The last time I flew was to IV Step. I had been thinking about looking into how mobility deficits would change my experience flying for a while. The area in which I live attracts many tourists year around. Because of this, we occasionally will get patients at the inpatient rehab who are from who-knows-where and whose main goal is to be able to fly back home after sustaining an injury or change in medical status. After discussing participation at IV Step, I had the nudge I needed to ask questions as I went along in my trip from the real live people that would be assisting people with mobility deficits through the airports and planes. So what follows is what I learned from those great people– the helpful TSA officers, terminal assistants and airline stewards.
Before even arriving, you can go to TSA.gov to go over some of what I’ll mention here (although not in as much detail if I’m tooting my own horn *toot, toot!*) and you’ll also find guides for other medical conditions. The kind folks at check-in recommended calling about 72 hours in advance, so you can arrange specific curbside assistance, such as baggage assistance or wheelchair pick-up. They’ll also be able to tell you a good time to arrive, as they will know about how long the whole process will take to get you to the gate in time for your flight.
That was the easy part. Now comes the challenge of getting through security. If you’d like, an assistant can push you throughout this area, all the way up through this side of the metal detector/scanner and assist you with getting your carry on(s) on the x-ray machine. If your specific mobility condition comes along with cognitive deficits, you can request to be screened alone in a separate area. To make it through the regular screening process, you have 2 options: the metal detector or the screener. At the metal detector you’ll need to able to walk a few feet unaided. At the screener, you’ll need to able to got up a small ramp/step and stand 5-7 seconds unaided with arms held above your head and then descend the small ramp/step on the other side of the scanner. If you can’t do either of those, you can request a manual pat down. Also in this area, you’ll need to negotiate several gel mats and possibly stand with a wide base of support for a standing pat down, although seated pats downs are available. Any assistive devices will go through the x-ray scanner. If the device won’t fit in the machine, it will be swabbed and tested for explosive residue. Just like everyone else, you’ll be required to take off your shoes and any outerwear. It is highly recommended that you get a TSA pre-check prior to flying if these requirements are too stringent for you, as this will exempt you from the clothing requirements and you’ll also not have to wait in line so long.
Once you’re through, you can ask the TSA folk to have an assistant come meet you at the security point with a wheelchair, so they can push you through the terminal OR you can wait for one of the shuttles. The shuttles may pose a difficulty though as the 2 different kinds I saw were 9.5″ and 14″ up onto the platform. Now the seat backs there on the shuttle will provide something you can grab onto on the transfer, but that’s a BIG step up. I didn’t get a chance to interview a terminal assistant, as all the ones I saw were assisting someone. So I’m not sure exactly how much assistance they are allowed to provide. To be on the safe side, I’d say if you need help with transfers or managing the restroom, travel with a family member or friend who is trained and willing to assist with these areas. And you’ll certainly want to go the restroom before you get on the plane. You’ll see why shortly.
Once you’re at the gate, let the gate attendant know that you have a mobility impairment, so you can board first and be assigned a seat near the front on the aisle. When it’s your turn to board, the ramp is quite steep (6 degree incline), carpeted, with several small ramps/inclines in the middle ranging from about 1.5-2.5″ in width you’d need to step over. If you have any kind of balance impairment, or just aren’t sure on your feet sometimes, I’d accept a wheelchair ride down and up this.
Now to get on the plane gets a little tricky. If you can walk down the aisle to your seat (depending on the size of the plane anywhere from I’d guess 10 feet to 25 feet to make it to a regular class seat), this would be easiest, although you will have to negotiate a step or two to do so. There is a plethora of things to hold onto at these steps and down the aisles though– seat backs (47″ high), rails (28.25″ from floor), plane walls, etc. The aisle on the plane I went on (a United flight 2 seats + 2 seats. Hit the “Contact” button up top to e-mail me if you want the specific plane type.) was approximately 18.75″ wide at the narrowest area at the seat level, so a walker will not fit down there. If you aren’t able to walk down the aisle, a transport chair is available. The seat is about 12″ wide, so it will fit beautifully down the aisle; however, personally, my seated behind is wider that 12″, in fact it’s probably wider than the 18.75″ of the aisle… you see the problem here? So unless you’re a skinny Minny, you’ll have to walk down… maybe even sideways.
Once you arrive at the seat, we’ve got another bear to manage. It would be preferable to do a stand pivot transfer, as the seat arms are fixed on the outside. And in some cabins you must be able to lean back as you edge in, because the space is so tight between the rows. A squat pivot would be possible if able to clear the 28.5″ from floor arm. This transfer would have to be performed facing the rear of the plane as the chair will not have space to turn around. The space on the floor between the rows for your feet is approximately 12.5″ on the plane I was on. The area from the edge of your seat to the seat in front of you when it is in the upright position was 9.25″ Not much room for error.
You’re sitting down. You’ve taken off. You’re doing great… and then your bladder starts talking. To the bathroom we go! To get in the bathroom, you’ll have to maneuver down the aisle again. The door requires you to hold it open as you enter while stepping over the 5.25″ ramp/step. Again, if you’ve got the slightest balance trouble, I’d have someone hold the door while you enter. The area for your feet to move is 11.25″X 19.75″, but the toilet bowl juts into this area, cutting the 19.75″ down to 12.5″ of usable area there. Basically, you have to do the sideways shuffle to get it and out. You may be able to turn yourself fully standing to face the mirror to wash your hands. But the good thing about the small space is the paper towels, soap, trash and flusher are close at hand!
As you can see, air travel is rife with unique mobility requirements. Keep these in mind when functionally training your travel loving patients.
I’ve been trying to add some pics for half an hour now and it’s just not working with me. If I can get those, I’ll add them later. I’m tired and highly annoyed. So I’ll just leave a little cutesy plane pic here instead.