Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fear of flying

I don’t like airplanes and airports for that matter. Not because I’m afraid we will fall down from the sky and crash or because I get claustrophobic. My wheelchair makes things much more complicated and stressful and I feel so many things can go wrong while I have no control over anything- even my body. It starts with my arrival at the terminal and check in. My carry on most of the time is just to heavy for me to safely roll around with it on my lap so I need someone, a friend to help me get to an agent. From there they call a person to assist me- in a word push my chair to the gate. It has happened before that they were late, left me behind or didn’t speak any English. At the gate they should have a crew with a straightback isle chair. It’s designed to be narrow enough to fit between the sits. I’m strapped in it and immobilized while other people transfer me in an out of it and navigate it sometimes carrying it up the stairs. My biggest concern is always my wheelchair that I leave behind, especially if I see it waiting  by the plane for a while. Will they know how to fold it? Will it come back intact? I’ve had it come out with somebody else’s wheels on before, I’ve seen my anti-tipper bar fall off and it’s very easy to misplace my removable side guards. The chair gets scratched and banged up pretty badly. My other concern is will it be waiting for me in between my connecting flights.
Once when I was flying home somebody checked my wheelchair all the way to Warsaw. I’ve spent seven hours in Frankfurt in a temporary hospital style loaner airport chair and I was told not to leave their disability office/waiting area. .But that’s just the beginning. Then I need to make sure that once again there is someone to transfer me to the isle chair and get me out of the plane while I find another person to get me to my connecting flight on time. And usually the airport in between is ten times larger than the one I departed from. More stress, more waiting. But the rushing, the loading and unloading is not the worst part. The actual flight is. I end up sitting in a fixed position, not really able to adjust myself for many hours in the air and that is just torture. Other people are able to stand or move around the cabin while obviously I struggle to balance my weight throughout the seat.
And of course then there’s the bathroom situation. I don’t use when I travel by myself even if I feel I need to. There’s no easy way for me to get back there, there’s nobody who can provide any kind of assistance although I guess if I had to I would’ve just crawled down the isle to get into that tiny room. The more I sit in that fixed position the more I feel like I just have to go. And there are times that I feel ill and there is nothing I can do. Once I’ve had a bad reaction to the interesting food choices served on board of the Air France flight to Warsaw that lasted for days after I got home. Now,I know it’s bad on on everyone. But consider how much worse it is for a person with limited mobility stuck in a tiny space with no room or any grab bars or devices to help me move, stand up or turn around. When I need to use the restroom on the plane or if my body starts to ache I just close my eyes hoping to pass out and for it all to be over when I wake. But let me tell you, the whole mind over matter thing  doesn’t work. My carry on and my checked luggage are almost always randomly selected for inspection and if I’m on an international flight I expect my bags to get lost (happened twice).  Carpets don’t make it easy if you are rolling yourself around and collecting all your pieces and heading out to the exit is a bit of a challenge if you are in a wheelchair, because let me tell you, you don’t get a whole lot of assistance when you are out of that gate. So many things to think about, so many things to navigate, so many things that can go wrong. Gives you a headache?
Here’s a positive story. The weather conditions in North Carolina Sunday night grounded all planes and made me miss my flight to Gainesville. The US Airways team in Washington DC really wanted me to be able to go to an airline-sponsored hotel for the night because the next one was in 11 hours. Their colleagues in Charlotte were at first hesitant to let me leave the airport but then went above and beyond to find me a wheelchair accessible hotel and set up proper transportation, walked me to the cab  and even made sure I  got in it. I was surprised that my rerouted checked luggage actually made it here with me and I didn’t have to go anywhere, explain anything and it was all handled for me.

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