Ali Ingersoll: Wheelchair Air Travel

Once upon a time, a Fairy God Mother pulled up to the Delta departure gate in a pumpkin-colored chariot to deliver Prince Charming and Cinderella to their first adventure in the sky. The crowds gathered around as they watched pumpkin’s drawbridge lower down where Cinderella exited her chariot in her magical high-speed fancy set of wheels. Cinderella’s God Mother pushed out yet another set of wheels behind her that she created for Cinderella’s journey, which would allow her to fly with the greatest of ease. This simple yet elegant set of wheels may have seemed ordinary to a passerby, but they would allow Cinderella to fly the great skies knowing that the small foldable chariot could fit into the cabin so as not to be crushed by the big bad airlines.

Cinderella’s Fairy God Mother placed both sets of wheels right next to each other as Prince Charming gracefully lifted Cinderella from her motorized Mercedes-Benz of chariots to her simple and reliable, yet humble, manual chariot. As onlookers watched Prince Charming dance around the many obstacles in his way with his love in his arms, he looked as though he was in the midst of a delicately choreographed waltz. Once Cinderella was safely secured her Fairy Godmother kissed them both goodbye and drove off into the sunset as Prince Charming & Cinderella were about to embark on the beginning of a new journey high in the sky. Little did they know their journey would be met with fire-breathing airline dragons and fraught other seemingly insurmountable challenges, but as long as they had each other they would overcome whatever stood in their way!

…If only air travel for a complete C6 quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down were so easy! Since my accident nearly 8 years ago I have flown a handful of times. Most of my flying expeditions consisted of me moving across the world to China back in 2013, which involved flying an aircraft for over 15 hours at a time. Back then flying seemed incredibly daunting, but I always had a village of the family to help me along the way. I had never flown with just one other person before…

… I read many reviews on different airlines and I decided upon Delta Airlines. I was looking at prices and I knew I wanted to fly economy because if I wanted to travel in the future saving money for business class would take away from money I could spend on adventures to wherever we would be flying to. However, I decided to take baby steps. I sprung for an extra $100-$200 and upgraded to Delta Comfort. Delta Comfort Class is essentially Economy Plus. This gives you a few extra inches of legroom, which I thought for our first mission would be appropriate considering that I needed the extra room for my knees because I am so tall. … 

When I flew to China I took my power chair and manual wheelchair on the plane. I would take my manual chair in the airport and I would check in my power chair, which I had my uncle devise the most incredible way to break down my power wheelchair so the airlines would not break my power wheelchair as many wheelchair folks are all too familiar with. For such a long journey I did fly business class years ago because I’m extremely prone to pulmonary embolism’s and being in a plane for over 15 hours my family and I was not willing to take that chance of injuring me before arriving at my destination. So, my only experience with flying was pretty much in business class, which is not realistic for long-term air travel because the business class is definitely not affordable!

When I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from China back in 2015 I was hesitant to ever fly again. I knew that I would not always have an army of family members to help me fly from here to there as life went on. When my boyfriend and I became serious I knew that we would want to start traveling one day, but I kept pushing off the thought of flying together. Frankly, I was just so nervous at the thought of only one person being able to help me in the airport. I have read dozens of blogs from fellow wheelchair users on flying, but nothing can really prepare you for your own journey as every spinal cord injured person is so different, and has different needs. I was armed with as much information as I could and the time came to finally take a leap of faith, and go for it. 

Several weeks ago I told my boyfriend that one day I really wanted to go explore Costa Rica, but I needed to take an experimental flight to see how the two of us would do together. I have read too many stories on power wheelchairs being broken by the airlines and I certainly did not want to fly with two chairs, and only one person to assist me. So, I was going to have to take only my manual chair with me, which I designed years ago. I had no desire to take my power wheelchair in case the airline damaged my chair, which would have left me in quite a bind indeed. My manual wheelchair is foldable and according to the Access Carrier Act, airlines are required to stow a foldable manual wheelchair directly into the cabin even if they have to kick other passengers off! I can only imagine the outrage that would’ve caused the passengers who would’ve been kicked off the flight. 

Ali Ingersoll
Ali Ingersoll
Ali Ingersoll