Wheelchair Users Struggle to Get Airborne

Long before the sunscreen and the mouthwash and the duty free were banned from the cabin, air travellers who use electric wheelchairs knew only too well what it's like to be buried in pre-flight restrictions.

Wheelchairs as air cargo have always meant a maze of red tape - the planning, the booking, the checking, the re-checking, the worry that no matter how careful everyone tries to be, one of your most precious possessions may come to grief at the hands of strangers in the belly of a jumbo jet.

If he'd been in London last week, facing a passport-and-wallet-only carry-on policy, Adam Lloyd, editor of gimp onthego.com, says, as a quadriplegic traveller, it would have been impossible for him to fly. "I would essentially be trapped there, a hostage to the havoc," he emailed in response to my query after the London scare.

Tight security is a necessary evil. Ultimately, it's not going to stop the growing number of flyers who use wheelchairs from doing their thing. But it adds another layer to a process already way too complicated - often unnecessarily so.

Major airlines boast they take pains to understand the needs of passengers with disabilities. But the process has always been complex.

Steven Fletcher, Conservative MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia, can't take his electric wheelchair on weekly flights home to Winnipeg and his constituents because the regional jets assigned to that route are too small to carry it.

That has forced Fletcher to spend more than $60,000 on two additional chairs. One stays in Winnipeg, the other in Toronto, where he frequently attends meetings.

His original chair lives in Ottawa. "The airlines have to do better," he says.

For experienced fliers, like James Glasbergen of worldonwheelz.com, getting there is not a problem.

"The worst part is worrying about damage to your chair," says Glasbergen, director of accessible travel at Guelph-based Frederick Travel (1-800-578-8958, ext. 227). Among other things, he advises labelling parts of your chair that you don't want baggage handlers to touch.

But for many of us, it's touch-and-go, right from the booking process.

Even at the so-called "med desk," the designated authority for all things relating to disabilities and air travel, you can get different answers from different agents.

When 11-year-old Brian Sempowski and his family tried to book a vacation to Hawaii this year, they were told the airline was no longer transporting any baggage over 200 pounds. Period.

Depending on whom you spoke to and when, the weight limit was either 200 or 250 pounds. No matter. Since any self-respecting electric wheelchair weighs in at 300-plus, the effect was to ban anybody who uses one from flying.

Over the course of two weeks, the Star tried to get a straight answer out of Air Canada. A string of emails tells a story of endless nit-picking about details. Calls to other airlines revealed no across-the-board policy. Air Transat, for example, said unequivocally that it had no weight restrictions. WestJet said it did, then that it didn't.

Clearly, the dimensions of the aircraft determine what can be carried in the hold. But the weight rule appeared to supersede that.

Finally, on June 14, Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick apologized "for the misinformation earlier," adding: "What has been confusing is that I have learned we eliminated the 250-pound limit policy in the spring."

Brian Sempowski was cleared to fly.

A slew of other problems often awaits air travellers with electric wheelchairs - from the availability of elevators in the terminals to access to ground transportation. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities () has a long series of complaints against airlines under the Canadian Transportation Act.

The latest fears of terrorism raise new uncertainties.

"I expect in the next two to three weeks you will see a variety of things at airports," says Candy Harrington of emerginghorizons.com.

"But I also believe, from past experience, that the new restrictions will be relaxed in several weeks."

Meanwhile, as gimponthego's Lloyd notes: "Everything from trying to book direct flights, to reserving a suitable seat (best is: bulkhead, aisle, arm rests that raise, not in an exit row), to arranging assistance in transferring to the plane seat, to making sure an aisle chair is available for the transfer process, to relating to the airline whether the chair has dry or wet cell batteries (which must be boxed separately), to getting ... the chair brought to the plane's door upon disembarkation, to co-ordinating assistance for (service) animal seating, to arriving hours early, to boarding first and exiting last has always been the responsibility of the disabled traveller."

Among new complications, "time consuming and harrying but necessary for everyone's safety," he emphasizes that "the latest restrictions on liquids will only increase the difficulty for disabled fliers, many of whom must stay hydrated for medical reasons, cannot use onboard lavatories and thus opt for hand sanitizers, etc."

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