Air Travel Nightmare
We all want to feel safe.
And one way of feeling safe is by knowing we are taking care of.
As a paraplegic woman, this is why I am careful which company I choose for my air travels.
Accessibility is not just about Access, it should be first and foremost about Safety and Care.
Lack of training or appropriate equipment can make situation extremely dangerous, which can have an incredible negative impact on my health and body as a paraplegic woman.
What Air Travel entails for someone with a Spinal Cord Injury
Our needs can be very different. Spinal Cord Injury or Paraplegia does not automatically equate to a specific set of accommodations. If an injury has occurred lower on the spinal cord and the person has access to core strength, they might have more balance and capacity to move and transfer from seat to seat. If their spinal cord injury is located higher, thus leading to more limitations, they might require more help to get in the plane and on their seat.
In my case, I have chosen to ask for more assistance, as a safety concern and also to limit strain on my body. A seat to seat transfer is hard to do, especially on a tight space. And when travelling, many of those transfers are required: from the car to the wheelchair, the wheelchair to the airplane chair, to the airplane seat – and everything in reverse order upon arrival. I have thus chosen to request total assistance for those transfers.
But asking for assistance, does not mean I relinquish my need to feel safe. I need to be confident in the know-how of agents and airport employees.
And the only way I can be safe is with appropriate training for employees in airport and airplane companies.
💯 I need to feel safe when I am carried – literally – onto a very tiny airplane wheelchair, then onto my seat.
➡️ Nobody would want to be pushed onto the floor – just like I don’t want to be dropped.
💯 I need to feel confident my wheelchair will be treated with ultra-care. Afterall, my wheels are my legs.
➡️ Nobody would want to travel if they risked to have their legs broken, neither do I.
💯 I need to be assured my medical equipment travelling with me will be moved with care as well. This equipment is essential to my autonomy as it allows me to be as independent in the daily care of my body.
➡️ If this equipment is broken, I can’t have proper hygiene, which can lead to medical issues.
➡️ If this equipment is unstable, I risk falling onto the ground and seriously injure myself.
So I usually chose the company I travel with – to alleviate those stressors as much as I can.
But on a trip to Vancouver last July, there were no availabilities on Air Canada, the company I usually chose because of their High Standards and commitment towards accessibility.
The only flights I found, were on Air Transat. And with that choice, for the first time since my accident, air travel became this very scary, dangerous and uncomfortable series of moments.
Here are three of the mistakes every Airline Company should consider when training their employees.
Mistake #1: Safety concerns with Transfers to and from seats and wheelchairs
😡 In Vancouver International Airport, instead of being carried by two strong humans, I was carried by two people who, although super nice, were not trained and who clearly had never carried a paralyzed body before. It led to insecurities from them and increased stress from me.
😳 I was then put in a very unstable and foldable little airplane wheelchair, from which I had to hold on to so I wouldn’t fall. I wasn’t buckled in as there were no seatbelts, leading to more instability and stress.
😩 I was then transferred over an armrest that COULD NOT be lifted up. This meant, the staff had to lift me up even higher up, which is hard to do in the best of circumstances. In a tight space, in between seats and a small row, it is almost impossible. As a result, I was dropped on that armrest (instead of the seat), putting me at risk of severe injury.
Upon arrival in Montreal, after everyone was finally out of the plane, three people came in to help me transfer unto that tiny foldable chair. As I had lived through the debacle in Vancouver earlier that day, I asked one of them if he was going to take care of me. He said yes and I believed him.
But the other person who was meant to help me, did not know what she was doing – which led to 2 extremely scary moments:
1- First, she didn’t pick up my legs properly when it was time for me to be lifted up. My legs stayed under the seat, while my upper body and buttom were placed sideways onto the chair. My body was all twisted out.
2- Then, to come out of the plane, instead of lifting the whole CHAIR, she tried to pick up my legs. This made the chair FOLD over me AND made me lean forward. Since I was already holding on to the chair to maintain my stability I could not do anything to prevent myself from falling forward. And I yelled STOP! Instead.
Apart from the guy behind me, nobody reacted. And believed me, this happened in front of the whole crew and pilots, and the cleaning staff waiting to come in the plane.
Mistake #2: Comfort and Hygiene are ALSO a MUST
In Vancouver, when all passengers were on the plane, we were told we would have to wait extra time at the gates. We had to wait close to one hour before taking off.
If waiting in a plane is disagreeable for most passengers, for a person with disability, this can mean having to wait this much longer before accessing toilets. Because on airplanes, there are NO accessible toilets. And even if there were, I would not try to transfer back on that little foldable wheelchair, over the armrest, during flight, on my own. It would literally be impossible for me to do!
The arrival in Montreal Trudeau Airport was even worse… a TOTAL nightmare. We waited (again) for 90 minutes on the tarmac.
😭 Which meant an additional hour or so without accessible toilets. In total: 8.5 hours.
I gave a sigh of relief once they finally placed me in my wheelchair. I was being returned into a position I had control over. To you, it would be like finally removing a full leg cast after hours of not being able to move your legs! FREEDOM!
❤️ I LOVE MY WHEELCHAIR!!
I was so happy to be back in my own wheelchair until…
😭 I saw stairs! Yes – to get in the airport, I needed to get down those steps. And we were not talking a few steps, it was a full flight of stairs.
Now, to be fair, there was a platform that could bring me down – but no one knew how to make it work!
The agent I had spoken to wasn’t going to let me experience more chaos and trauma. So he said he would try to use the platform before letting me on it. After several unsuccessful trials, he finally asked someone who knew how to make it work.
🙏 Thank God for him as he is the one who always kept a hand on me to prevent me from falling forward and who always looked for solutions in a safe manner. I will choose to remember his level of care.
But… NEVER again! I now am totally convinced the airline
Resolution on future air travels: a lesson for companies
With this experience under my belt, I have come to the resolution that:
➡️ I will ALWAYS make sure to use Air Canada in the future, as I know THEY actually know how to offer services to disabled travellers.
➡️ I will share soon about how they make accessible travel work. In the mean time, check out Air Canada Accessibility Promise
Air Transat – you have lost my trust. If you are looking to get better and understand what accessibility means – what it looks like in real life and how to train your staff, please send me an email. It will be my outmost pleasure to come train your employees.