlines it’s against the laws of nature. Either you can walk the whole plane or you are completely paralyzed. It’s logic.
And if the person at the counter tells you that you have to leave your own manual wheelchair at the check-in – then do by all means argue! In 98% of the cases it will work. Unless you are in Russia with a flat tire…
And if the check-in counter denies you to go to the gate yourself (even if you know that its doable), then argue some more. It might succed or it might not. If you are in Geneva, Switzerland you can forget about it though…
Book assistance even if you don’t think you need it!
You’re a wheelchair user, but you think you don’t need assistance? Think again! Somebody needs to carry your wheelchair down from the plane door to the luggage. And the crew will definitely not be happy to do it. And sometimes your flight might be redirected to a bus gate or the boarding bridge might be broken. Expect the unexpected! If you don’t have assistance when these things occur, you might have a problem. You don’t want to be “the wheelchair” delaying the whole flight, do you?
Google the toilets!
Google your aircraft type before choosing seats for long distance flights! This way you can see the layout of the plane, including where the toilets are. Choose a seat near a toilet even if the plane have an onboard wheelchair. All long distance flights inside Europe, the US and cross-Atlanic are obliged by law to have a wheelchair onboard and provide assistance from your seat to the toilet door. But remember that the seats in the row in the back of the plane usually cannot be tilted!
Go easy with the food & wine if the toilets are too far away…
Yes, you can!
Unless you are travelling with an assistant (or its obviously completely impossible) – tell people that you can evacuate yourself, if you are asked. If you do it by crawling, rolling, climbing the walls with your teeth or jumping out the window, I don’t really care. And they don’t either. Some airlines will deny you (as a single traveler) access to the plane, unless you can document that you can evacuate yourself in an emergency. Some airlines will not let you travel without an assistant at all. Brussel Airlines are among them. They just don’t want to take the responsibility for you. You have to take it yourself. That’s life. Get used to it.
The photo above is from the episode when I was forgotten in the plane at Oslo airport. You can read about it in this blogpost.
Double check that you actually have assistance when you check in. Both Norwegian and SAS have bugs in their IT-system to book disability assistance. It would surprise me that others did not have it as well.
Always check in at the counter!
Some self service machines lets you print a tag for both your luggage and your wheelchair. But the machines cannot confirm your assistance. Always confirm your assistance at the desk!
Always get a luggage tag for your wheelchair!
And preferably get a “delivery at aircraft door tag” if available. If your wheelchair gets lost in space (yes it can happen) – at least it has a chance of finding its way home. If it’s not tagged it’s lost. In space. Possibly forever.
Be early at the gate!
If you spend too much time messing about in the tax free, they might have started boarding when you arrive at the gate. And if they have started boarding, you will be the last one to board the plane. And this is a hazzle. Especially if you have a window seat. And if you have to board last, it might not be room for your wheelchair in the luggage compartment. Which might cause even more scratches on it than necessary.
So don’t be late!
Remind the crew!
Double check with the crew that you will get your own wheelchair at the door of the aircraft. Even more important on stopovers. You seriously don’t want to spend three hours in an airport wheelchair if you don’t have to. They are torture devices. Most airports will provide your own wheelchair at the door automatically, but not all. And some are just impossible because of “rules” or “security reasons”. You can never argue with security reasons. Almost. So just give up getting your own wheelchair at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It will not happen.
Double check (again). Don’t stress! And don’t panic if things don’t go as planned. If you manage to stay calm and constructive, you will get better service.
And don’t forget to enjoy!
Traveling is fun. As soon as you get the hang of it…