Magazine

The perils of flying with a wheelchair

  • 25 August 2012
  • From the section Magazine

Frequent air travel is part of a BBC security correspondent's job - but flying with a wheelchair is sometimes more difficult than it needs to be.

Under a dark and thunderous monsoon sky the co-pilot squinted up at the rain. It was falling in sheets.

Phnom Penh airport in 2008 was rather nonplussed by my wheelchair.

"There are steps up to the plane," said the ground staff apologetically, "so how will you get up there?"

I was rather hoping the airline would have the answer to that one but in the end the solution presented itself in the form of the energetic co-pilot due to fly this turboprop shuttle to Siem Reap and the fabulous temples of Angkor Wat.

"Hold on," he said with a grin, "I give you piggyback".

This was definitely beyond the call of duty but I was suitably grateful as we grappled our way, in fits of laughter, up the rain-lashed steps with jagged forks of lightning streaking across the Cambodian night sky.

If you want to travel to the remoter corners of the earth with a wheelchair, I realised, you may have to leave dignity at the door and accept a degree of discomfort.

But what about taking a wheelchair on regular scheduled airlines to major destinations?

Since being shot and left partly paralysed in a terrorist attack in 2004 I have had to make some fairly major adjustments to how I travel.

Initially, weak and groggy after seven months in hospital and 14 surgical operations, I needed a companion with me on every flight.

Even a short flight from London to Geneva left my emaciated backside painfully sore.

Now back to strength, I have no hesitation in telling airline and ground staff exactly what help I do or don't need.

"If the plane is on a jetty I can wheel myself to the door," I tell them. "But I'll need one of those narrow aisle chairs to get me from there to my seat."

This is not usually an issue but recently a certain national airline refused to provide even this service, in fact they tried to refuse altogether to help me get to the toilet on an eight-hour-plus flight, insisting that this would be up to my fellow passengers.

I warned them that this was unacceptable - in fact it was against Civil Aviation rules - and that it probably wasn't too smart to treat someone in the media this way.

I survived the flight, uncomfortably, and then rather petulantly aired the story on the BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme You and Yours where it was picked up by the Mail on Sunday.

The result is that the airline has now backed down and changed its policy, to the great relief of disabled tour groups who had been trying for years to get them to comply.

So how is flying with a wheelchair any different from flying without? It is not all bad. People tend to be kind, patient and helpful and you often get an almost VIP status, being ushered to the head of queues, which can be a little embarrassing.

If you are lucky, you get to pre-board before the other passengers.

Image caption Wheelchair travel is a combination of attitude and forethought

Airports vary widely when it comes to getting you to your seat, with some insisting on strapping you into what I call "a Hannibal Lecter chair" that immobilises the arms and legs like the one Anthony Hopkins' character was strapped into in the film Silence of the Lambs.

On a short-haul European flight of under four hours airlines rarely provide an onboard wheelchair. So with the toilet out of reach I simply don't eat before or during flying.

At the other end you usually have to wait for the entire plane to empty while trying not to fantasise about… a toilet.

Once, after a British Airways flight back from Rome the airport's high-lift truck never turned up at Heathrow, leaving me and my family still stranded onboard a whole hour after everyone else had walked off the plane.

To their huge credit, both the captain and co-pilot refused to abandon us, eventually carrying me bodily down the steps in the dark. The next morning I got an apologetic phone call from the CEO of British Airports Authority, Colin Matthews.

Emerging into the terminal is usually straightforward, though recently in Rwanda I was asked, with a winning smile, if I wouldn't mind waiting outside under an acacia tree while they stamped my passport as there were too many steps up into the terminal.

I did not mind at all, it made sense, but I did object in Berlin when a surly airport taxi driver took one look at my lightweight, manual wheelchair, shook his head and accelerated away.

As you can see, wheelchair travel can be something of a battle but what it really comes down to, I have concluded, is a combination of attitude and forethought.

Most airlines and airports are only too happy to help travellers in wheelchairs but sometimes fail to spot what is going to make life harder for us, or more often what is likely to rob us of our dignity and independence, like kettling all disabled passengers into a sort of roped-off "disabled ghetto" or bending over us and speaking very, very slowly.

These are some of the very few times I have lost my cool in an airport.