Forget the Aisle Chair

Today, we’ve been sitting on the tarmac at Atlanta Airport for nearly two hours now. What was supposed to be a 45 minute layover has dragged on without explanation.

We’re on the way to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Philly – and to my surprise, at least a quarter of the plane are competitors and wheelchair users. As an able bodied individual, this admittedly made boarding a longer process but in that time, I’ve actually learned a great deal.

For example, did you know there is such a thing as an “aisle chair”? I didn’t. It has never occurred to me but the aisles on airplanes are so narrow that no normal wheelchair could fit – so airlines have a specialty one designed for use on the plane.

Most users seem fairly adept at transitioning and manipulating themselves to let other people squeeze past them. And they’re all lively and chatting, telling travel horror stories – it seems traveling is no easy feat when you’re paralyzed.

So why are we sitting on the tarmac 90 minutes after our flight was supposed to take off – well, it seems that airlines don’t quite know how to handle having multiple wheelchair users on one flight. The delay is apparently due to lack of storage space for multiple wheelchairs. And they actually wanted to leave one behind and send it on the next flight – thankfully someone pointed out the difficulties with that approach.

Another thing I’ve learned – airlines have special rules in terms of how they need to handle batteries – including power wheelchair batteries – all the different types seem to seriously confuse them.

So now there are at least 5 different people up talking to the pilot when something else depressing happens. The gentleman in front of me, I’ll call him Fred, needs to use the bathroom. He’s been ringing the buzzer for the stewardess for a few minutes now with no response. He and his buddies are trying to get her attention, shouting and waving their arms in the air. Still no response.

A few minutes later a stewardess sighs and comes over. He explains that he needs the aisle chair to get to the bathroom. By the time she returns the whole expedition has taken nearly 30 minutes. And we’re still not ready to leave.

I’m frustrated and I can only imagine how my fellow passengers are feeling. They’re talking amongst themselves in frustration. It’s a simple fix – make sure that airlines ask the wheelchair and battery questions upon check in. Simple idea but that would require a level of proactive customer service that we’re unlikely to see in today’s airline industry.

We’re taking off now. I can only imagine how complex disembarking is going to be.

I don’t have a lesson or a morale for this story. I just wanted to share because the National Veterans Wheelchair Games are an amazing and inspiring experience. And it seems, so is traveling to them.

If you’re in Philadelphia this week – come check it out! The Games are open to the public and free of charge. With 17 different sports on offer, there’s something for everyone

Thanks & See You All Next Week

P.S: After our arrival, we discovered that we weren’t alone in this issue. It seems every major airline coming into Philadelphia today was equally befuddled by so many wheelchair users.

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