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Airports and Aircasts: Tips for Flying When Injured

Michelle once traveled by air with a broken heel. She came out of it wiser and more empathetic to people who always travel with a handicap.

Navigating an airport is challenging for a traveler with a temporary injury.

Navigating an airport is challenging for a traveler with a temporary injury.

Air travel has probably never been easy for people with permanent or temporary physical disabilities. I don't have a permanent disability, but I did fly with a broken heel upon which I was forbidden to put any weight. With my injury, I braved one round-trip domestic flight and half of an international one, all in a post-9/11 world. I have lived to tell the tale, wiser and much more empathetic to people who always have to travel with a handicap. While I'm sure there are hundreds of people who have tips for traveling while disabled, here are a few, perhaps some irreverent, tips you might find helpful if you find yourself leaving on a jet plane with only one leg that works.

Don't Pack More Than You Can Handle by Yourself

This has always been a diehard rule of mine. If you can't manage two massive checked bags, a carry-on bag that you can barely raise above your head and cram into those overhead bins, and what airlines call a "personal item"—often a tote bag or briefcase the size of a small child—don't pack them. Pack only the weight and take only the number of items you can manage on your own.

Now, forget that rule if you're traveling in an aircast. You can't handle your body on your own, let alone anything else. Instead, pack what you want, but make sure you have a traveling companion who can handle it all because they will have to. Remember to be kind to that person or, if you have to travel alone, to all of the special services people who push you around in wheelchairs and the TSA staff who have to carry you and your belongings through security checkpoints. You might feel like a big piece of checked baggage yourself when you can't walk on your own.

Ask for Assistance

When you check-in for your flight online, you'll see a box that asks if you need special assistance. If you can't walk, check it. Air travel is no time to be big and brave and try to crutch through the terminal on your own. First, it's just ridiculous to think that you have the endurance to walk on crutches through even a small airport terminal. It's exhausting. Second, those shiny airport terminal floors are no place for one shoe and two rubber tips. Third, you'll have visions of O.J. Simpson and Hertz running through your brain. If you're over the age of 40, you'll know what I mean.

I suggest you get dropped off at the airport curbside. There are usually wheelchairs near entrances and more than one airline employee—Delta Airlines, in my case—will ask if you want one. Say "yes" and sit down. Frankly, that's a tough thing to say for those of us who have always prided ourselves on our independent nature.

You may worry about the fact that you've arrived at the airport two or three hours before your flight leaves, and you don't want some helpful stranger hanging around all that time, rolling you to and from the bathroom or sitting around while you have a beer in the local airport pub. The fact is that the special services person doesn't want to hang around with you all that time either. He or she has a bunch of other people to cart around. That said, he will keep checking back with you if you want him to. But if you're like me, and you are traveling with someone else, your companion is authorized to push you around for the duration of your wait. But again, just make sure you haven't loaded your companion down like a pack mule, because you make his life extremely difficult trying to push you around as well as handle the combined sum of your carry-on luggage.

Air travel is no time to be brave and try to crutch through the terminal on your own.

Air travel is no time to be brave and try to crutch through the terminal on your own.

What Not to Wear

Ladies, choose your wardrobe for this trip carefully. It's tough to keep your legs together when getting in and out of a wheelchair. Personally, I prefer to not look like an American tourist when I travel, so I don't wear sweatsuits. I also don't travel in jeans because they can become pretty uncomfortable during a nine-hour flight across the Atlantic. But unless you want to pull a Sharon Stone, don't wear a skirt without wearing leggings.

My travel uniform of choice was a sweater dress with leggings. I wore a black boot with a good tread on my good foot, which is helpful when negotiating slick floors and a lot more secure than a slip-on shoe I would normally wear to make life easier when going through security. I also normally like to layer my clothing for an international flight, which makes it easier to adjust to temperature changes. But when traveling with the aircast, odds are that you're going to be patted down thoroughly by a TSA agent at least once. So think about that when you're choosing your wardrobe. The more layers, the more patting.

At security, you will probably get to decide whether you take your aircast off or not.

At security, you will probably get to decide whether you take your aircast off or not.

Choose Whether to Remove Your Aircast at Security

The wonderful thing about an aircast is that you can take it on and off fairly easily. That's a real plus when you're going to be required to wear a cast for months. It certainly makes showering and sleeping a whole lot easier. When coming through airport security, you have the choice of taking the boot off or leaving it on.

The first time I went through security, I took off the aircast while seated in the wheelchair and sent it down the conveyor belt along with my other boot, backpack, and computer. The agent then asked if I could stand still for a few seconds in the body scanner. I thought I could, so the agent pushed my chair as close to the module as possible and helped me hop in on one foot where I stood, a little shaky, until an agent on the other side helped me back out and into my wheelchair.

Expect a Security Pat-Down If You're Wearing a Cast

Since I wasn't supposed to put any weight on my foot at all, it was a little scary to balance on one foot with both my hands up in the air. So the next time I had to go through security, I decided to keep my aircast on. I still had to send everything else through the conveyor, but then the agent pushed me past the body scanner to the other side where a female agent told me in great detail what she was about to do in a pat-down. She proceeded to pat me down thoroughly, asking me to lean forward, raise my right hip, then my left. Awkward but painless.

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Try to let go of any notion of being embarrassed. Airport security is airport security. The pat-down was followed by a swab of my hands and my aircast to check for explosives residue. Then I was rolled to a machine that X-rayed my aircast from the comfort of my wheelchair. Like the pat-down, these procedures were accompanied by thorough explanations and numerous apologies. I told the agent that I understood she was doing her job and recognized that anyone could put on an aircast and head to the airport with something hidden inside. If these procedures discouraged terrorists from the attempt, I didn't mind enduring it myself.

Let the pros get you from one gate to another; they know the airport inside and out.

Let the pros get you from one gate to another; they know the airport inside and out.

Leave the Wheelchair-Driving to the Pros

Although it's fine to have your companion push you around the terminal near your gate while you're waiting for your flight to board, leave the rest of the driving to the trained professionals. My experience working at a hospital taught me that there is a right way and a wrong way to push people in wheelchairs. This is especially true when you're pushing someone up or down an incline like, say, the boarding ramp. For example, when taking someone down an incline, you take the handles and back down the ramp, greatly reducing the chances of having a runaway wheelchair.

I also advise letting the pros get you from one gate to another, even if you have to wait a few minutes for someone from special services to arrive. That's because they know the airport inside and out, they know where all of the elevators are and where the ride can get bumpy. Having the professionals get you from point A to point B can also be beneficial if you have a tight schedule between flights. He and/or the airline representative at your arrival gate will often call the next gate to tell them you're en route.

Tip Your Wheelchair Driver

And don't forget to tip the special services staff if they deliver good service. I had some who were very pleasant and friendly and, most importantly, efficient. I also had a couple who were kind of grouchy but still got me where I needed to go. I tipped each accordingly, but figuring out how much wasn't as easy as tipping the skycap a couple of bucks per bag. I just guessed how much to tip based on their service and the distance/difficulty of the trip. I've read that you should tip from $5 to $10 so I kept that range in mind, although a couple of my drivers didn't hit the minimum.

Besides that, it can get expensive to travel by wheelchair. On my domestic round-trip flight, I had assistance at my departure airport, off and back on the plane at my layover airport, then off again at my destination. At 10 bucks a pop, that can really hit you hard in the pocketbook.

First to Board, Last to Get Off

If you've ever flown, you know that the first people invited to board the plane are those who have small children or need special assistance. For the wheelchair-bound, that's us, and the special services person should be there, ready to get you onboard first. That's because it takes a while for someone like me to walk down those narrow airplane aisles on crutches to reach a seat in coach.

On one of my flights, the special services person didn't show up until half the plane had boarded, which meant not only did I have to make it down the narrow aisle, but I had to do so while waiting for people to put their luggage in the overhead bins and get settled in their seats. I didn't tip that person, by the way.

Let Your Travel Buddy Help You

On one of the legs of my domestic flight, we had a really tight connection. My crutches were in the overhead bin so I decided not to wait until everyone else deplaned from the rather full flight. Instead, we headed toward the front of the plane when it was our turn, flight attendants telling me someone would bring a wheelchair down after everyone was off. But I crutched up the ramp (not an easy feat, by the way) to the Delta counter at the gate and asked if they could let our next flight know we were on our way. Then I stood there and waited for a wheelchair anyway. If I found myself under the same circumstances again, I would let my companion deplane as usual to carry the message to the counter, then wait until the end and ride up that ramp. Lesson learned.

You'll be among the first to board and the last to get off the plane.

You'll be among the first to board and the last to get off the plane.

Stowing Crutches on the Plane

So, where do you put your crutches during the flight? On my first flight, the flight attendant waited until my companion and I were seated, then took my crutches up front to stow them in a closet. That was great, but I wondered how long it would take to get them back should I need to use the bathroom on the plane. On the next flight, the attendant just stuck them in the overhead bin with our carry-on bags. No problem there.

But on the international flight across the Atlantic, some family stuck their kids' skateboards on top of my crutches. I would for sure have to use the bathroom at least a couple of times. We were seated clear in the very back of the plane. I'd chosen those seats because I wanted to be near the restrooms in the back and the large space where the flight attendants prep meals. I figured I might want to crutch back there to stand for a while during the flight. Unfortunately, there was no storage space large enough back there to stow my crutches, nor would they fit between the last middle row of seats and the wall, so my companion was stuck with the unenviable task of taking out the skateboards and two bags so he could retrieve my crutches, then putting everything back.

Know Your Limitations

You need to know your limitations when traveling with an injury. Be confident that you know best what you can and cannot do, and don't be timid about asking for help. After nearly falling trying to get off a shuttle bus at one airport, I made a comment about how high the step was. The driver then said, "Oh, well I have a ramp for people in wheelchairs." Duh. From then on, I assumed that if there was an easier way to get on and off of a shuttle bus, the driver would accommodate me.

Don't be too proud or embarrassed to ask some stranger for help. Getting on and off a hotel courtesy shuttle is difficult because they typically have a very narrow step and are high off the ground. Rather than make my companion haul my rear end on and off all of these buses, I ask the driver to take one side while my companion takes the other. It makes everyone's life a little easier, and the driver gets a better tip. Don't do anything you aren't sure you can, and let people open doors, step aside, and do things for you. It makes everyone feel better about themselves.

Oh, and don't worry about all the looks you get from people as you're being wheeled through an airport terminal. It's like you're being inspected to see whether or not you really need a wheelchair. It's best to ignore them.

Don't be too proud to ask a stranger for help.

Don't be too proud to ask a stranger for help.

I heard and made a lot of jokes about being wheeled around airports like Cleopatra was carried by her slaves. But the fact is that I would much rather do everything under my own steam, on my own two legs, carrying my own baggage. And because my physical limitation is temporary, I certainly won't complain or feel sorry for myself.

If I hadn't had such a phenomenal companion to travel with, I'm not sure I would have even attempted the second flight. I certainly admire people who do figure out how to make these trips on their own. Still, traveling with a physical handicap is better than being grounded, and I have places to go and people to see. Broken heel or not, I'm back in the saddle again.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Wow, talk about a great perspective. Seven weeks ago, I shattered my left heel, and living by myself with only one upstairs bathroom, I can empathize! Thank you for articulating the problems so well. How long before you, the writer of this article, could walk on your own after injuring your heel?

Answer: I was totally non-weight bearing for four months. Then, I could start trying to put weight on that heel. It was scary! I was living in Europe at the time and had only instructions from a physical therapist in the States to guide me as I started gradually walking on my own again. My ankle still doesn't work well. Before I fell, I was a runner. I've never been able to run again, and even walking can be a struggle. It's okay while I'm doing it but as soon as I stop, I start limping again. The heel is a bad bone to break.

Question: Were you asked what injury you had or did you need to provide a Fit-to-Fly document?

Answer: I was not required to specify my injury or to have any kind of document. I can say that I was on crutches, wearing a large orthopedic boot on my right lower leg and foot, so it was obvious I needed assistance. If your injury is less visible, perhaps carrying a note from your doctor would be helpful while you're traveling. But when making flight reservations, you just needed to specify that you need assistance.

Question: How do you handle connecting flights? If you come off the plane in a wheelchair will someone take you to your connecting flight?

Answer: In my case, I "crutched" up and down the plane aisles, getting seated on and getting off a wheelchair at the bottom of the gangways. I did have one tight connection so I used my crutches to go up the ramp (awkward, by the way) to meet the person with the wheelchair. Otherwise, I would have had to wait until everyone was off the plane so the wheelchair could be rolled down the gangway to the plane door. People needing assistance are the first to get on the plane and the last to get off. But the wheelchair operators were always waiting for me. They not only made sure I got to my connecting flights, but know how to navigate a busy airport.

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