Assistance for the Jet-Set

I’ve traveled by air back and forth across the country about six times over the last two years or so. For me, that’s a lot: I can count the number of times I flew on one hand between 1986 and 2007.

It never occurred to me on any of those earlier trips to request wheelchair assistance from the airport or from the airlines themselves. The reason? First, I didn’t know such services were available for passengers with disabilities. They might not have been. But even though I had active severe rheumatoid disease, I also didn’t think of myself as “disabled.” My flares were unpredictable and—I hate to admit this—I’d have been embarrassed to ask for help.

Then came these most recent trips. Almost all of them have been between my home in California and several of the big cities on the Eastern seaboard: Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, NJ, and New York City. Others have been to Indianapolis and Chicago.

What almost all of them had in common were layovers in places like Denver or Minneapolis to change planes.

But it was only after Recent Trip #3 that I finally wised up about asking for assistance. The outbound leg of the trip required me to change planes at Minneapolis International Airport. I’d never been to Minnesota, and while an airport isn’t a state, I was looking forward to getting a feel for the place during my 90-minute layover there.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. First, I’d awakened that morning with both hands flaring badly, making handling my two heavy carry-on bags—one of them a briefcase for my laptop computer—difficult, at best and miserable, at worst. Fortunately, my local airport is small, and at 5:15 a.m., getting through security there was a relative breeze. I was soon on my way.

By the time the plane touched down in Minneapolis, though, my right foot had joined the chorus. I deplaned, limping slowly and grimly through the truly amazing crowds to the departure gate noted on my itinerary. It was a long way, and I was in increasing pain, but I wasn’t worried. I had plenty of time, right?

After walking for what seemed like two miles, I finally arrived at my gate to discover that, for some reason, they’d changed it.

With no other choice, I put my big-girl panties on and set off again. I had no idea how far away the new gate was, but my layover time was starting to dwindle, so I picked up my pace, clenching my teeth against the growing pain. Before long I realized that the gate was actually far, far away and that I’d need to, well, run for it.

But running on that flared foot wasn’t possible. I settled into a sort of loping jog-trot. I’m sure I looked ridiculous. I’d tossed the strap of one bag over my left shoulder—which, on cue, was starting to shriek—and transferred my laptop case from one hand to the other as the pain in each became overwhelming.

I finally reached the new gate, where the long boarding lines had already formed up. I took my place at the end of my designated line, putting my laptop bag down, shifting my carry-on to the other shoulder with relief, and standing on my good foot.

That was when the gate lady announced that they’d delayed the flight for another 20 minutes. “Oh, good,” I thought. “I’ll just go sit down!” I started toward the seats in relief. But it was not to be. “So sorry,” she said. “The flight will now board at Gate XX.” My jaw dropped. It was the original gate! The one I’d just galloped across the entire airport from!

There was no way I was going to make it all the way back there in 20 minutes—I’d barely made it to this one. And now, I was exhausted and in way too much pain. As the other passengers rushed off, I approached the gate lady, red-faced, puffing, and nearly hopping on one foot.

“Hi,” I said, swallowing my embarrassment. “I have rheumatoid arthritis. I can’t make it all the way back to that gate in time. I’ll miss my flight. Is there any chance I can get a wheelchair?”

“Yes!” she said. “Let me make a call.” A minute later, a nice young man helped me onto one of those silent electric people-and-luggage movers and whisked me all the way back to the first gate. The wind blew my hair and cooled me down. And yes, I was right. It was a long, long way and I’d never have made it.

The icing on the cake? They let me board first. A flight attendant helped me stow my bags. It was … heaven.

When I checked in at the airport for the return-home leg of my trip a few days later, I was still flaring. This time, I asked for help getting to my gate as soon as I checked in at the airport. The clerk arranged for wheelchair transport for both legs of my return flight. She also told me to remember to tell the gate-attendant that I had a disability so I could board the plane early.

That flight home was the easiest I’d experienced yet. I was still in pain, but because I didn’t have to walk and lug my bags alone, I had lots of time and was able to buy food and reading materials near my gate for the flight. It was so much better!

I learned a valuable lesson during that trip: there’s simply no good reason not to ask for help when I need it. No one looked down on me for admitting that I was coping with a disability. Since then, I’ve arranged for help ahead of time for each leg of each flight I’ve taken, and traveling has been much, much easier for me. And I can (and have) canceled the assistance when I didn’t need it after all. Might as well, I figured, free up that wheelchair or airport transport seat for someone else who needs it.

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