A Mexican Nightmare… An education

I talked in Part 1 about all of the preparation I did getting ready for a working vacation on a client’s medical travel. This is a first time for me. I’ve done 14 years of personal care work, but never had a client pay for me to travel like this before.

So, we left Monday, Dec 12 with high hopes of a good trip. Our cab came just a tiny bit late, but still got us to the airport 2 hours early. Our check-in at MSP went without a hitch. Checking our bag in was 5 minutes. TSA spent a total of 8 minutes on testing the wheelchair. There were almost no lines and we were even able to get a snack on the way to the gate.

Here’s where we need to go over the difference between travelling with a wheelchair and without one. Here is my experience without a wheelchair: You get to the airport 1 hour before take-off. Check-in takes a maximum of 5 minutes, bag check another 5-10 minutes, TSA maybe 10-15. If you’re running over on those, you’re totally able to run down the stairs, up the escalator, and through crowds to get to the gate, where they will be loading by this time. You board just by handing your boarding pass to the gate attendant and you find your assigned seat. You have no need for anything extra beyond a seat and a spot for your carry-on. Total time from curb to boarded: 42 minutes.

Now, add a wheelchair: First off, the preparation is so much more. Before you buy your tickets, it is prudent to call ahead to the airline and see what size of aircraft is right for your needs. Wheelchairs, especially power wheelchairs, often take up more space and need extra support from staff to get the client on and off the plane. So, you spend an hour on the phone with the customer service of your chosen airline. If you “shop around”, you need to do this more than once. You also should find an assistant to come with you to help carry bags and direct the airport staff as to your needs. You’ll be tired, you don’t want to do this yourself. Then, you need to get to the airport at least 2 hours early. Here’s why- Check-in takes 5 minutes, as usual, with one extra click and double checking that there’s some special accomodations. Bag check takes 10 minutes easily because you have to explain to the check counter that you also have a power wheelchair and ask them to call ahead to make sure there’s an aisle wheelchair available. TSA usually takes between 20-40 minutes, depending on how your prep went. Sometimes, you can do TSA Pre check, so that helps cut down on time. If you have dry cell batteries (which many modern wheelchair companies are going to) or you have a manual chair, you cut down the time a little too. But, TSA needs to wipe every surface of the chair with a small tab that tells them if there’s explosive or drug residue on the chair. They also need to pat down the inhabitant because they’re unable to see any bulges that may exist. After TSA, let’s say you need the bathroom. You need to wait an extra 5 minutes for the special stall. Not only that, if there’s stairs, escalators, or crowds, you’re going to take double time to get to where you’re going. Elevators are notoriously slow; picking your way through a crowded terminal can be even worse when people’s eye level is above your head. By the time you get to the gate, you hope that it’s still before they start boarding. You have to pick your way right up to the gate attendant and warn them that you’ll need an aisle chair. Often, no one was informed of this, even though you’ve taken proper precautions. They call for customer service to send down an attendant and an aisle chair. You wait until the gate is opened and are the first person boarded. Hopefully, when you got your seats, you thought to put your assistant next to you. If not, you’ll have to discuss that with the gate agent also.¬†First, you roll to the end of the gateway where the aisle chair and attendant are waiting. You are transferred into the aisle chair. Your assistant informs the baggage supervisor in attendance about how to move the chair. Your assistant also sets the chair up for travel, often having to lay the chair out flat, unhook controls, or remove pieces that may fall off or get damaged during transport. (Think doubling your carry-on) The baggage crew takes your chair while you pray that they were really listening and pass on the information. You are rolled into the plane by no less than 2 attendants, plus your assistant. The three of them coordinate moving you to a seat depending on where your seat is. We recommend an aisle seat; there’s less moving to get to that one. They take away the aisle chair. VERY OFTEN, your flight will be delayed because of maintenance. Do not be fooled; this is often because someone is trying to move your chair and have no idea what they’re doing. Ok, you finally leave and everyone’s boarded and ready to go. Time from curb to boarded: 156 minutes (2hours, 36 minutes).

Now, you guessed it, you’re only on the plane. Most people just debark and you’re done once you land; 5 minutes. Nope, not when travelling with a power wheelchair. You have to wait until every other person has gotten their stuff and gotten off of the plain. The flight crew has to call ahead and warn the destination that you need an aisle chair and an attendant for help. You wait for them. They get there and you reverse the process. If you have a connecting flight, it is my opinion that you should leave at least 4 hours between flights. Yes, you may be sitting for 3 hours if EVERYTHING goes correctly. But, you are much much less likely to miss that connection. Less than an hour for connecting with a wheelchair is just tempting fate. Hell, 2 hours even tempts it a little. Get ready to tempt fate over and over again if you’re travelling with a wheelchair.

This last week, we dealt with all of these and more issues with our travel. Next, I’ll tell you all about these great adventures in purgatory.

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