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Flying with a disability

Me in an aisle chair.  At many European airports they will get you off the plane using a lift vehicle.  This is me on the aisle chair waiting to get taken into the plane, down the aisle, to my seat.

International plane travel is not very different than plane travel within the United States, however there are a few exceptions. The flights from the USA to Europe will leave in the afternoon or evening and will arrive the following day. Because the plane flights are at least 7 hours, a few additional challenges arise. 

Sitting for long periods of time Planes on trans-Atlantic flights have at least 1 disabled bathroom.
The first challenge is that sitting for that length of time may be a problem for some people. Fortunately, some overseas flights use bigger planes that have bigger seats that recline further than those on US domestic flights. This is true for both Coach and Business Class. Some airlines have seats that lie completely flat in Business Class (which certainly makes sleeping easier), but the cost for Business Class is about 7 or 8 times more expensive than Coach. You can sit on your wheelchair cushion if you need to. This is a typical handicapped bathroom on the plane.  There is room to position the on-board aisle chair next to the toilet.  I have also seen some bathrooms that are bigger and some that are smaller.

Using the bathroom
The second challenge is using the bathroom during the flight. This is generally not a problem because a folding “aisle chair” is kept onboard, and the flight attendants can help you get to the bathroom. The onboard aisle chair is similar to the aisle chair used to board the plane – it is very narrow and has four very small wheels underneath it. There are no big wheels to push so you will need a flightattendant to push you. There is at least one accessible bathroom onboard which is big enough to fit the aisle chair in. Flight attendants can help you transfer if you need it. They’ll appreciate it if you do not ask for assistance while they are serving meals. Other options include using a leg bag or peeing discretely into a bottle while in your seat…which is really easy to do if everyone is asleep (hey, ya do what ya gotta do!)

Seat Selection
As for your seat selection, you have a few options. The typical layout of a row on an international plane is window, 2 seats, aisle, 3 or 4 seats in the middle, aisle, 2 seats, then the window. The first option is to take an aisle seat in the bulkhead, which is the first row behind Business Class. There is additional leg room in the row, and it allows people sitting next to you to exit the row more easily. The problem with the bulkhead is that the arms do not fold up because they contain the trays. This can make for an awkward transfer. The second option is to sit in a window seat on a row that is not in the bulkhead. The arms fold up on these seats which makes the transfer easier. Additionally, if you sit at the window no one will need to climb over you. The third option is to get an aisle seat in the middle portion of a non-bulkhead row. The persons sitting on either side of you can exit to either aisle rather than climbing over you. The decision really depends on how well you transfer and how many people you have with you.

Flight Transfers
When I have a layover in the USA, I always insist on having my wheelchair brought to me at the door of the plane and pushing myself to my next flight. In Europe, I have found that this is not necessarily the standard way of doing things. When I have had layovers in Paris, sometimes they will transfer me to an airport wheelchair, and an airport employee will push me through customs and to another terminal. The plus side of doing it this way is that you avoid a potentially long customs line and you’ve got an airport employee to help you navigate the various terminals. The potential downside is if your flight is delayed, you may have some difficulty figuring out where your wheelchair ends up. Be sure that they put a baggage check tag on your wheelchair….if you get separated from it, they will be able to easily locate it.

– Very important info about RyanAir! You have to inform them when you book the flight (or at least 24 hours before the flight) that you will need assistance boarding the flight. They need to reserve assistance at the airport, and they will not let you board otherwise! Seriously! This has been a big controversy and is not the case with British Airways, Air France, Easy Jet, etc… RyanAir and EasyJet are the cheapest flights within Europe.

– All flight attendants on trans-Atlantic flights will speak English. Most flight attendants on flights within Europe will speak English.

– Normally I stay in my own chair until I get to the plane, but at the Berlin airport I was asked to transfer into an airport wheelchair so that they could run my wheelchair through the X-ray machine. I then stayed in the airport wheelchair until I got to the plane.

– On some flights, the plane will park on the runway rather than pulling up to the jetway. To get on and off the plane, the airport personnel will get you off the plane by using an elevating vehicle that is similar to the one they use to load the meals onto the plane. There are no challenges with this….it’s just a little different.

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