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What Flying Is Like for Passengers Who Use Wheelchairs

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Charles Brown has at all times loved flying. He loves the regular roar of the engine beneath him because the plane rises high above a shrinking ground, turning houses into small blocks of color and cars into floating specks of sunshine below.

Mr. Brown’s passion evolved from constructing model airplanes as a toddler to training in aviation ordnance when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1985. His military profession was cut short a 12 months later, when he hit his head diving right into a swimming pool and injured his spinal cord, leading to incomplete paralysis of his legs and arms.

He now uses a wheelchair and, due to his disability, finds flying to be a risk.

“Once I fly nowadays, it literally is a moment of, ‘OK, what do I actually have to do to get through at the present time without getting injured more?’” Mr. Brown explained.

On his first flight after his injury, Mr. Brown got a concussion in the course of the landing; he couldn’t stay upright, and his head slammed into the seat in front of him. On one other flight just a few years ago, two airline employees dropped him — it was a tough fall — while lifting him right into a special aisle wheelchair. He shattered his tailbone and spent 4 months within the hospital afterward, battling a life-threatening infection.

There’s also the fear of what’s going to occur to his $41,000 wheelchair when it’s loaded and unloaded from the plane. The wheelchair, customized to suit Mr. Brown’s body, prevents pressure sores. Without it, he could risk one other potentially life-threatening infection.

It’s not unusual for airlines to lose or damage wheelchairs. In 2021, at the very least 7,239 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen on the country’s largest airlines, in accordance with the Air Travel Consumer Report. That’s about 20 per day.

Due to these risks, many individuals who use wheelchairs say flying generally is a nightmare.

Even on a flight that goes easily, Mr. Brown endures multiple indignities from the moment he arrives on the airport to the moment he leaves, he said, largely due to a scarcity of accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

Much of this might be avoided, he and other advocates argue, if airplanes and airports were designed to accommodate passengers who use wheelchairs. And while the Department of Transportation recently published a bill of rights for passengers with disabilities, the initiative was a summary of existing laws and didn’t expand the legal obligations of the airlines.

To get a firsthand glimpse of the difficulties faced by passengers who use wheelchairs, The Recent York Times documented Mr. Brown’s experience on two recent American Airlines flights from Palm Beach to San Antonio, with a connection in Charlotte, N.C. Here’s a step-by-step visual diary of what we saw.

Mr. Brown arrives and meets his travel companion outside the Palm Beach International airport at 7:25 a.m., three hours before his first flight of the day. (He often arrives early, he said, because every step of the method takes longer for him.) As he makes his way inside, he stops to fist-bump the airport employees who bring his luggage to the check-in counter. Mr. Brown, the president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, flies often for his job and has befriended several Palm Beach airport employees, who’re intimately aware of his needs.

Most check-in counters tower above Mr. Brown, who must lean across the baggage scale to inform an worker that his custom wheelchair weighs 416 kilos — information that he already filled out on a form when he booked his ticket last week. Mr. Brown also checks a shower wheelchair, a medical bag and a second bag of bags.

The safety line, a snake of belt barriers that Mr. Brown bypasses because he cannot easily undergo it, is quiet and completely empty this morning.

Mr. Brown gets personally screened by a Transportation Security Administration agent each time he flies. He stretches his arms out as an agent pats him down, running his hands along Mr. Brown’s back, collar, arms and thighs. The agent then swabs his hands, shoes, thighs, the back of his chair and the chair headrest for substance testing.

Today, Mr. Brown said, the agent did an excellent job. Prior to now, he has had agents who demanded he lift his legs or lift his body in order that they may pat his butt — each actions that Mr. Brown cannot perform due to his disability. Once, after complying with two full-body pat-downs, Mr. Brown got an unattainable request from an agent.

“They said, ‘Now I want you to get up.’ I said, ‘That ain’t happening,’” Mr. Brown recalled. He needed to call for a supervisor to resolve the situation.

Roughly 40 minutes after Mr. Brown arrived on the airport, he reaches his gate. He drinks some water and takes his medication.

Normally, Mr. Brown says, he wouldn’t drink water before a flight, because many airplane bathrooms are inaccessible to him. Planes with two aisles are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to have at the very least one accessible bathroom on board, but planes with just one aisle — which have been used more often for long-haul flights lately — will not be required to have an accessible bathroom.

Today is an exception to Mr. Brown’s no-water rule, though, because he recently had a kidney stone. Because he cannot use the lavatory on the plane, he’s using a Foley catheter — which might increase his risk of getting hurt when he’s carried and transferred by employees.

On previous flights, Mr. Brown has needed to go to the lavatory right into a bottle as he sat in his airplane seat, with blankets thrown on top of him, he said.

Increasingly passengers arrive on the gate, a few of them consuming snacks or packaged breakfasts. Mr. Brown refrains from eating; he can’t risk needing to make use of a rest room on the flight. He hasn’t eaten anything since 1 p.m. yesterday.

Forgoing food and water for hours before a flight is a standard practice amongst travelers who use wheelchairs and can’t access the lavatory.

When it’s time to board, Mr. Brown must again tell airline crew members how heavy his chair is and the way many individuals he must lift him onto an aisle chair — a special, small wheelchair that may fit into an airplane’s narrow aisles.

He repeatedly asks one crew member to place his wheelchair’s headrest into his suitcase and goes over instructions on how you can fold up and stow his wheelchair safely. The crew member doesn’t seem to know him, and eventually another person steps in to assist.

Mr. Brown enters the jet bridge before some other passengers. This provides him privacy during his transfer onto the plane — the a part of traveling he worries about most. One drop or slip could mean serious injury.

Today, two managers are watching. That is unusual, he said. He tucks in his Foley catheter and raises his arms in anticipation. On the count of three, one airport worker grips his chest and the opposite lifts under his thighs to easily shift him into an aisle chair. In midair, Mr. Brown’s legs begin to spasm.

Mr. Brown is wheeled, backward, 13 rows to his seat, then positions himself for one more transfer. His legs and arms dangle for a moment — during which he watches an armrest graze under his thighs and braces himself for any possible end result — before he’s safely put down again on a special cushion he uses to assist prevent pressure sores when he flies.

Through the two-hour flight, Mr. Brown jerks with movement every minute or two. His legs splay outward, spilling his right knee into the aisle and causing his hips to harm. (He at all times gets assigned a seat by the aisle, not the window, since it’s easier for crew to lift him into those seats.) In his custom wheelchair, there are pads to carry his legs in place. On the airplane, one of the best substitute he has are his hands, which he continually uses to readjust his legs and push them inward. By the tip of the flight, he rates the pain level in his hips as a 2 or 3 out of 10, comparing it with a nagging headache.

Just before landing, Mr. Brown rams his right arm against the seat in front of him and presses with effort because the plane lands with a thud. He’s attempting to stop his head from lurching forward into the hard plastic seat.

It was a harsh landing — the type a pilot within the Navy or Marine Corps would probably make, he says with a smile, but definitely not someone from the Air Force.

As other passengers leave the plane, suitcases and bags of all sizes and colours roll past Mr. Brown, some occasionally hitting his knee. He and his travel companion are the last to deplane; they’re waiting for airline crew to bring his custom chair to the jet bridge — something that airlines are required to do if passengers have requested it.

Mr. Brown doesn’t want to go away his seat and get into an aisle chair until he knows his custom wheelchair is prepared for him on the jet bridge; if he spends greater than 20 minutes in an aisle chair, he says, he’s more likely to get pressure sores. Sometimes, though, he has been forced to sit down in an aisle chair for nearly an hour while he waits for crew to seek out his wheelchair.

Cleansing crews have already come through — vacuuming, wiping down seats and picking up trash. Airline crew repeatedly ask Mr. Brown if he’ll get off the plane, regardless that his chair isn’t ready. The staff are under pressure to board the plane for the subsequent flight. Eventually he relents, regardless that his custom chair still isn’t ready.

The 2 gentlemen lifting Mr. Brown for the transfer out of his airline seat seem hesitant, as in the event that they’re afraid to harm him. He tries to inform them to carry onto him tightly and reflectively takes a defensive position, tucking his shoulders and hands inward to guard himself.

The employees don’t quite lift him high enough, causing him to bump the raised armrest and be partially dragged into the aisle chair, landing with a dull thump. The straps on the chair to carry his feet in place don’t appear to be working properly, so a crew member refastens them 3 times.

Mr. Brown is pushed out of the jet bridge in front of a crowd of passengers waiting to board the plane for the subsequent flight, which is now boarding later than expected. Some look exasperated, others drained; many are observing him. As he wheels past, one stranger mutters, “Chaos.”

About 10 minutes later, employees bring Mr. Brown’s custom chair to the gate and begin transferring him in front of a crowd of passengers.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “I’m not going to say ‘embarrassing’ anymore because I’m just over that. Nevertheless it is form of embarrassing, especially in case your pants are hanging off your bottom.” He’s had his pants fall down during public transfers before.

This time the boys switch places, with the stronger man lifting Mr. Brown’s chest. They complete a greater transfer. An airline employee on the check-in counter soon notices the commotion and comes over to apologize to Mr. Brown in regards to the lack of privacy.

Mr. Brown has a two-hour layover in Charlotte and is alleged to board his 2:45 p.m. flight to San Antonio, which is scheduled to land at 4:42 p.m. As he waits, his stomach is beginning to get “shaky,” he says.

Just before the flight is alleged to board, the gate agent declares that there’s a delay. The flight will now depart at 4:30 p.m. and land at 6:30 p.m. But, with the time it takes to deplane and get to his hotel, Mr. Brown doesn’t think he could make it until after 8 p.m. to eat again.

At 2:16 p.m., he finally bites right into a Snickers bar. It has been 25 hours since his last meal. Just before he boards his next flight, Mr. Brown also eats a cup of pretzel bites from Auntie Anne’s and strikes up a conversation with a fellow Marine who’s waiting on the gate. They trade stories and discuss where they were stationed.

Because the flight prepares to board, airline crew wheel three elderly women on regular airport wheelchairs — the kind of chair intended to be used by those that can’t walk long distances — down the jet bridge to board the plane first. Then, regular passengers begin to crowd across the check-in gate. A family with a baby stroller checks in and starts walking to the jet bridge. Amid the commotion, Mr. Brown seems to have been forgotten entirely.

Mr. Brown starts to get upset with the check-in agents. The Department of Transportation stipulates that disabled passengers who need additional time or assistance to board the airplane should be allowed to board first. Further guidance says that, if possible, airline crews should avoid transferring someone from an aisle seat to a plane seat in front of other people.

Soon after he complains, Mr. Brown is quickly wheeled down the jet bridge, shaking his head in frustration and disbelief at a supervisor who insists she did nothing mistaken.

In preparation for his second flight, two men strongly and swiftly transfer him to his aisle chair after which to his seat in a blur of motions that leaves Mr. Brown respiratory heavily afterward.

Mr. Brown’s body becomes a physical hurdle of sorts for one more passenger who tightly squeezes past him and steps over his legs to get to the window seat. (His travel companion was seated between them.) Mr. Brown looks uncomfortable, but, unable to maneuver out of the way in which, he’s stuck.

He tries to nap on the second flight but has to evoke himself from his sleep to shove his legs back right into a straight position and stop his knees from poking out.

The second landing is smoother, however the plane still rattles and shakes because it slows down. Mr. Brown’s arm is once more outstretched against the seat in front of him as he tries to carry himself regular, but there’s a shake of exhaustion in his elbow now.

People start deplaning at 6:50 p.m., and one person thanks Mr. Brown for his service on the way in which out. Mr. Brown nods and pushes his knee in as people walk by, attempting to avoid being bumped by suitcases. Soon after the plane empties, a crew in shiny yellow vests starts to scrub up around Mr. Brown.

At 7:10 p.m., his custom chair is prepared for him within the jet bridge. Mr. Brown has one other smooth transfer onto the aisle chair, but he’s placed down just a little crooked, so an airline crew member has to carry his knees to be certain they don’t bump every seat on the way in which out.

Amy Lawrence, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said in an email that the corporate is concentrated on ensuring a positive experience for those with disabilities.

In response to complaints of negative incidents while flying, she wrote: “In recent times, we’ve placed a specific concentrate on giving our team members the tools and resources they should properly handle and track customers’ mobility aids, and we’ve seen improvement in handling consequently.” One such effort, she said, was the introduction of wheelchair-specific bag tags on all flights; the tags can improve the tracking of mobility devices and make it more clear what the features of every device are.

Mr. Brown goes to choose up his luggage, then finds out from an airport employee that the San Antonio airport doesn’t have any porter service available to assist him carry his shower wheelchair, carry-on suitcase and two large checked bags to the automobile. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to help disabled passengers with carrying their checked luggage if needed, but individuals with disabilities complain that, in practice, often either it isn’t provided or they will’t find someone to assist them.

Erin Rodriguez, a spokeswoman with the San Antonio International Airport, said that each one airlines provide assistance to individuals with wheelchairs, including helping with their luggage, at no charge. She added that the airport has phones throughout the terminal for travelers needing immediate or after-hours assistance.

The sun is setting, casting the sky pink beneath big, dark clouds as Mr. Brown maneuvers out of the cool airport into the humid Texas heat. (In the long run, his travel companion helped him along with his luggage; it might have posed a substantial challenge if he’d needed to handle it on his own.)

At 7:38 p.m., he easily maneuvers up a ramp right into a waiting automobile that, unlike the planes he just rode, is specially designed to accommodate his wheelchair.

In early July, Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a proper criticism against American Airlines on behalf of 4 members of its organization, including Charles Brown. Mr. Brown’s inclusion was based on his experience on the flights The Times documented in May. American Airlines didn’t immediately return request for comment regarding the criticism.

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