This post will focus on, as the title suggests, how I flew solo for the first time (i.e. completely alone) as a wheelchair user. Much like my “Conquering The Rails” solo rail travel post, this post will go through ticket buying, getting on/off the plane and actually being on the plane.
In terms of ticket buying, it was pretty straightforward. I just bought my ticket online as usual and then selected the level of disability assistance I’d need at the airport (Level 3 I think it was? Basically, all the possible assistance all the way through because wow self propelling was not a thing I could do back then. I then input the wheelchair type (manual) and dimensions into the form for luggage purposes (because my chair counts as luggage).
In order to get on the plane, one must first get TO the plane. For me this meant getting a bus to Heathrow with a friend and then the Heathrow Express train (shuttle? Bus? Thing) to the terminal. I then checked in my chair (which needs to be tagged as luggage and can then be taken to the airport door) and bag and (once airline staff had gotten over there “you’re flying ALONE?!” shock, guessing they assumed chair = constant carer required) set about finding the airport assistance I’d booked. Once I’d found them, they informed me my friend could go with me up to security which I really appreciated as someone who was a little wary about flying solo. Then it was onto going through security which ALWAYS ends in both myself and the chair being patted down because my chair sets off the metal detector (or maybe that’s the metal plates in my legs?), as well as both my chair and I being swabbed (for drugs presumably). Then it was on to the assistance lounge, basically a giant waiting room where those who need assistance to the gate/onto the train are plonked until their flight’s ready to board, to wait then FINALLY to the gate.
In terms of on the plane, I transferred from my chair to the aisle chair, anyone who’s read “The Beginning” knows I HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATE that thing, at the plane door. I was then wheeled to my seat (in what is basically that thing they use to take washers and driers in and out of houses but for people, because ya know, I’m basically a kitchen appliance) and transferred. I can shuffle myself in from the aisle to my seat, but assistance staff insisted on lifting me (probably something to do with procedure). I’ll usually try and get the window seat to stop people having to climb over me to get to the bathroom, but again staff insisted on me having the aisle seat (again probably procedure, red tape, health and safety, yadda yadda yadda you know the deal here). After I was seated nothing else really happened, it was only a flight from Heathrow to Manchester so just a short flight, which also meant no bathroom trip, so I still have NO idea how using an airplane bathroom as a wheelchair user works, but plenty more trips to figure that out right?!
Disembarking was basically the same procedure as getting on the plane except in reverse order. I then had to collect my own suitcase off the belt at baggage claim and self-propel through to arrivals even though I’d booked assistance for the entire trip (i.e. at both airports) so it was-less than satisfactory assistance at Manchester airport (although how sending 1 (ONE) airport assistance staff to a flight with 3 wheelchair users on-board, and however many others that may have required assistance, ever made sense to whoever makes those decisions I’ll never know, so the assistance guy was probably doing the best he could given the circumstances).
The return flight was pretty much déjà vu, oh except the fact that one of my chair footplates was lost somewhere in the hold (thankfully it was found) when I returned to Heathrow (you know, the footplate that was 100% attached to my chair when I left it at the plane door in Manchester!)
Oh, and the horrendous cab ride home, Black cab + manual chair = nope NOPE NOOOOOOOOOOOOPE never again (also note to younger Emma: black cabs are soooooooooo not how they seem on Sherlock).
So, there you go, that’s how the #invinciblewomanonwheels flies solo! I hope this gives an insight into how much planning and organisation goes into flying solo as a wheelchair user and how complex and loooooooooooooooooooooong the process can be.