A Typical Airport Experience: From Booking To Boarding — Reeve Connect
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A Typical Airport Experience: From Booking To Boarding

WAGSofSCI Moderator Posts: 379 Moderator
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Hey All! There are plenty couples out there who have yet to travel post- SCI. It can be an extremely nerve-racking experience, especially if you do not know what to expect. The airport can be a scary place, where things are disorganized and chaotic. The last thing you want is to have an experience that leaves a bad taste in your life. Regardless of your ability level, the world is calling you to experience it - and a spinal cord injury shouldn't slow you down from doing just that. 

My husband and I have had the travel bug since right after his injury.. we didn't want anything to keep us from seeing the world. We had missed out on vacations and extensive travel before his injury as a couple - we were too busy working and having life pass us by to fly anywhere. After his SCI, we made it a goal to never let "life" hold us back from our travel goals.

We took some steps to prepare ourselves as best we could, but we truly didn't know what to do until we DID it. After our first few flights, we felt more confident to go more often, and now, we know what to expect when we arrive at the airport. Here, I will help guide you on what to expect when you get to the airport - maybe our experiences can help you prepare so you won't be as nervous as we were!

1. When booking your flights: ensure you reach out to the airline and let them know directly what your partners needs are. Assume they don't know anything about it and ensure that you book "airport assistance" prior to arriving at the airport. They usually require minimum 72 hours notice before your flight to set things up. The earlier, the better. Let them know which kind of chair you are bringing with you, and if there are any batteries with it. The airline will send you their policies beforehand about batteries that are accepted on board. 

If you are travelling internationally, make sure you get a note from your partners doctor saying he is "fit to travel" and has no current health concerns (and that his Sci is well managed etc). If something happens and you need to use your travel insurance, this will help speed up the process as the insurer will not ask as many questions. Also, it helps to have a doctors note anyways in case anyone at the airport questions your disability or needs.

2. When you arrive: ARRIVE AT LEAST 3 HOURS EARLY for international; 2 for Domestic flights. Make sure you ask for help with your bags right away. There are concierge workers who are there specifically to help, so grab them as soon as you can. They will help you with your luggage, escort you to the appropriate check in point, and answer any questions you may have. 

If you are a power wheelchair user, make sure you have your battery information (from the manufacturer preferably) with you. Most wheelchair manufacturers have standard travel notices about the chairs that they can send you. You cannot fly with certain types of batteries, so know your battery type well before hand so you can see what you can travel with. Make sure you come prepared for this. They will NOT allow certain types of batteries on board - so be prepared.

3. On check in: ask for assistance boarding. Even if you can transfer yourself, you will want someone there to help and direct you. They will reserve an aisle chair for you and help you along the way as well as transfer you. They will ask you If they can take your wheelchair then and there, and give you an airport wheelchair to use until you are at the gate. I would recommend not doing that - they dont have your specific cushion, and they can be super uncomfortable. Plus, you want your chair with you until you transfer into an aisle chair (this makes your partner more comfortable and helps keep it in your hands longer (aka less damage).

Ask them to tag your chair (with your partner still in it) and with a tag that says "handle with care" and "requested at gate" meaning they will bring your chair to you post flight directly (it wont be in baggage claim where you will have to fetch it after). 

Make sure any medical baggage is NOT charged for. Most airlines have ((online)) in their polices, that medical equipment and baggage is NOT extra to travel with. Dont let them charge you, and it may be a good idea to screen shot their policies from their official website to show employees that this is in fact the case. Some dont know! We had this experience in Rome on a smaller airline - they charged us $300 euros for extra bags and wouldn't budge until I showed them their online rules for medical supplies. They quickly reversed the charges once they were shown their own policies. Remember, airport staff may not be used to dealing with this sort of thing - especially smaller airlines and airports.

The assistance will offer to escort you to your gate. Do this only if you want to know where it is. In bigger airports this is useful as sometimes it takes half hour or more to find the gate!

4. Security: You will always skip the lines and get priority security checks as someone who is disabled (and their partner). They will ask to manually search your partner which is fine. They may also ask him if he can get up so they can check his cushion. Simply tell them he cannot get up and that they have to manually search everything. Usually they will do this with no issues. 

5. Post security: make sure you're familiar with where your gate is. Spend some time relaxing, get a drink, make sure you have all your supplies that you need for your flight:
- a travel roho cushion or equivalent (along with the air pumps)
- any transfer boards you may need
- a bottle for urine disposal
- catheters and travel catheters
- paper towels and wipes, along with a travel sized portion of "Natures Miracle" or equivalent oxygen based urine and stain remover (just in case)
- any other medical supplies he may need
- any straps he may need to hold him up in his airline chair (for higher quads)
- Extra medical supplies for 3 days just in case your bags are lost.

Enjoy yourself while you wait for the flight gate to open! This is the time to relax and have some fun.. explore and take your mind off stress. This is supposed to be fun!

6. Boarding: Arrive half hour BEFORE your boarding time. Some bigger airports will call you on the speaker before (when they want you to come and board) but don't wait for that or assume they will. Be there waiting so that you can board early. My husband and I have been late for early boarding and its embarrassing when you arrive and the regular passengers are all standing around waiting to board tapping their foot or looking at their watches. They wont board anyone else until you're there and boarded - so be on time!

7. Getting in your seat: Allow the staff to assist you in getting your partner into his aisle chair. They will do an underarm/ under knee 2-person transfer for quads, and assist in para transfers. The aisle chair is NOT easy to get into so make sure you have all the help you can get. If you're not confident in WHO is helping transfer, suggest someone else who may be stronger or more adept to help. One time we asked for one of the baggage guys to come and help as we were worried they would drop my husband!

Make sure you go in first and set his cushion up on his seat before he transfers. Also, put your luggage in the overhead compartments, and talk to the flight attendants about who he is and what he may need. They will be willing to help you if you need it!

8. Once he's in his seat: make sure you have easy access to all his supplies and water. I like to bring an opaque urine bottle with me to visit the bathroom after he pees, so no one sees im holding a bottle of his urine!

Enjoy your flight and HAVE FUN! Let us know if you have any questions or comments below:

- Brooke (WAGS of SCI)
Your WAGS of SCI
(Elena and Brooke)


  • prc_Beth
    prc_Beth Moderator, Information Specialist Posts: 62 Information Specialist
    Second Anniversary 10 Comments Name Dropper 5 Awesomes
    This is great information! Thanks for putting this together.
  • PattiLamere
    PattiLamere Member Posts: 1
    First Comment Photogenic
    I like to bring an opaque urine bottle with me to visit the bathroom after he pees, so no one sees im holding a bottle of his urine!
  • Derek
    Derek Member Posts: 1
    First Comment
    Nicely laid out and informative. I'm a larger (6'6" 300lb c-5/6) quadriplegic, and have had multiple bad, a few decent and only one good transfer to aisle chair experiences. I wish the aisles and seats had a little more room to facilitate ease for those assistants. Either that, or do like public transit where some seats are movable and then allow for travel within their own mobility device.