Wednesday, 16 March 2016

First Flight

For the ninth year in a row, we have made our way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for our March Break. Getting here this year...was a little bit different. In past years we have done the trip in the car, taking 2 days to drive, either straight through or with one overnight. This year we flew - and what an adventure that was! The kids have virtually no experience with flying (Ella few to Newfoundland when she was two) so they were pretty pumped about flying south "we can't be late or we will miss our flight!!!" It was a long day that went something like this...

We took a wheelchair taxi from the hotel to Pearson and checked in at the "special assistance" United Airlines counter, where our bags were ticketed and we picked up our boarding pass. You would think that she would have made a note in the computer that I was in a wheelchair (she did tag it) - it became evident later on that this was not the case. (Yes - my travel agent called ahead of time to tell them). Then we went to gate 15 where she told us we needed to wait to be called, which we did. When they called for 10:25 or sooner flights we got into the line and as we got to the head of the line an nice lady with a walkie-talkie said we should not have been there and that we had been given the wrong information - we should have been directed to the special line for people who require assistance (the same line the flight personnel go to) to get through customs. Getting to this line allowed us to skip the HUGE line that everyone else was in and get through customs faster (I am not sure how any of the "regular" people got to their flights on time).

Boarding passes in hand, we reach the gate where, to our surprize, the gate attendant informs us that she was not informed that I was requiring the assistance of an aisle chair (the skinny little chair that takes people who can't walk down the aisle) Side note: and I mean skinny - you sit on the chair and your hips are at the same height as the armrests - how someone larger than me would do it, I have no idea. I assured the attendant that my travel agent had called ahead (which she had) and we had to sit at the gate until they brought an aisle chair for me to use. We were not the last ones on the plane, but we certainly were not the first and they changed our seating arrangement so I did not have to go so far back (but they did not bump me to first class). Oliver and I sat in row 9, Theo and Ella were way far back in 21. It was my understanding that someone immobile like me was to sit with someone who would be able to assist them in an emergency. Don't get me wrong, Oliver and I had a great time flying together, but he would not be carrying me off the plane!

Our flight from Toronto to Washington (Dulles) was delayed leaving (slow customs - like I said) by at least 30 minutes. This made me anxious about catching our flight from Dulles to Norfolk - we only had a 55 minute window - and silly me thought that they would have let the landing gate know that I would need assistance. They didn't, so when we got there, and there was no help waiting, Theo piggy-backed me (did I mention I weigh 146 lbs?) to my chair which was outside the plane (thank goodness). We had sent the kids ahead and the lady who met us there said that our gate was way across the airport. My response was "well please push me or we will never get there!" She radioed her supervisor that we were coming - and everyone (but me) started running. Poor Ella really needed to use the bathroom (one whole coke consumed on the plane) and I said "sorry - no time pick up the bags and run!"

As we were making our way there a guy on a trolley stopped, asked where we were going and picked up Theo and the kids. I wish I had been able to get a picture of them whiz by us - they were having such a blast! Meanwhile, this 50-something woman who had not been in training, was running while pushing me - what was easily a mile from one end of the airport to the other (no joke). I tried to help her in a couple of spots (like up a ramp), but she just said (while huffing and puffing) "no mam, don't help, it's okay, my supervisor knows we are coming". When we got to the gate there was an aisle chair waiting for me, so Theo gave the kids their boarding passes and sent them ahead. We had to go down an elevator first which, when we got to the bottom, emptied out onto the tarmak! We rolled out and the kind lady who had pushed me all that way pointed to the plane that we had to board - that had stairs down to the tarmak. No ramp in site! So by now at least 10 minutes had passed from the time we disembarked one plane and had been running to the other, and we sat around for at least another five when the pilot came down and said "you are the last passengers?? you are it!" 

What would you have done? Waited for a ramp to come (they said it was on it's way) or done what you did to get off the last plane? So I scooched my bum to the edge of my chair and wrapped my arms around Theo's neck. Ever so slowly and carefully he lifted me up and crawled up the stairs and carried me all the way to my seat - third from the back. There was a nice lady at the very front of the plane who offered us her seat, but we could not figure out how to lift that arm rest (it was different from the rest) so off we went to my assigned seat. I am sure that I kicked a few people along the way and I cried from exhaustion, stress and relief when I got into my seat. But, we got there:)

The day before we left, Theo and I had talked about what our concerns were about travelling. He was worried about catching our first flight (sometimes our kids do not move as fast as we would like them to in the morning) but I was worried about that second flight. Turns out we were both right in the end. And that is not the end of the "United Airlines get an F for accessibility" story because when we got to Norfolk we had to wait at least 15 minutes for the aisle chair to arrive - and that was even after all the other passengers had gotten off the plane. I sat looking out the window watching the luggage come off the plane, including my wheelchair and seat (separately!). Don't get me wrong, the airline fails, not the people. Most of the people who helped us were wonderful - including my runner - but there are some serious gaps in communication. They should have had assistance ready and waiting. Too bad we have to fly with them on the way home - I can only imagine!


  1. Happy to hear you arrived safely and who knows perhaps the second time around it will be an entirely different experience. Fingers crossed! We'll have to give this flying thing a shot together sometime soon. Perhaps we'll just have to work our way though the airlines and hand out report cards to each one on their current accessibility.

  2. Vandervlies family17 March 2016 at 08:56

    Oh yes. When you are not a cookie cutter traveler flying can give lots of frustration. And the really disgusting thing is that you have everything planned out. You make sure with your booking that they know you are not cookie cutter. I can only imagine the frustration when you are in a wheelchair. Still admiring your determination to stick to your March Break Tradition! Enjoy!

  3. Wow, Julie! I can't believe Theo had to carry you. Airlines are all jerks. We fly a lot to Dave's parents and while we don't have accessibility issues, we've travelled with small babies, me with two kids under three, lost luggage, had weather, you name it. Doesn't matter which airline. Jerks! I'm glad you made it to your holiday :).

  4. Sounds like you are in "humility training"... Well done Theo for piggybacking, and Julie for enduring the ignominity. Having travelled with my wife when she needed a wheelchair in the past, I can relate... The odd "perk" is nice (skipping huge lineups), but questionable whether it entirely offsets the disadvantages. Welcome to your new 'calling' of helping educate others / systems on accessibility issues!