This post was co-written by Vanessa Prince & Andrew Prince
As many of you may know, we love to vacation at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and on Disney Cruise Line. Over the years people have asked us how Andrew is able to board and fly on a plane to so many destinations. So, we thought we would write a little recap of how he is able to fly not only to Orlando, but Europe, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond. As you may already know, Andrew has cerebral palsy and is mobility challenged requiring full-time use of a wheelchair.
Our experience starts when the airline ticket is purchased. We tend to fly on Delta Airlines the majority of the time, so Andrew has a profile under his account that has all of the wheelchair specifications listed along with his needs. During the ticket purchase, we select wheelchair assistance is needed for boarding and deplaning the aircraft with full assistance, since Andrew is unable to walk on his own. We will cover what this entails a little later.
Going Through Security
Once we are at the airport, there is usually a wheelchair line at TSA or TSA pre-check with full accessibility, which also means we do not have to remove all of our liquids, shoes etc. Since his chair is metal he by-passes the metal detectors and has a male TSA agent perform a screening. During the screening the chair is swiped in a couple of places with a special wipe which is then scanned by a special machine that looks for known chemicals. While that is happening, Andrew is gently “patted” down all over, and they even look under the chair with a special mirror.
At the Gate
After being cleared by TSA, we head to our departure gate. This is where the fun begins. Upon arriving at the gate, we make sure that the agent knows we are there, often times they great us by name since we pre-requested assistance. We also like to double check that his gate claim hang-tag is assigned to his ticket so that the chair travels with us. Last year he was given a pink plastic gate claim hang-tag that we just leave on the chair. It is also a good idea to fill out a form that gives further information about the wheelchair. This is done ahead of travel and should be attached to the chair for handlers to easily see. We used Delta‘s form, but your airline may have a similar form on their website.
Prepping the Wheelchair
While we are waiting to board the plane, Vanessa starts to “strip” the chair down. This requires removing any piece of the wheelchair that might get damaged, knocked off, or broken during the flight, such as footplates, head and armrests, etc. All of these items she places into a large canvas bag which is then stored in the overhead bin (this bag is not counted as one of our carry-ons). Because, let’s be honest, the airline workers putting the chair into the baggage may not have the time to be gentle with the chair, or it gets jostled during the flight. We have had to have Andrew’s wheelchair repaired on several occasions. The final step is using blue painter’s tape to secure any buttons and release tabs in place. Andrew’s wheelchair has a custom molded seat and is not removable, but we suggest you remove any cushions that are not permanently attached.
Using an Aisle Chair
About 10 – 15 minutes prior to general boarding, our assistant arrives and scans our tickets, then our family is allowed to head down the gangway together. Here, Andrew is transferred by two people into the special aisle chair since his wheelchair is too large to fit onto the plane. Next, he is wheeled down the aisle backwards so he is facing the same direction as the seats. Once at our row, the same two people lift him into his assigned seat and make sure that he is comfortable and secure.
How Does the Wheelchair Travel
In case you are wondering what happens to the wheelchair, it is taken away at the gangway and brought down the steps and then placed in a cargo hold under the plane. The Orlando International Airport has small elevators at many of the gangways which allows for safer transportation of the wheelchair to the ground level. Power wheelchairs will either be taken down in this elevator or taken back into the terminal and brought down in a service elevator and then to the plane. Tip: We have flown on smaller commuter planes, and we had to make sure ahead of time that the cargo hold door was large enough to accommodate the wheelchair. You can find these dimensions on most airline websites.
To deplane, we have to wait for all of the passenger to exit, then the aisle chair is brought onto the plane and the process happens in reverse of how Andrew got into his seat. To make deplaning smooth, Vanessa often goes ahead and inspects the wheelchair and reassembles the pieces she removed prior to departure. Andrew is then transferred back into his own chair just outside of the plane in the gangway.
Other Airport Adventures
During our many travel adventures, Andrew has been loaded into planes in various ways. For instance, in Lyon, France, he was taken off the plane via a food service vehicle because they did not have a wheelchair accessible stairway. In 2015 on our way to Copenhagen, we connected in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they used a specific stair climbing seat to get the aisle chair up into the plane. Two weeks later at the same airport, they had a new special accessible vehicle. Our family was loaded into a large vehicle which then drove up next to the plane, the vehicle then lifted up into the air, and he was able to access the plane’s door from this new vehicle.
Adventure is out there, so be like us and go explore the world! Flying is fun and don’t let your inabilities stop you from traveling!
All photos are from authors personal collection.
To learn more about Andrew, aka Disney on Wheels, and Vanessa Prince, click on their names at the top of this post.