Chad Waligura: The Joys Of Flying Solo

It wasn’t until after 10 years of traveling post-injury that I got the bright idea that I might be able to do it by myself someday. It was kinda like putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I had loaded my bags in my truck, driven to the airport and parked in one of their lots (We’d also used one of those Park-N-Ride places that accommodated me even though they didn’t have an accessible shuttle. As it turns out very few of them do.), I’d used the curbside check in dozens of times and gone through security and gotten on the plane all by myself at one time or another.

When the opportunity came for me to fly somewhere by myself, in my mind it seemed like I’d already done it. I was excited about taking on that challenge alone.For this blog I’m just going to detail the steps that someone in a chair needs to know about before heading up to the airport “Han Solo”. But you actually could just drive up there and figure it out as you go if you really wanted to and got there early enough.

First things first, the curbside check in. If you have bags, you’re going to drive up to the curbside check in, get out of you vehicle and go straight to the counter where you can ask one of the attendants if they can help you get your bags out of the car. And yes, this means by-passing the line. Sometimes you have to sit there a little while, but they know the drill and someone will always help you. They’ll check your luggage, get you a boarding pass and fill out a separate tag for your chair (Make sure you have these 3 things before leaving.) Tip – Don’t worry about getting your boarding pass early because you will always be pre-boarding anyway.

Next comes the parking. Now, keep in mind, whenever I can arrange it, I’ll get dropped off and picked up instead of parking my truck at the airport. It saves time and money, and effort, but for now let’s pretend you have to park. If you want to use one of the Park-N-Ride services near the airport, you should call ahead and ask them if they have an accessible shuttle.

If they don’t, ask them if they will accommodate you by riding with you to the airport and then driving your vehicle back to their lot. Some will do this, some won’t, and yes I know it’s ridiculous that all of them don’t have accessible shuttles. It’s a hassle that they don’t, and to be honest I only use them now if I have someone with me that can drive my truck over there and ride the shuttle back.

It costs more, but it’s easier to use the airport parking lots or garages. After checking your bags, all you have to do is drive around and park and roll back to the terminal. The airport lots are usually not too far away.

Going through security – this is always one of the easiest things to do no matter how long the lines are because wheelchairs users (and anyone accompanying them) have their own line to go through. Sometimes there’s a short wait for someone to escort you through where they’ll perform a pat-down search on you and test you and your chair for some kind of explosive substance but that only takes about 10 minutes.

Being in a chair, you’re going to be pre-boarding 30 minutes before the scheduled ETD, so as soon as I get to the gate I go to the counter to get a pre-board pass, a luggage tag for my chair and a neon yellow “claim-at-the-gate” tag (This is the important one. It means they’re supposed to bring your chair up to the plane to you right after you land.)

Ok now the fun part… actually getting on the plane. When traveling alone, you’re most likely going to be transferred onto this tiny little contraption called an aisle chair that looks like it was built for someone 5’ tall and 14” wide. It’s unstable and awkward and I’m always a little embarrassed when I’m put on one and strapped in and hauled through the plane to my seat, but if it’s what I have to do to fly I’ll do it. But let me back up a bit, I forgot to tell you that I usually fly Southwest Airlines, and Southwest planes are just wide enough in the front that I can roll up to the first row of seats and transfer straight from my chair. This is worth its weight in gold. And the Southwest hubs are always easier to get in and out of. If I’m going on a plane where I will need an aisle chair tough, I’ll always call ahead and let them know. Either way, you’re going to be the first one on the plane and the last one off.

When I get to baggage, I’ll simply find a sky cap to help get my bags for me and take them to curb for me (if I’m getting picked up) or to whatever mode of transportation I might be using. And that’s really all there is to it. Once I put all the pieces together I was ready to do it alone, and hopefully you will be too.

Life with disability.