The Challenges of Flying with a 400 Pound Wheelchair
My blog this week was supposed to tell you guys about the amazing art teachers I’ve had throughout my career, but the experiences I had with my wheelchair over the weekend flying to Maine and back inspired me to switch it up a bit. Don’t worry, art teachers are soon to come.
A couple of months ago, Mom and I were given a unique opportunity to plan a trip to anywhere in the United States we’d like to visit at little cost to us. We chose to head to Maine, a trip we’ve wanted to take for several years, to visit a some close friends. We secured our airline tickets, and then I arranged for a handicap accessible rental van (which is very expensive) and planned where we were going to stay (which turned out to be at our friends’ home). Our friends pretty much planned our days ahead of time, which was fabulous because it required absolutely no thought from us! My only request was that I was able to eat lobster at least once a day, if not twice, a task I defeated with little to no effort.
Unfortunately, flying with my very expensive, specialized wheelchair is complicated. There is no place in the cabin of the airplane for it, therefore it must be stored in the cargo bin with all of the other luggage during flight. Basically what happens is we “gate check” it, which means that instead of giving it to them before we go through security with our other luggage, I am able to drive it through security and then they take it just before we board the plane at the gate. Here is where the problems usually arise.
First, getting through security with me is always interesting. With my 400 pound metal machine, I obviously cannot go through the regular metal detectors. We put all of my belongings through the metal detector thing, and then I am taken around through a gate to be patted down by hand. They examine my body, behind me in my seat, and my entire wheelchair is chemical tested. It’s not a huge deal, but it does take time. I have a special set of Allen Wrenches in my chair just in case something breaks or comes unscrewed, and those are almost always questioned. They seem to think I’d be dumb enough to sneak a set of knives or something through…
Aside from that, security is usually not that bad. However, apparently when you are late at 6:15 AM and are racing to get to your flight, luck gives you the one security guard with a horrible attitude. After little to no sleep the night before, we arrived at the New Orleans Airport last week with just enough time to make our flight. We parked our car and checked our bags, and literally ran to security. Unfortunately, the lady in charge that morning decided that instead of allowing us to skip to the front of the line (like we always do), we had to wait for EVERYONE from the ticketing counter to go through first. This ended up being nearly eighty people. She then did not call someone to pat me down right away, and I had to wait some more. Out of all the times we’ve flown out of New Orleans, we’ve never had this happen. Needless to say, we didn’t get through security for at least 35 minutes, and we missed our flight by about 45 seconds. After I spent 35 more minutes on the phone with Delta figuring out another flight, we went to complain to the security supervisor about that guard. His answer was, and I quote, “I understand. I don’t get along with her either. I don’t know what to tell you.” REALLY??!!! We’ve just missed our flight and are going to have to pay a bunch of extra money to get our car AND our luggage (which by the way is now going to a different airport than we are), and THAT’S your answer? You don’t like her either?! Yeah, we weren’t thrilled. We did get on another flight though, and were ultimately only delayed by three hours total.
The scariest part about flying with the wheelchair is loading and unloading it on and off the plane. Again, this wheelchair weighs 400 pounds and is very awkward. If it is not picked up properly, something will get broken. This is a $75K piece of highly specialized equipment, so breakage is a very bad thing. We have a set of typed out instructions on how to handle it that we tape to the seat of the chair prior to flying. It tells the baggage handlers what they can and can’t do with it, and would theoretically prevent damage if they would just read it. However, reading has become a rare phenomenon in America, and they almost never pay attention to it.
When we arrive at the gate at every flight, we ask the attendant to please call down to the tarmac and ask the baggage handlers that will be loading the chair to come up and talk to us. We go through all of the instructions with them, send it on its way down an elevator, and Mom carries me onto the plane. We have had airlines total wheelchairs in the past, and often times getting them to pay for repairs is a challenge. However, we were pleasantly surprised with the people on our trip there, and the wheelchair survived unscathed.
Coming home was a different story. We arrived at the Bangor International Airport with plenty of time to spare, and security was a breeze. We got to the gate and spoke to the guy who was going to put the chair on the plane. He seemed to understand what we were saying and even asked a couple of questions, so we thought we were good. WRONG. Very, very wrong.
When they rolled the wheelchair out to us at our connecting flight in New York, we took one look at it and knew something had gone awry. First of all, the footplate was dropped about six inches to where my feet could barely even touch it. There was a piece of it completely broken off as well. Upon further examination, we realized that both headlights and a taillight were damaged (actually, the taillight was completely gone), and the mount that attaches my backpack onto the chair was cracked and badly broken. It was obvious that the wheelchair was not secured in the bin as we instructed them, and it slid around, probably hitting walls and luggage, throughout the flight. It was bad, but not the worst we’ve ever had. It was drivable, so that is a plus.
While we were in between flights, I got on the phone with my wonderful repair guys at Numotion and gave them a heads up that we had a problem. They took some notes and told us to go make a claim with the airlines when we landed in New Orleans, which we already knew we’d have to do. As much of a pain as this was, I will say this: Delta has been fabulous in handling the repairs thus far. My repair guys were able to send someone out the day after we got home to assess the damage, and parts were approved and ordered quickly. People don’t realize the price of these chairs, but I predict when all is said and done, this claim will end up being well into four figures. So far Delta said they will pay for whatever necessary, so hopefully the wheelchair will be back up and running normally in no time!
As much travel trouble as we had on this trip, the trip itself was fabulous. Maine is absolutely gorgeous at this time of year, and trading the heat of New Orleans for the 75 degree weather in Maine for a few days was amazing. We stayed with two incredible people with whom we don’t ordinarily get to spend as much time as we’d like, and were up late every night laughing and drinking wine (and eating Maine blueberry pie). We got to spend a day with another friend as well and had a great time visiting the botanical gardens with her. I ate lobster as many times as I could and didn’t regret it once! The art community in Maine is blossoming, and it’s definitely a place I’d like to go back and visit again…but only in the summer! Hopefully next time our actual travels will be smoother! A special thank you to all that made this trip possible!