Wheelchair Travel SUCKS!! I just got back from a trip to Minnesota for my father in laws birthday, the actual visit once there was great, but traveling in a wheelchair is the worst, so I figured this was a great time to rant on it and provide the few tips I do have.
The disaster of flight travel for those of us in wheelchairs begins with the security process. It actually has gotten a bit better, (guessing due to a lot of complaining), and airports are very good about making sure we get put into an express line. And we need it, because if you cannot walk through the XRay scanner you have to go through a pat down. The pat down, 99 times out of 100, is overkill. This is likely due to the TSA agent having no clue what he is doing so he just makes sure to do everything 10 times to be same. They begin with patting over every body part multiple times, then tests his gloves. The TSA then pats down the chair and does another test of gloves. And finally, they may even do a 3rd test of gloves after a miscellaneous pat down involving a mix of the chair and the body for no reason whatsoever. My theory was proven on the flight back from Minneapolis as I had an experienced TSA agent handle the pat down and it was smooth and sensical. I even asked him about it and he mentioned he had been around forever. It showed.
Another huge security problem is we enter our items through the XRAY conveyer belt only to sit and wait for an agent to come grab us for the pat down. This can take several minutes as we just sit there helpless and watch our items float down the conveyer as up to 20 some people are likely to pass us by. Since we have to take our laptops out this is extremely nerve-racking as it doesn't take much for somebody to snatch it. I cannot properly express to you how aggravating this is.
I get the importance of security and appreciate the effort to keep everyone safe but the level of overboard screening I have to go through makes me wonder if somewhere in the anti-terrorist, terrorism prevention manual it is stated that the highest risk travelers are wheelchair folks. The screening we go through really is overkill.
Next up is the bathroom situation. This is a general note for any "able-bodied" bathroom user. STOP FUCKING USING THE HANDICAP STALL! Often there are up to 10 stalls in an airport bathroom with one or two being wide enough for a wheelchair and it is ridiculous how often both are in use when less than half are in use. So there may be 5+ stalls open but we cannot get in any of these because the two that we can use are taken. I get it when the bathroom is packed you grab what you can and I have no issue with that, but if there are multiple options, please leave the "wide doored" stalls empty for those that require it.
I feel like the bathroom usage problem is WORSE at airports simply because people with longer delays are in no hurry whatsoever and if they are just gonna be sitting around they think "may as well just sit here". Its aggrevating. My advice to wheelchair travelers is to grab the "family" bathroom whenever possible. It is just as much meant for us as it is meant for a parent who needs to change a baby's diaper.
The boarding/un-boarding process is often the biggest stressor of airline travel for me. Especially if you fly Delta which is a disorganized shit-show. If you are in a wheelchair like me and cannot walk the process involves what they call an aisle-chair to get hauled through the too-skinny-for-your-chair-aisle. I call it the "Hannibal Lector Chair" as it resembles the Dolly and straps that Lector was restrained in when meeting the senator in Silence of the Lambs. I wheel down the runway, have to transfer onto this dolly with a seat, get strapped in, then get hauled onto the plane by general airport personnel like a stack of cargo.
The people that normally do this work try their best but too often seem to have no idea how to operate and maneuver the Lector chair. This results in me often wondering not IF I will get tipped over, but how many times. The bright side of this experience is I have get to go through this again when I land to get off the plane.
I also get to experience the thrill of not really knowing if my wheelchair made it on the plane or not. Strollers and the chair is the last thing that will get loaded on the plane so I often worry "what if they just forget". I mean has there ever been a time where a stroller was left behind? In all air travel, for all time? I would have to think this has happened at least a few times which makes it quite possible a chair has been left behind, or will be left behind. This thought makes the entire flight a stressful foreshadowing to "will it be there"? Not fun.
Travel involving connecting flights magnifies all of this tenfold as you have to deal with all of these headaches multiple times. My only piece of advice is to NEVER book a connection under 1 hour. 90 minutes is probably the sweet spot as you will be the last person to get off the first flight and the first person on the next flight. By the time you get off the plane, go to the bathroom and get to your next gate, 90 minutes will feel like 5 minutes.
I am so sick of dealing with connecting flights that we actually drove 5+ hours to Atlanta to avoid a connection. The airport near me is only 20 minutes away and has countless flights per day to Atlanta. This is how much I despise connecting flights.
Almost every flight seems to involve a connection in Atlanta. I have no tips for dealing with this airport other than warning every wheel-traveler to brace yourself for hell if you have to connect through it. You may want to bump up that connection time to 2 hours minimum if flying through Atlanta. I can almost guarantee that they will get you off the first plane very delayed as they are never ready. Once you get into the airport and try to go to the bathroom, it is almost guaranteed the handicap stalls will be in use. Once you make your way to the next gate I can almost guarantee that you will have to take the train to the next gate which involves 2 elevator tips to get to and fro the train.
This whole process is hell.
Other than just telling all wheelchair travelers to "hang in there" I do have one piece of advice. Whenever possible, fly Southwest. Southwest has BY FAR the best setup for wheelchair travelers. On all southwest flights I have been on we don't even need the Hannibal Lector chair as the aisle opening to the first row of seats is wide enough for us to wheel right up and transfer to the first row. Big Win. Southwest also seems to give a crap in general as they are always on top of things when it comes to when I board, making sure I get on first, etc.
Wheelchair travel sucks, if you have any tips please share them. Avoid connections all-together if you can, if you cannot, make sure that connection time is AT LEAST one hour. Whenever possible, book Southwest. No matter what, be ready to be frustrated and stressed out at nearly every turn.