When I hear the announcement “cabin crew arm doors and cross check” my heart sinks a little. It is then that I know I’m truly at a point of no return and committed to, what for us, will literally be a long-haul flight.
BJ is 18 years old and has Athetoid Cerebral Palsy which means among other things he has constant movement. Whether it is his CP or just his personality, he likes to be on-the-go constantly, making sitting in a seat for 14-15 hours a challenge. Why do we take this on again and again? It’s quite simple; once BJ arrives at his destination he is an absolute pleasure to travel with and seems to relish the stimulation of a new city and environment. If I’m honest there is also an element of not wanting to feel limited by a wheelchair in an aspect of our life we loved prior to having children and hoped to share with them.
We recently travelled to the USA – our third trip in the last four years. The fact we have travelled before does not relieve my anxiety but I do know preparation is key to a successful holiday.
We’ve had such accommodating and helpful Qantas flight crews on our previous trips we once again booked Qantas.
Arriving at Sydney Airport we held our breath as we approached the check-in counter hopeful the flight would have extra space and we would get seats that would suit us. It always helps that BJ greets everyone like they are a “rock-star” immediately making a connection. The Qantas check-in lady was no exception, smiling at him, shaking his out stretched hand and making him feel welcome. I explained BJ’s difficulty with flying and asked if any extra seats were available on the flight to give us a little more room. A supervisor was called and she showed great understanding and I left the check-in counter smiling like a Cheshire cat knowing we had seven seats between the four of us.
At the boarding gate we were greeted by Qantas staff who organised our pre-boarding. The staff member walking with us chatted happily to the kids about our holiday all the way down the air bridge. Kids love these moments when they feel included and special. At the door of the aircraft we had a cast of flight attendants waiting for us and Hubby and BJ walked on to the aircraft while I took off the wheelchair cushion, did up the lap sash and dealt with the left-over bags. What I love about the Qantas crews is that they are not precious, they muck in and help by carrying bags and assisting us to get seated.
Once we were seated a flight attendant came over and introduced himself and advised they were there to help at any time. I mentioned BJ’s difficulty with flying and asked at that point if BJ was restless during the flight if we could use the aisle chair to give him a change of position. He wasn’t sure if this was possible but suggested we ask if necessary. We were the row behind the bassinettes so although we had seven seats between us the leg room was very confined. We decided to put BJ against the window in the faint hope it might encourage sleep with something to lean against. We decided to spread out and take turns sitting next to BJ for the first part of the trip. AJ and I sat in the middle of the aircraft and Hubby and BJ sat to the side. The cushion we made for BJ seemed to be making him more comfortable which was a good sign.
We watched the usual safety announcements and I noted where my life jacket was in case it all got too much (joking of course) Listening to the welcome message we were thrilled to hear our Customer Service Manager, Mark, was someone we had on a previous flight. He was the flight attendant I met when travelling to LA with a friend a few years ago. At that time I hadn’t flown on a long haul trip with BJ and couldn’t imagine how we’d manage. Mark was a “can do” type of guy and explained how the toilet walls opened out to give access. He was the person who gave me the confidence to fly with BJ. We also had the pleasure of having him as our flight attendant on our last flight to LA. He knew only too well after that flight how difficult flying is for our family. I was confident he would look out for us. During the flight we took BJ for a walk and we met Mark in the aisle and he said “you’re back! I wondered whether it was your family when I was told about the family with someone with a disability” Either he remembered us fondly, or our reputation lingered. He did grab my hand warmly so I choose to believe the first one.
Five hours into the flight I felt slightly cocky. The entertainment I had brought along and the calming tablet seemed to have BJ happy. Things took a little turn for the worse when the man in front lay his seat back. Of course he was entitled to do that but I could see immediately that BJ’s extra movement would be an issue plus it was going to be hard to get him in and out to go to the bathroom. When you need to assist someone, the ordinary row, particularly against the window, is difficult to say the least. At about the six hour mark BJ started to get restless. We quickly gave him his sleeping tablet and tried to settle him down for the night. That was a hopeful thought.
It would take until the last 2.5 hours of the flight before BJ would go to sleep. He was tired and restless prior to that but just could not get comfortable. He eventually fell asleep on my shoulder wedged up under my chin. I dared not move a muscle no matter how uncomfortable I became for fear of disturbing him.
Throughout the night the flight attendants checked on us regularly offering us drinks or anything that may help. It impresses me that they are so empathetic.
We arrived in LA and a part from wanting to kiss the ground with relief at arriving, I was grateful for the flight attendants care. They said they would do what they could to send a message regarding seating for our other flights.
We had three more flights to tackle but we were thankful to have four nights in Los Angeles before flying again. I purposefully broke up our trip to ensure we all had time to recover.
Our entire trip was booked with Qantas and on the remainder of our flights we had bulk-head or bassinette seats which made the world of difference. BJ was still restless but everything was more manageable.
We experienced consistency with the flight crews on all of our flights. They shared the same caring and understanding as our first crew.
Our return flight to Sydney was at 10pm and BJ slept all bar four hours of the flight. One of the flight attendants had been on our flight to LA and shared our pleasure at BJ having a better flight.
All our flights were paid for and not sponsored by Qantas in any way. Mark, our Customer Service Manager, gave me the confidence to give flying with BJ a go a few years ago. Now we want to share our story and experiences in the hope it may give others the confidence to fly. Please remember though, all flights are different but preparation will assist in ensuring your booking will run as smoothly as possible.
Qantas have extensive information on their website regarding specific needs http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/special-travel-needs/global/en
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Thankyou for sharing this information. I found your blog via Ellen and Max. My son is 9 with athetoid /dystonic quad cp and reading about BJ traveling is really informative. We are heading to Europe in 3 weeks time as a family of five x Bron
Lovely to hear from you and my that is a big undertaking travelling to Europe as a family of five. More hands to carry the luggage. I’m glad you liked the blog and I hope that your trip goes well. Don’t forget to follow us on our facebook page for more day-to-day tips. I’d love to hear how your trip goes on your return. We are always keen to see photos and hear of other’s travels. Take care Julie
Thanks for sharing your experience! Plane flights with my brother (also has CP, nonverbal, other disabilities as well) are so traumatic that we stopped doing them. However, that means I got/get more travel time alone with my parents and my brother gets his own vacation from us at a respite center!
Hi Christiana, I am glad you could balance out some travel so you still get to enjoy it. It is really difficult for most people to be confined for a long period of time on a plane let alone someone with a disability. Thanks for stopping by to share with me. Julie
Hi, I love your blog. My significant other Dan has cerebral palsy (spastic hemiplegia on the right side), and traumatic brain injury. He also has mild mental disabilities. We’re leaving today for Sydney Australia with my mom, and Dan is excited because this is his first trip to Australia, and my 3rd trip in 15 years. I use a wheelchair for long distances, and can walk for short distances either with assistance. Or, on my own.
I’ve flown with Qantas before, and I have to agree with you that the flight attendants are so wonderful. I hope we’re flying Qantas back to our home in America. But, I know that we’ll be flying United Airlines to Sydney. I want to say that there was this one flight attendant on Qantas that my mom, and I both really liked. I can’t remember her name. But, she was so helpful to my mom, and to me as well in a lot of ways when it came to me getting the right kind of special-needs accommodations on the flight. She went above, and beyond the call of duty to help us. I don’t know if you guys had her. But, she was wonderful. We saw her again on our way back home to America, and she had remembered my mom, and me, and greeted us warmly. This was before I had met Dan.
This will be my second time traveling to Australia with my manual wheelchair, and I’m excited about going because it’s my birthday present from my mom. We’re going to be celebrating my birthday while we are there, and I love Australia because in some of the cities I’ve been to besides Sydney. They are very keen on wheelchair accessibility. I’ve been to France, and some other countries as a wheelchair user, and getting around those countries with a wheelchair is very hard.
I’m so tickled about my Australia trip that I can’t wait to get on the plane.
Hi Samantha, so lovely to hear from you. I hope your trip to Australia is going well and the flight was comfortable. I also hope you have a Happy Birthday while here. Enjoy our beautiful city of Sydney and let me know how it all goes when you get home. Safe and happy travels. Julie
I have to say I am surprised. The airline that takes such good care of you has been the worst for me. They steal my exit row seats that I pay extra for, they randomly relocate me, they charge me twice for buying exit rows, they always tell me the seat I want is blocked and they can’t do anything about it, and they have switched planes on me without asking. I think Qantas sucks unless you have elite status.
Hi there, I’m sorry to hear your experience has not been a good one. We certainly don’t have “elite status” with Qantas. We speak to them well in advance but seating is never guaranteed and exit rows are actually unavailable to people with a disability because you need to be able to help other passengers in an emergency so we never get exit rows though we would love them. I guess it is like everything, a different experience is had by all. It can vary with crew and staff but I can only share our experience and it has been excellent to date. I hope you have happy travels in the future. Julie
Thank you so much for this insightful post!