Flight details: 4th January 2016. 11am. Gatwick, London to Malaga, Spain
Airline: British Airways
To try and reduce the amount of stress I was under on the day we had stayed at a hotel 5 minutes away from the airport terminal. We wanted to get to the airport for 9am which was no mean feat for me! My body clock tends to wake me up at 9:30am at the earliest!
All packed and ready to roll
Mr Tree Surgeon wanted me to have to do as little as possible on the day we travelled, so instead of booking a car park at the airport we used a valet service. How very posh! It meant we could drive straight to the terminal departures building and not have to worry about getting me, the wheelchair, and the suitcases out of the car and onto a bus.
We used ‘Help Me Park’ and would highly recommend it for peace of mind. We were met at 9am by an official looking man in a high vis. jacket holding a clipboard. After taking some notes he took Pascal (my noble steed) off to spend 10 days in a secure car park somewhere nearby.
Next we did our best impression of the children’s game Buckaroo. I got into the wheelchair and my suitcase was placed on my lap! My backpack was put on the back of the wheelchair and Mr Tree Surgeon carried his rucksack, his laptop bag, and his hand luggage…all while pushing me into the terminal building!
To say I was nervous is probably an understatement. We had no experience of travelling using Special Assistance and I’ve only been on a plane a handful of times. We tracked down a smiley woman wearing the British Airways uniform who escorted us to the Special Assistance queue. Straight to the front! I felt a bit bad whizzing past everyone who had clearly been waiting for some time to check their bags in.
We told every member of staff we met that this was our first time travelling with the wheelchair! The woman behind the desk asked a few questions about whether I could walk up a few steps if needed (we replied that on such a busy day for me it probably wasn’t going to happen) and she talked us through how we needed to find the Special Assistance society use rather than going through security with everybody else. My wheelchair was tagged, just like my suitcase had been as it was weighed and sent off, and a bright orange label was put on too instructing those at Malaga airport to return the wheelchair to the aeroplane door rather than sending it through to baggage collection. (The wheelchair was stored in the baggage hold just like the suitcases.) We were warned that sometimes those emptying the hold didn’t always remember to do this, which didn’t exactly help the sense of mild panic I already had about everything.
We asked for someone to help us through security, it being our first voyage and all, and so the smiley woman who’d taken us to the front of the queue walked us to Security. We asked what happened on the other side; did we need to do anything differently or ask for help to the gate. She said no. We later found out that actually we should have had help getting to the gate.
At the Special Assistance Security gate I handed over the passports to the man behind the desk only for him to hand them back to Mr Tree Surgeon. Not what I expected from a staff member who was meant to be manning the Special Assistance gate. Already feeling slightly invisible and like a second class citizen he merely pointing to the conveyor belts where you place your hand luggage and metal items. Mr Tree Surgeon emptied his pockets and placed all of our items into the trays. A stern looking woman then beckoned us forward only to abruptly ask us to “Stop” when it became clear the wheelchair wasn’t going to fit through the body scanner. Duh. She opened a side gate and Mr Tree Surgeon wheeled me through. He was then almost pushed back through said gate and I was left on the other side. I was asked by The Stern Woman if I was in any pain to which I answered “not really.” Pretty sure she didn’t have the time or patience for a proper answer! I was asked to raise my arms which was really, really hard and she patted me down thoroughly with her hands. It felt incredibly uncomfortable being in the wheelchair at this point without Mr Tree Surgeon there to hold my hand and repeatedly asked if I could stand up. I was ignored. It doesn’t sound like much but the abrupt way in which she treated me, on top of the nerves and anxiety about the unknown became too much and I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing. Quite loudly actually. Mr Tree Surgeon had to ask if he could come and comfort me and if we could take a minute. The Stern Woman had moved on but a kinder woman with a clipboard did ask him if I was okay. Funny how I wasn’t asked myself…
He quickly scooped up our belongings and we emerged a little worse for wear from Security. Hooray! The noise that hit me did not help me in my attempt to regain control of my feelings of panic and anxiety. We tried to find the quietest corner of the Departures Lounge to sit in but I ended up digging out the ear defenders to drown out the hustle and bustle. We had a puzzle book to keep us entertained and pre occupied. We bought a bottle of water and some sweets too and then made our way to our gate.
Gatwick North Terminal Departures Lounge
Our flight was delayed by an hour but I was in my own little world with my ear defenders on and didn’t mind the wait at all. Perhaps I was happy that the moment at which I had to endure a plane journey was not upon me yet! While waiting we were approached by a kind man from Special Assistance. He seemed very confused that we were at the gate without him knowing about it. Apparently we should have gone to the Special Assistance desk after going through Security. This step was apparently vital because had the plane been parked away from the terminal building we would have needed to be transported to it and then needed a lift to get me up into the plane. The Smiley Lady at British Airways had neglected to tell us any of this. We didn’t even see a Special Assistance desk in the Departures Lounge! Luckily for us the plane was parked right by the terminal and I could be wheeled straight up to the door.
Mr Tree Surgeon had made a point of booking our seats over the phone so that he could triple check that everything would be okay for our first flight since since I’d been ill. He was assured over the phone that booking seats in row 14 meant that we were only 3 rows back from the door and so I would have a very short shuffle to my seat. Guess what? This was not the case. We boarded from the front of the plane and were seated right in the middle a over the wing. The doors which the man on the phone had been referring to were actually the emergency exits, which are never used for boarding, and so for someone working for British Airways his knowledge of aeroplanes wasn’t great. An air stewardess who clearly wasn’t too comfortable about people in wheelchairs (her poor confused face when I stood up and walked!) showed me to my seat while Mr Tree Surgeon sorted out our hand luggage and double checked that the wheelchair was definitely being placed in the luggage hold and would be brought back to us.
Goodbye grey and rainy England!
I flopped down in my seat and geared myself up for the next bit! Related posts: Travel Interview over on Sian’s blog