The Flight Attendant Did What?

Just when I though I’d heard everything, I get a question or a comment from a traveler that actually makes me think to myself “he/she did WHAT??” Such was the case last night when I gave a teleconference on accessible travel for the National MS Association. And in retrospect, it’s worth addressing the issue here, because if it can happen to one traveler, it can happen to others.

It’s really a pretty simple story. This person — we’ll call her Jane as usual — was on an airplane and needed to use the restroom, so she asked the flight attendant for the onboard wheelchair. The flight attendant came back and said that she couldn’t find it. And here’s where it gets strange. The flight attendant actually asked another passenger to carry Jane to the restroom.

Now Jane was mortified to say the least, and she told the flight attendant she could hold it. But the flight attendant was concerned for Jane and insisted. And the flight attendant also knew the law — crew members are prohibited from carrying passengers. But nothing in the Air Carrier Access Act says that another passenger can’t do the deed. So Jane consented and off they went. And let’s just say that Jane was beyond embarrassed. Now Jane wasn’t angry, because she realized the flight attendant was only trying to help out; but she also wanted to know what she could have done.

Well, first off I will say that it’s not uncommon for flight attendants not to know the locations of onboard wheelchairs; so first I advised Jane to nicely ask the flight attendant if perhaps another crew member could locate it. Hey, it’s a shot. If the onboard wheelchair still could not be located, and I absolutely knew I could hold it, then I would probably just firmly refuse to be carried.

But that’s a tough call, because let’s face it, you never know for sure if you can hold it. I mean, you might think or hope you can, but it’s not an exact science. And then, you never know if there will be a delay on the tarmac; say for example there were no gates available. And then of course if you need the aisle chair to deplane, you will have to wait until all of the other passengers are gone. Believe me, all those delays can add up quickly, especially when your bladder is full.

So, Jane made the best decision that she could for herself, under the circumstances. And that’s what we all have to do.

But let’s take a look at how this situation can be prevented in the future.

For US airlines, onboard wheelchairs are required on all post-1992 wide body aircraft. These aircraft are also required to have accessible lavatories, but as many of you know, they’re a far cry from the accessible restrooms we find in the terminal. Additionally, planes with more than 60 seats must carry an onboard wheelchair, given 48 hours advance notice.

So first and foremost, request an onboard wheelchair when you book your flight. I’d even go one step further and request one even if you’re not required to request one. Better safe than sorry.

Then, when you preboard the aircraft, ask the flight attendant to double check and confirm that there’s an onboard wheelchair aboard. That way you’ll know before you leave the gate, or even before any of the passengers board, if there’s a problem. And it will give the crew ample time to secure an onboard wheelchair.

In the end, the secret to a successful trip, is heading off potential problems like this. Truth be told, it’s a constant learning process; however the good news is, the more you travel, the easier it gets!