Airline Woes

Airline Woes

Previously, I have written about the battles I’ve had with the airlines about breaking my wheelchairs and fighting to get them repaired or replaced. But unfortunately, the war seems to be continuing and expanding to new battlefields.

The Washington Post recently published an article about how shrinking seat sizes and the trend of charging more for specific airline seats is pushing people with disabilities into uncomfortable situations. I, for one, have been feeling this for years.

With the severity of my rheumatoid arthritis, I don’t have much bend in my joints. This is becoming a real problem with fitting into tight seats because I cannot bend my knees enough. I am a short person, only reaching 5” 1’ on a good day (with a stretch!) and am also not very big. So I cannot imagine how average-sized people with RA are managing to travel in these conditions, since I already have significant problems.

I have taken a few approaches to problem solve the tight squeeze issue when I fly. First, I look for bulkhead seats as they often have a bit more legroom. Since I am not able-bodied enough to help in the case of an emergency, I am not permitted to take exit row seats. Otherwise, this may be a good option for people with RA as they have more room as well.

Sometimes for long flights I have resorted to upgrading from regular coach to the seats with slightly more room. These seats are more comfortable for me, with more leg space.

Flying is already a challenge because it is exhausting and likely to make me more achy. Finding the most comfortable seat is important because it minimizes stress on my body. But, for me, it is also a huge issue of accessibility because of my RA impairments and disabilities. I need a seat to accommodate my RA, but also one not far from the door or restroom since I use a wheelchair and can only walk a limited distance.

Several years ago I had a terrific experience traveling to London with Virgin Atlantic. They helped me find an accessible and comfortable seat. Their customer service line for people with disabilities or health issues was top-notch and also understanding. Our seats were reserved and my special needs noted in the reservation. I have never experienced this type of care with another airline.

My feeling is that since I started traveling more than 20 years ago airlines have become more inaccessible, instead of less. In the United States, we have laws that clearly direct airlines to provide accessible service to people with disabilities and accommodate assistive devices like wheelchairs. But my personal experience is that it is increasingly harder to experience adequate service, not even equal to what other passengers experience.

Recently I had a fight with a major North American air carrier that said they could not accommodate my motorized wheelchair on their plane. I have been flying with a motorized wheelchair for at least two decades and the law clearly stipulates that airlines must accommodate these devices. My chair is standard sized, yet they said it was too tall to go into the baggage compartment of their planes. They had no options for all three airports in my area and the flight was between two large cities.

When we politely pointed out that we had booked the flights months ago and that their failure to accommodate my wheelchair was illegal, the airline quickly offered to rebook my husband and me on another airline. While I am glad that I got to take the trip, I don’t think refusing to serve people with wheelchairs is a feasible solution (nor a legal one) for any airline.

I keep hoping that airlines will wake up and realize that people with health issues and disabilities do travel and do expect equal accommodations. In the meantime, I’ll keep fighting these battles until they do.

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