On July 4th, my SO and I flew from North Carolina to Minnesota to go to CONvergence and to visit my friends and family that are in the area. It's my annual trip home, partially do to finances and partially due to my spine stuff (a holiday trip includes a 4.5 hour drive one way to visit the rest of our extended family, and flying plus that much driving would make my spine very angry, and ruin the trip for me being laid up and not able to socialize).
Anyhow, this was my first time flying with a wheelchair. Last year's trip I flew with forearm crutches and a folding cane in my luggage. The year prior was just with a cane. The year before that my spine wasn't interfering with my ability to balance, so it was sans adaptive equipment. I tried to do some research about flying with a wheelchair. What requirements do the airlines have? What are some tips that other wheelchair users have about flying with a chair? What can I do to make it so my wheelchair doesn't come back to me mangled?
Most of the information I found online was about flying with a power chair or scooter, not for someone with a manual chair. The information I found about manual chairs mostly referenced folding wheelchairs not rigid frame chairs. With the help of some academics I know that use chairs and the bits and pieces of information I found online, I decided to just be extra early for my flight and hope for the best.
So we roll in to the GSO airport (after the longest and almost steepest ramp I've ever rolled up, sweat dripping and glasses fogging in the North Carolina heat). I checked us in online through the US Airways webpage, but there was no place to tell them that I was a wheelchair user, so I went to the ticketing counter to ask what they needed me to do. They had me fill out a bright green tag for my wheelchair with my name and contact info, and approximate weight of the chair. They were kind, courteous, and professional, asked me if I wanted any assistance to get to the gate.
Getting searched from the TSA with adaptive aids is always a pain in the neck, no matter what you use it seems. Wooden cane seems to be the least problematic, but anything metal...just expect it to get thoroughly searched. Since I'm ambulatory, I opted to stand in the new "Advanced Imaging Technology" machine that is reminiscent of a Star Trek transporter (you have to be able to stand still, feet on designated spots, with your arms raised for about 30-45 seconds to use this).
We roll through without too much hassle and with plenty of time to just relax and get a drink. The gate attendants double checked with me to make sure I didn't need an aisle chair, and I double checked that they realized that I have a rigid frame chair. I rolled down the jetway (whee!), took off my seat cushion, and gave my chair to the gate checkers.
The flight attendant was amazing. She noticed that I was dropping off a wheelchair, and when we landed in Charlotte (CLT) she made sure that we didn't get up until my chair was on the jetway. My chair came back without a dent, scratch, or issue! I decided to walk my chair up the jetway with my cane because of how steep it was. We get to the gate, and the attendants asked if we wanted them to hail a motorized cart or if we needed any other assistance. I declined as I really like moving around and exploring airports. It also meant that I got to be naughty and use the motorized walkway when it said it wasn't recommended for wheelchairs or strollers (it was a mighty carpeted hill...not fun for a manual wheelchair user!).
We get to the gate and are just talking about nerdy things (mostly comic books, and specifically critiquing Marvel Comics going pink for the cure for the Komen Foundation). A pair of lovely US Airways employees came up to me and asked if they could see my tickets, then checked to see if they could get us closer seats. They did! They also double checked if I needed an aisle chair. They also chatted with me informally for a few minutes, showing some great customer service that I didn't expect to get (by the way, if someone at US Airways is reading...I have their names and I really think they deserve major kudos).
Boarding was much the same as in GSO, and it was again a really smooth and enjoyable flight to Minnesota. The MSP staff were just as friendly and offered assistance, which was a great change from the flights I've made with forearm crutches or a cane. Since we didn't check baggage, we didn't have to deal with the baggage terminals. We picked up our rental car and went on our way to the Mall of America to bum around, then to the Sofitel Bloomington (one of the overflow hotels for the convention) to get settled (it wasn't an accessible room as their only accessible rooms had one bed, and we needed two because I had a friend staying with us for the con).
Long story short, US Airways is now my favorite airline. They treated me well, treated my equipment well, and really went the extra mile to make sure that I was treated well. I'm so happy with the service I received that I'm sending the link to the post to their customer service email and I sincerely hope that they keep up the good work!!