Air travel isn’t easy for so many reasons, most people find it uncomfortable especially on long-haul flights. For someone with a disability there are many factors which make flying even more difficult including the lack of support of an airline seat, transfers, bathrooms and more. Even though BJ sits quite well without the assistance of supports, he finds the confined space, the necessity to sit in one position and sleeping upright the hardest part of travel.
We’ve not found the secret to flying without stress but in our travels we’ve found a few things which make air travel more comfortable. We thought we’d share them with you. If you have a tip, please post it in comments below or share it over on our Facebook page.
AVOID SCHOOL HOLIDAYS
If you have the ability to book outside of school holiday and peak periods, do it. The month after school holidays is likely to be quieter in general. There’s a reason airlines often have bargain fares in February, they need to fill the flights.
TRY BOOKING A MIDWEEK FLIGHT
I know this a generalised statement, but people usually like to take their holidays starting on a Saturday and ending on a Sunday. Try booking a flight on a Tuesday or Wednesday. We’ve often find these flights have spare seats (more on spare seats below).
CHECK IN EARLY
Apart from plane spotters, most people like to spend the least amount of time possible hanging around waiting for a flight. However, if you have additional requirements, I suggest getting to the airport at least 1 hour earlier than the recommended check in time. You’ll avoid time in the queues, check in staff are generally more obliging at the beginning of their shift on the counter and you’ll have the best shot at any special requests because they’ll have more time to look into it.
After general pleasantries with check in staff I always ask if the flight is full. If not, I ask if there’s any chance of getting a spare seat between us. With BJ we often ask if they can block the seat in front of him so there’s less chance of someone reclining their seat back and making the space in front of him even less. His additional movement makes it hard for him not to bump the seat in front and in turn makes it less comfortable for the person seated in front of him. Staff are often obliging if they have the seats available on the flight. We make sure energetic BJ is present when I make this request so they have a small sample of his movement.
A seat with extra leg room allows us to assist BJ with his meals and transfer him in and out of his seat when he needs the bathroom. We always request (beg is a more appropriate word) a seat with as much room as possible. It makes an enormous difference to our family and I’ve often wanted to jump across the check-in counter and kiss the airline staff when we have been allocated seats with extra room. Make sure you make a seating request (plea) when booking.
Exit rows cannot be occupied by anyone who cannot assist in an emergency so don’t even ask if you have any injury, mobility restriction or you are needed to help a child or person with a disability.
On some long-haul flights the bulk-head seats (those with extra room – pictured above) are an exit row and on other aircraft they have bassinettes, therefore families travelling with a baby get preference. However, on other flights the baulk-head seats are free to be booked by anyone. These are our preferred seats as no-one is in front and there’s additional leg room. It does need to be noted the disadvantage with these seats is they have a fixed armrest which has the tray table contained inside. There’s no way of lifting the arm rest up.
MAKING SEATING MORE COMFORTABLE
Airlines are governed by strict regulations. Anything additional going on an airline seat needs to be approved. Airlines do differ in what they allow so you need to check with the airline directly.
UPPER TORSO HARNESS
An upper torso harness can assist passengers with a lack of torso control and these are available on many aircraft but have to be prebooked. These can be requested through the airline’s Priority Assistance or special handling department. BJ has used the harness and it worked well to keep him comfortably seated but sadly it didn’t make the flying time go any quicker. The harness can be used from 2 years old to an adult. The harnesses have an anchor point like a child’s car seat so you must sit in particular seating on the aircraft (not a bulkhead!)
Heidz, one of our Facebook friends, uses an extender belt to keep her comfortable. She says, “Each time I fly I always ask for an extender belt to put around my knees so I am not flapping in the wind so to speak. Having the belt around my knees helps to keep my feet flat too preventing pressure areas on the sides of my feet.“
One of our little Facebook frequent flyers, Toby, loves to travel with his Meru seat. He used it to travel to the US in Virgin’s premium economy class and his Mum reports the airline was very accommodating. To use it on the plane the family needed to supply the dimensions of the seat and the way it attached to the airline seat. Toby needed to be seated in the rear section of premium economy as the Meru has a strap that fastens around the seat which prevents the tray table behind being used.
Toby’s Mum says “the Meru provides Toby with a 5 point harness when flying. The adult harness that the airlines use is good but he tends to slide forward and ends up hanging in it. The Meru also has a foot rest that hangs and you can strap the childs feet in, which is great when Toby decides that it’s great sensory fun to kick the seat in front for hours on end! Before the chair I had spent a few flights just holding legs for hours on end.”
As an example I’m linking to Cathay Pacific’s regulations regarding travelling with a child’s car seat here. If this is important to you, I suggest making enquiries with airlines prior to booking flights to your destination. Comfort is so important to a flight the ability to travel with your child’s seat may decide which airline you book.
The CARES Harness is a belt and buckle restraint which attaches to an aeroplane seat. The manufacturer says the CARES Harness protects a child with the equivalent level of safety as a car seat. It is designed for children 1 to 5 years with a weight of 10kgs to 20kgs and a height of up to 102cm tall. It only weighs 500grams so it’s light to travel with in hand luggage.
You do need to let an airline know in advance if you will be travelling with one because the way the harness attaches to the seat it stops the tray table from being used by the passenger behind.
As an example I’m linking to Cathy Pacific’s regulations regarding travelling with a CARES harness here. Once again, please contact the airline in advance and make enquires about the CARES Harness.
BJ finds long-haul flights incredibly difficult. Although he can sit well on a regular seat he is much more comfortable on his wheelchair cushion. It is moulded to his seating needs and gives him support in all the right places. His wheelchair cushion isn’t suitable for the plane because BJ would sit too tall on it. So before we did our last long-haul flight we made a cushion which helped him greatly on the flight. It took quite a bit of effort getting the shape right, contacting the airline for seat dimensions and then having them clear it for use but it was worth it. BJ still found the flight difficult but he was seated more comfortably.
Other HWWT families have suggested using cushions or a wedge to assist with seating.
TRANSFERRING TO AN AIRCRAFT SEAT
BJ uses his wheelchair to the aircraft door and then walks with assistance to his seat. An aisle chair is a narrow chair provided by the airline. It fits between the aircraft seats and is used by people reliant on a wheelchair when boarding the aircraft. Please not these chairs have no support at all. Passengers can either use a slide board to transfer to the aisle chair or some airports supply an Eagle Lift which is a hoist transfer from the passenger’s own wheelchair to the aisle chair or vice versa. Not all airports have these available and it is therefore important to chat to the airline about alternatives. Eagle Passenger Lifters have locations listed on their website so you can do a search in advance here.
Aircraft can be changed at any time but we purposefully booked the A380 aircraft when flying to the US so we were assured of a larger bathroom on the flight. Although it is still not the size of an accessible bathroom you’d find on the ground it still made a trip to the bathroom easier.
You can see a photo of the toilet and read more about tips for personal care and continence when flying in our blog post here.
Premium Economy, business class and first class airfares are beyond our budget but there are definite advantages to upgrading. Extra space and the ability to lie flat may make a long-haul flight more comfortable. I’m not sure it would help us travel with BJ as the divider between seats would make it difficult for us to help him eat but I’m willing to give it a go one day so I can report back!
There are a few ways to travel at the pointy end of the plane without paying the full fare. Some airlines offer last minute upgrades at a reduced price. A friend recently was offered this option when she did online check-in with Qatar Airways. She took it and enjoyed the spoils that come with business class. On the way home she was again offered an upgrade at a reduced price which she took, on arrival at the gate she found she’d been upgraded again and was in fact enjoying first class. She has since reported, “There’s no going back!”
Some airlines offer passengers the option of upgrading by bidding. I’ve had friends bid successfully with Air New Zealand on flights from New Zealand to Canada. They paid approximately $400 more for the upgrade. You can read about upgrades with Air New Zealand’s OneUp on their website.
Other airlines offer this option too so do your homework before booking.
Lastly, for domestic travel, Qantas offers offers a discount on business class fares for people with a disability if you have a Qantas Carer Concession Card. You can read all about getting a Qantas Carer Concession card here.
Airport lounges are an oasis in busy airport terminals. Their offerings vary but most have comfy seating, drinks, food, WIFI, magazines, and many have shower facilities. But annual lounge memberships are expensive, and if you’re not a frequent traveller it’s just not worth it. Keep in mind some credit cards (usually for higher status cards) offer free lounge entry. American Express and Mastercard are just two credit card companies who offer this service.
You can buy single-entry lounge passes without needing an affiliation with any particular credit card.
We’d love to hear from you. If you’ve found something has made air travel more comfortable for you, please share your tips in comments below. If you have photos of business class or premium economy seats on any aircraft, we’d also love to see them.
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