What to expect when travelling using Special Assistance

I wish I’d had a breakdown of what to expect when getting through an airport before I did it for the first time in January 2016. Of course I had a whole heap of advice from friends who had gone adventuring abroad with the help of Special Assistance.

But I’ve written this post for anyone, who like me, needs things to be broken down a little bit more so that you have a clearer idea of what to expect.

Travel isn’t even an option for so many of us and I never thought I’d manage it again. I’ll leave this post here incase one day you’re able to adventure abroad.

A few days before

You will need to have notified the airline of what help you might need at least 48 hours before your flight. Mr Tree Surgeon informs them at the time of booking and then contacts them again 48 hours or so before to double check they’ve definitely not forgotten that I’ll be in my wheelchair and unable to climb the steps up to the plane.

At the airport

First, you go to the check in desk as usual and drop off your luggage. Very straightforward and simple. As usual you hand over your passport and boarding pass (if you’ve already downloaded it online) and then the staff will ask you these questions:

“Is it your own wheelchair?”

Yes. They then tag it like you would a suitcase going into the luggage hold. You use it right up until you get into the plane and then someone pops it in the luggage hold.
When you get off the plane, someone else has miraculously got it out of the luggage hold ready for you.


“Can you climb stairs?”

No. It doesn’t seem like the time or place to go into how much my health fluctuates.


“Can you walk from the aircraft door to your seat?”

Yes.

Second ‘check in’

You then need to go to the Special Assistance check in desk. Someone should tell you where this is. The first time we travelled no-one even told us we needed to do this bit. But it’s very important! It means that the wheelchair lift can be arranged for you if the plane is parked away from one of those tunnel things that leads right up to the aircraft door.


“Would you like to be accompanied to the gate?”

We said no but wish we’d said yes because the Stansted shuttle service was actually out of order and getting to the gate without being able to use the escalators or normal buses like everyone else became a nightmare.

In Spain, both times, there has been paperwork for me to sign at this point.

Security

There is a different ‘lane’ for you to go through or you’re fast tracked to the front of the normal queue. Everything is clearly signposted.

I have stayed sitting in my chair for 3 out of the 4 times I’ve been through security at an airport. They should ask you if you’re in any pain and if you’re okay to be frisked. You put all of your belongings into a tray just as you usually would and then a member of staff wheels you through. Your travelling companion won’t be allowed to wheel you through this bit. This threw me the first time it happened.

At the gate

A member of staff should meet you and you will most likely be the first in the queue when boarding starts. Either you’ll be whisked through the tunnel-corridor and straight onto the plane or you’ll be taken down by lift and go out onto the concourse where a wheelchair lift little-lorry-thing (this is obviously the technical term for such equipment!) will take you up to the plane door. Your wheelchair will be put into the luggage hold under the plane. I’ve always been advised to take any cushions or blankets that I might be using while using the wheelchair onto the plane with me.

When you reach your destination

If like me you’re travelling in your own wheelchair, it should be ready and waiting for you when you get off the plane. You’ll either go back down to earth on the wheelchair lift little-lorry-thing or the plane will be parked right up to the terminal and you’ll get off and be pushed along the tunnel-corridor-thing.

You’re usually fast tracked through border control so you don’t have to wait as long as everyone else. Stansted seemed to forget about their Special Assistance customers though as quite a few of us were congregated and waiting for someone to come and get us and take us through. Mr Tree Surgeon and I gave up waiting and succeeded on our own.

Baggage collection works exactly the same as it would if you had travelled as a fit and healthy holiday maker.

Something to think about
You are completely reliant on others though. If there’s not enough staff to take you through check in, or if the mini bus is not on time to collect you (not fun at all!) there’s very little you can do about it. For someone who has been independent and self reliant for most of their life, this was hard to take. Lots of breathing exercises were needed to get me through it all.

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