Before I started my 30 Days of Thanks challenge I admitted my fear of asking for help. I explained my amazing opportunity to return to Australia in 2015, and my reluctance to ask others for support to make it happen. Bolstered by the encouragement of those around me, I put on my big girl pants, swallowed my pride and began to ask “please help me say thank you.” I have been overwhelmed by the response. Friends, family and strangers have given generously. This trip is really going to happen! I’m going back to Australia in 2015!
Even though I am excited, the realities of traveling as a person with a significant mobility impairment require me to temper my enthusiasm and remain focused. This will be my first international trip using a power wheelchair. I am a planner, confident in my skills in managing logistics. But this trip is forcing me to keep detailed notes, make more than one list and change my itinerary so my wheelchair can accompany me. My trusty black Quickie lightweight manual wheelchair was my travel companion on the two prior journeys Down Under. This chair was collapsible, which meant it was easy to stow on airplanes. For those of you who do not require a wheelchair for mobility, here’s a quick lesson on what happens when a wheelchair user takes a plane.
Wheelchair users have to surrender their wheelchair when they board the plane. You can take your chair to the gate of the plane, but then you have to transfer out of the chair so your wheelchair can be stowed for the flight. If you are able to walk, you simply walk from the door of the plane to your seat. I did this the first time I went to Australia. If you cannot walk, you must transfer to the aisle chair to be transported to your seat.
Have you ever seen an aisle chair? Remember the straightback Hannibal Lecter gets strapped to in The Silence of the Lambs? Yeah – except this version is seated. The chair is narrow enough to fit in the aisle of the plane, between the rows of seats. This means you are lucky if you get one butt cheek on the seat. I am not a big person, at 5 feet tall and 125 pounds. Even I can’t get seated comfortably on that perch. And when I am in the chair, I have to cross my arms tightly over my chest so my elbows and shoulders don’t hit the seats as the well-intentioned but under-trained airport assistance workers try to maneuver me to my seat. Most times I have to instruct them in how to safely strap me into the chair (yes – the leg strap is important if you want to avoid tipping me sideways).
Once situated in your seat on the plane, you start to pray. At least I do – invoking any and all deities I can conjure in the hopes my chair will make it into the cargo bay without being damaged. In the United States, airlines must allow folding manual wheelchairs priority space in on-board closets. If the plane does not have a closet, the manual wheelchair joins the power wheelchairs and other baggage in the cargo bay down below. One time I watched the ground crew attempt to load my 250 pound power wheelchair onto the conveyor belt with the other baggage. I watched as the men heaved in unison to lift the chair onto the belt. I continued to watch as the chair started up the belt, only to tip off the side of the belt onto the tarmac below since the crew had failed to lock the wheels. I no longer watch to see what happens to my chair. I prefer the vision in my head, where I see my chair treated with caution, respect and care. Surely the men I entrust it to must realize this $33,000 piece of equipment is my life and without it I cannot function? Yes, you read the price correctly. How much is your freedom and independent mobility worth?
The reality is on almost every flight, my chair is damaged. Most times I am fortunate because the damage is minor and occurs on the trip home. It is always easier to handle a broken wheelchair at home than on the road. I have a good relationship with my local wheelchair repair crew. I tell them when I am traveling and I make repair appointments in advance of my trips for the day after my return just in case. Better to cancel an appointment than to wait days for emergency repairs. In 2006 when I was flying on a monthly basis, I was on a first name basis with the Southwest crew at my local airport. Bill would start the damage claim paperwork in advance because he knew we’d most likely be seeing each other upon my return.
In researching my trip, I have learned a great deal about traveling within Australia using a power chair. If you use a power chair and are planning to travel there, you should measure your chair before you even start looking at flights. This is important because some airlines operate flights using planes with really small cargo bay doors. If your chair, like my chair, measures over 73 centimeters in height (mine is 91 cm), good luck getting to Tasmania on any airline other than JetStar. I don’t know anything about JetStar. But they have planes with cargo bay doors 97 centimeters tall, which means they are my carrier of choice – really the only carrier option I have if I want to fly from mainland Australia to Hobart with my wheelchair. If anyone reading this knows of any other option, I’m open to learning more. And why do plane manufacturers build planes where the engine partially obstructs the cargo bay door?!
Thankfully I learned this before buying tickets, because JetStar flights to/from Sydney and Hobart are limited. Originally, I planned to arrive in Sydney at 6:00 AM local time, and catch the mid-morning flight to Hobart. Unfortunately, that flight is not a JetStar flight. The only plane accessible to me does not depart Sydney until mid-afternoon. I am not going to wait eight hours in the Sydney airport. Instead, I will fly into Melbourne and catch the mid-morning JetStar flight to Hobart. Did you know it costs approximately $450 more per person to fly from LAX to Melbourne instead of Sydney?! At least, right now it does.
So, I continue to plan and do my research. I hope to purchase tickets within the next week. Then I will start to think about power adapters for my wheelchair charger and Bi-Pap machine, locating wheelchair repair shops within Australia, and what adaptive equipment will need to fit in my carry-on. Three months from today I will be boarding a plane, full of anticipation, ready for adventure. I can’t wait!