Recently, I had to make a quick flight out to South Korea to handle some family affairs.
Of course, as a complete paraplegic, I ran into more than a handful of the usual hesitations.
First was how to pack. How much of a safety net would I need with my medical supplies like my catheters? To take or not to take the travel shower chair? How would I carry my luggage, which looked to be considerable, through three different airports (I had a one-stop layover each way)?
Then there were the in-flight arrangements. Should I use a cushion on board the plane? Yes because pressure sores, no because the added height hurts my neck. And what was I going to do about peeing on 15-hour flights?
I’d been hoping to go this one alone, because my schedule is more flexible than Boyfriend’s and I could both leave sooner and stay longer as needed. I argued to very concerned Boyfriend and Mom that at some point I have to learn how to travel solo again, bathrooms and battling clueless airline crew and all.
Boy, are we glad we didn’t take that leap this time around.
Here’s what happened.
I made travel plans about a week in advance through this airline’s U.S. customer service line. I explained that I’m a paraplegic who can’t move her body from the waist down and fully depends on her wheelchair for independence. Call agents assured me that all four flights have designed first-come, first-serve storage space in the cabin for storage of a manual wheelchair. I even provided extensive details about my paraplegia, wheelchair measurements, and even the injury that caused my condition, all to further ensure I’d be able to keep my chair out of cargo.
As soon as we got to JFK the first night to leave the U.S., check-in agents immediately complained that they hadn’t been informed about having to accommodate a wheelchair on our flights. I sighed: This always happens, even though I always book plane tickets through the individual airlines and double check over and over again that I don’t have to do anything else to make sure flight attendants know about the chair. I politely informed them that I’d already done everything I could on my end. The usual argument over whether to carry on and check in my wheelchair took place. The final decision about its storage, I was told, was reserved for the Inflight Service Manager.
Again as we’d encountered before on other flights, we got to the plane and were told by the ISM that no space was available. The part that did surprise us, however, was that flight crew continued insisting that any extra storage space was “necessary” to store blankets and pillows, and they would not move these items for the sake of my chair. We pointed out that my chair could be broken down completely and had been stored just fine on much smaller aircraft; we even offered to demonstrate how compact it could get.
This happened to us again and again, on each leg of our travel, despite our repeated pleas.
Their refusals to accommodate the chair were especially bizarre on our connecting flights from Hong Kong to Korea and back, because both those flights were far from full and rife with empty seats that could easily have held my chair. Some of those seats were immediately adjacent to us, again on both flights.
Left without much choice, we reluctantly agreed to allow cargo storage of my wheelchair. Of course, agents repeatedly assured us that my wheelchair would be securely packaged in plastic wrap so as not to risk losing any of its individual parts. They also promised that my personal wheelchair — not any clunkers from the local airports — would be brought to the door of the plane immediately upon unboarding.
Here’s where shit started really getting bad. On our return flight, we reached Hong Kong only to find that local crew had brought a loaner to the plane instead of my own chair. First off, the chair was enormous. I’m 5’3, and I also have short legs for my already short height. My feet barely touched the leg rests, meaning I could either let my feet drag across all of Hong Kong International or I could sit cross-legged and everyone we encountered in the airport could look right up my skirt. We also had barely an hour and a half to make it to our transfer flight, which was all the way across the airport, and had to waste precious time waiting for crew to bring my chair up as they should have from the start.
Even more hindrances ate into our tight schedule. On all legs of our travel, agents repeatedly asked me to remove my SmartDrive assistive motor from my chair, often several times in one airport. This even though they had clearly examined, approved, and recorded notes about the battery every single time. This stop in Hong Kong was no exception, and we were asked no fewer than three times to remove the darn thing.
We were also tailed and harangued by multiple local wheelchair assistants — I counted four — that we kept insisting we did not need.
It just feeds back to the usual tale about how the able-bodied like inundating us with the help that we don’t need and even actively refuse, instead of the help we actually ask for.
The assistants even grabbed and pushed my chair without permission, again despite my repeatedly telling them to stop. I ended up getting my fingers caught in my wheel spokes several times because the assistants would start pushing without warning, and I couldn’t get my hands out of the way in time. Mind you, hand injuries don’t just affect my mobility; I’m also an illustrator by occupation.
The final straw, however, came when we arrived in JFK. Once again, crew brought a giant clunker to the entrance of the plane. It was 11 p.m. at night and we were pretty fed up having to explain for the umpteenth time why this was inappropriate. Crew were sent back down to cargo to retrieve my wheelchair. They came back empty-handed. At this point, they told us, “It might be lost.”
I think we’d still been pretty polite up to then, but after hearing that, I lost it. “Are you shitting me?!” I yelled, and then immediately broke down in tears. It was part act, to make them feel like douchebags, and part just being beyond exasperated.
I should probably mention at this point that the reason I had to go to Korea was because my grandfather, the grandparent I idolized the most by far, had just passed away. This trip was also the first time my other grandfather even found out about my injury two years ago, and also the first time pretty much every one in my family saw me post-injury and permanently paralyzed.
Whatever the effect of my theatrics, crew members fumbled for words when I asked what they would do if the chair was indeed lost.
Luckily, the chair was located (after 20 minutes). However, when it was brought up, we discovered that a small but very essential bolt was missing. Luckily, this was before the baggage handlers left. We asked to take a look at the plastic bag the chair should have been stored in. We were told that the chair had not been stored in any bag. Luckily, the bolt was found (another 20 minutes later). But how lucky were we, really?
Not very, apparently.
As we headed toward baggage claim, we quickly realized that one of the wheels of my chair had clearly been damaged in transit. It still wobbles from side to side even when I’m trying to push my chair along a straight and flat path.
I know I’m not the first wheelchair user to experience improper mobility equipment handling by airline operators and I haven’t even experienced the worst of such ignorance. After all, the airline has been fairly cooperative with us (so far) in dealing with the aftermath of our travel, we found the piece that could have gone missing, and a wheel just has to be replaced (which the airline has also promised to foot the bill for).
But what if I hadn’t been one of the “lucky” ones? What if the airlines decided they hadn’t done anything wrong? What if this had been years ago, and there were no regulations in place to even demand that airlines compensate for such shoddy treatment? What if they’d done worse damage to my chair, and I’d had to wait for a replacement wheelchair? And considering my experience with wheelchair orders, what if I’d had to wait six months — nay, a year — for the new chair to come?
And finally, why is the bar set so low that stories like mine could easily be considered the “lucky” ones?