When we decided to fly to Canada to visit family and friends, I knew that traveling would be really hard on me.
Not only would being up for many hours be hard, as that can make my migraines and nausea flare, but moving around physically causes extra pain, and fatigue. Because I struggle to walk with my balance (during my migraines), and with my fatigue, I decided to book wheelchair assistance for the airports.
I had never used wheelchair assistance before, so this was a new endeavour for me.
It is relatively easy to book. You just call up the airline at least 48 hours ahead of time (some airlines will say 24 hours), and tell them that you want to book wheelchair assistance. I did this at the same time that I booked our seats (which I tried to book as close to the the front of the plane as I could for each flight, and as near to the washroom as I could, so that I wouldn’t have to walk far mid-flight).
When we arrived at Heathrow airport in London, we were shown the way to the special assistance queue to check in. I was given the option to check my walker in there, or at the gate. I chose at the gate, so that I could use it throughout the airport as I needed it. I was very grateful that I chose that, as you transfer between various wheelchairs, and transportation, and I needed my walker to help move around.
After checking in, we walked over to the special assistance area, waited a bit, and then got my wheelchair. A lovely lady wheeled me through security.
At security, the officer threw me when she asked, “Do you have any pain today?”
I had no idea how to answer! Of course I have pain. I didn’t know what she wanted from me, until she laughed, because I was so clearly confused, and she explained that she wanted to know if there was anywhere special that she should be gentle with when she did her pat down (a pat down so that I could just stay seated in the wheelchair).
After getting through security, the amazing assistance woman stopped so that we could re-fill our water bottles. She then dropped me off in a waiting area.
My husband went off to get me a cup of tea, and to get some duty free for a friend of ours, and then soon we were picked up in those giant golf cart/people movers that drive around the airport. It took us to our gate as our flight was boarding.
When we landed in Toronto, we had to wait until everyone else got off of the flight, and then we sat up at the front of the plane in first class. It was five minutes of pretending I was fancy before my wheelchair arrived.
I was wheeled in a regular wheelchair to some chairs, and then we eventually were put on another golf cart, then a waiting area for a while. From that waiting area, we went to customs and then to pick up our bags. The lady was lovely, and made sure that she took me right out to where my parents were waiting with the wheelchair that they had bought for me.
So that was a successful trip over!
The trip back was a whole different beast.
We arrived at Toronto’s Pearson airport about 3 hours before our flight. It was chaos. There were 2 flights to India leaving with our airline (Air Canada) just before our flight was to leave, so it was very busy.
The staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing, and when we went to the special assistance area, the man at the desk moved my rollator walker away from me without asking my permission (I was still in the wheelchair I was leaving in Canada at that point). We sat there in chaos for ages whilst staff seemed to disappear. Family members who were not using the service weren’t supposed to be in the area, but that didn’t stop everyone from running around, children from grabbing wheelchairs, etc.
Then there was a medical emergency. A man next to me fainted and EMS had to be called. After this, we realised we were going to miss our flight soon. My husband tried to find a staff member. When he finally found one to ask if they could help us, she told him that if we needed to catch the flight, that he could just find a wheelchair and take me himself (rather than the staff actually do anything).
So, my husband then ran around and spent about 10 minutes trying to find a wheelchair that was available. When he finally found one, we had to juggle our carry on bags, and my rollator walker, and he had to push me. It was hardly a safe, or ideal situation.
We finally made it to the gate, thanks to the fact that we got to go through priority lane at security, and our flight was boarding.
It was a very stressful situation, and one that I was certainly not impressed with. The airline was responsible for special assistance, and they did not do a good job, at any level in treating anyone who needed it that night with care. I felt like it was more of an, “if we get to you, great, if not, oh well…” attitude.
I do understand they were overwhelmed with the amount of people and the emergency, but the underwhelming customer care that I received was truly upsetting. I have contacted Air Canada about this already (and I’m not a person who complains very often).
In contrast, when we arrived at Heathrow again, I had a wheelchair ready for me within a few minutes of waiting. Everything ran smoothly, and the staff was very courteous.
Using wheelchair assistance to travel to Canada and back to the UK has been really interesting. It is very helpful as you don’t have to worry about the stress of walking and the pain and fatigue that running through the airport, and standing in all the queues might bring. It also brings about its own stresses in that you have less power and control over things, as you are on someone else’s schedule.
One thing though… it sure was fun to be able to sit in first class for a while though!