Image description: Sepia-toned black and white photo of unoccupied black, lightweight manual wheelchair with power-assist wheels, tubular armrests, and a calf strap parked on a hardwood floor in front of an art deco-style glass pocket door.
In October’s Travelling with a wheelchair I detailed my first two out of town trips, by ferry and by plane, with my own wheelchair, an ultralight rigid frame TiLite Aero Z with E-motion M15 power-assist run by lithium-ion batteries. (If you’re interested in detailed specifics of the chair, including its benefits and challenges, you should read that post first.)
Those first two West coast journeys went unexpectedly well. But I wasn’t sanguine about transatlantic air travel (Seattle to Heathrow on British Airways; eight days in Leeds; four days in Cambridge; BA back to Seattle). In fact I was so dubious about it that we took out a massive chunk of insurance for the chair (which, obscenely, is worth more than our car—being a cripple is not cheap).
Heathrow is a giant nightmare for those who rely on mobility assistance: the porters/assistants (in my UK experience always men) tend to get things wrong. Spectacularly wrong. Often. I’ve missed a transatlantic flight after being abandoned in a transfer station in the bowels of the airport and forgotten. (My phone had no signal. I couldn’t walk anywhere. The airport chair was not self-pushable.) I’ve almost missed my flight countless times, including the last time we were in the UK when I had to physically intimidate the driver of what I call a beep-beep buggy, make him stop, and limp with superhuman speed on my crutches to the jetway where they were about to close the flight.
So I was not sure whether this trip, in which I was in charge of my own mobility destiny in my own chair, would go brilliantly or terribly.
In preparation we not only took out expensive insurance (with $1,000 deductible), I bought a special bag, a TiLite backpack that attaches to the back of chair, that’s detachable for use as a carry-on. The bag that attaches to the right front strut for everyday use was too small (and also time-consuming and fiddly to take off for the flight). I also emailed the hotel in Cambridge where we would be staying and sought personal reassurance that it would be wholly accessible. (I didn’t need to do that with the hotel in Leeds. We’ve stayed there so many times that I can now negotiate a very favourable rate for a very good room.They know us by sight.) They told me that their front entrance was currently being renovated but they had a fixed ramp on a side entrance so it would be no problem. I booked us a car service: nine-seater van to ferry us from Heathrow to Leeds, Leeds to Cambridge, and Cambridge to Heathrow. Yes, this was wickedly expensive but it was the only solution for someone with a non-folding wheelchair and luggage. I negotiated a cash price which brought the cost down a bit.
The travel did not begin well. First of all, we couldn’t get an accessible Super Shuttle to pick us up from our neighbourhood. Fortunately our neighbour and friend was free that afternoon so she drove us in our own car to Sea-Tac and dropped us right outside British Airways. We assembled the chair and zipped into the terminal.
Earlier in the month we’d read the BA website guidelines and had called BA and talked to a real live human being, so we were confident in the procedures (more time…). Sadly, the staff at BA check-in were not. They could not seem to grasp the notion of lithium-ion batteries. They had to call a series of people to confirm procedure. Once they had done that, though, and festooned the chair with a variety of tags—including the giant, all-important bright-orange BRING TO PLANE! label (more on that below)—the next part was fabulously easy: I moved through currency exchange, security, ground transit, and to the BA lounge entirely under my own steam. The only hard part were the bathroom doors in the lounge: enormous, weighty slabs designed for Goliath, not crips in wheelchairs (or old people, or people with children, or small people, or, well, anyone except Goliath).
Before I go any further, let me submit one elephant-sized caveat: we were flying First Class and staying in swank hotels (largely on points). We were treated with great courtesy and consideration at every stage. I’d like to think that those flying Economy and staying in budget accommodation would get the same level of care but, human nature and economics being what they are, I’m not entirely convinced. So please bear this in mind as you read on.
Eventually we were on the plane. Uneventful 9-hour flight. Land at Heathrow…aaaand no wheelchair. We wait on the plane, still no wheelchair. We wait some more. They need to turn the plane around for the flight back. They find an airport chair and stick me in it and trundle me to the top of the jetway. A BA rep is frantically phoning departments all over the airport. Nothing. No one know where the chair is. Time is ticking by. I phone the car service that’s supposed to be picking us up for the drive north. “Oh, don’t worry about the delay,” they said. But I was worrying. Yes, the chair was insured, but getting the money back in a month was not going to help right there and then. If my chair was on the way to Bali (or even Birmingham) I was fucked.
Eventually (and by this time we were frozen; I hadn’t slept in 24 hours and we were sitting on crappy plastic chairs in the unheated part at the top of the jetway) the BA rep said he thought the chair was at baggage claim. (Thought?) He was trying to get a beep-beep buggy to trundle us through immigration. (Trying?? I was not overwhelmed with confidence.) Eventually the buggy came and off we trundled. It was the usual nightmare of a person blithely setting off in the wrong direction and being unwilling to a) listen and b) ask for help. Some unknown and miserable time later, we finally arrived at baggage claim. It was deserted. Apart from my chair (worth more than our car, remember?) sitting abandoned in the middle of the echoing hall where anyone could just roll it away unchallenged.
In a daze of fatigue, jetlag and irritation I got in it and set about reinstalling the batteries etc while Kelley hunted down the luggage. Then we found our way through customs and ground transit and, eventually (an hour late? two hours? I was so tired I didn’t know or care) to our driver. He had a lovely, comfy Mercedes van. We settled in a zoned out for the four-hour drive to Leeds.
We had a perfectly lovely week in Leeds. Getting wheelchair taxis turned out to be much more difficult during the day than I’d expected (lots of crips, few taxis) but after dark very, very easy (apparently most crips don’t venture out after the sun goes down).
Then we had a smooth and easy drive down to Cambridge to our lovely hotel. Where we found that their notion of an accessible ramp was something with a two-inch lip that my chair couldn’t climb. I just stared at it blankly. The driver, without even asking, just heaved the chair over the lip. I was pissed off—but also glad that at least I would now be able to sleep somewhere that night.
In the interests of time and space, let me just say that the hotel’s manager was very responsive. By the time I’d had breakfast the next morning there was a temporary wooden ramplet installed at the end of the ramp; I would be able to come and go safely and at will. (Also, the food at this place was delicious, especially the soup—I had three different soups in three days, and I loved every single one of them. If I lived in Cambridge I’d be there for lunch at least once a week.)
I’d chosen the hotel deliberately so it was equidistant from both the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, where I was doing classes and seminars. Both looked to be trundleable distance—half a mile at most. First up was ARU. It was cold, and it was late on a winter afternoon: dark, pouring with rain, roads and pavements jammed with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. The cars were a pain: it turns out that wheelchair height is exactly where you breathe the most exhaust. Ack. But the bikes were worse. Most cyclists were not using lights; they did not look for obstacles at wheelchair height. I had a couple of close calls. (Note to self: Buy a light for the wheelchair, something noticeable.) But still, it was wonderful to be out and about under my own steam. I wish we lived somewhere I could do that: with sidewalks/pavements, relatively level terrain, and accessible destinations.
I was at ARU for about four hours, doing various things. Afterwards, Kelley and I and a couple of faculty went off to a Turkish restaurant to get dinner. Level entry, yes. Accessible absolutely! the owners told my host. Except, gosh, it turns out that ‘level-entry’ meant a three-inch stone step. Again, I just stared at it blankly. Then—before anyone could even think about bodily heaving me up the step—I said: That’s not accessible, and wheeled away. We all just went back to the hotel and ate the posh version of bangers and mash and had a lovely conversation over wine.
The next day was all friend stuff, not professional, and we hit no problems.
Getting to Cambridge University was an adventure: right through the centre of town at the busiest time of day when the streets were jammed with people walking, biking, driving at speed. And this time some of the pavements were very narrow and very sloped. Wheelchairs are a lot of work on a tilted surface because one arm is doing a lot more work than the other, and it’s harder to dodge idiot non-alert pedestrians and idiot non-aware cyclists. Also, there was one place with no cuts (outside the Hilton Hotel: Bad Hilton!). But we managed. And again, the event went well.
We got back to the hotel, made half-hearted packing motions, then thought, Fuck it! and went to the bar. And stayed a while. And then ate dinner. Eh, we can always get up early… I spent much of the evening smiling, happy that for four whole days I hadn’t needed any kind of car or taxi, I’d been able to get everywhere I needed to go on my own two wheels.
Here’s where it gets interesting: the trip back, from the drive to the airport to the flight to the retrieval of wheelchair at the other end to go going through immigration and customs was the smoothest, easiest fucking trip I’ve had in decades. If all travel went so well I’d do it a lot more.
What made the difference was that somehow, between the middle and end of November BA changed all their policies. For the flight my wheelchair now went into something they called The Tank (no idea if that’s official terminology or just some local load-control term) which meant we didn’t have to take the batteries out. So I just wheeled to the plane, got on the plane, and loaders wheeled the chair away and put it in the hold. When we arrived at Sea-Tac we had to wait five minutes and, bang, there it was on the jetway. It felt like a miracle.
But, again, we spent a lot of money on this trip. And I was travelling with Kelley. I dread to think how it would be do the journey on my own, or, worse, on my own on a restrictive budget. We’ve pretty much exhausted our British Airways points now, so next time I think we will be on a budget. I’ll let you know how it goes.