Health and Disability · Invisible illnesses

Travelling when disabled part 2

After an amazing week of resting and relaxing with my aunt and uncle in Spain I travelled back home using assistance again. The flight was pretty early so we arrived at the airport at 4.40am for check in. After waiting in a queue for about 20 mins (not a clue how I managed that, I think I was still asleep!) I got to the desk, checked in and they asked if I needed assistance still? Yes I replied, the assistance team don’t start work until 5am and there are 8 people in front of you for your flight. Oh well, that’s a great start! We had a little chat and discovered that we could get a wheelchair and wait to the side of the check in desk and wait for the assistance staff to start to be taken through security and to the departure lounge. This is not a great situation, but hey ho, no other options, so off my uncle goes to get me a wheelchair as the assistance desk was too far away for me to walk to, I needed the loo, but discovered it was too far away as well so I hobbled over to the assistance collection area. Obviously with 8 other people waiting for help to board this flight all of the seats were taken, I couldn’t sit on the floor as I figured I’d struggle to get up again, so I pushed through people’s luggage to lean against a post while I waited. There were only 4 seats so there were a few of us standing who should probably not have been. My uncle came back with a wheelchair and a person! He’s very resourceful and managed to get someone to take me through security. I skipped the queue (I heard a few grumbles from people waiting, but my uncle has skills so I was taking advantage! He also gave me some money to give to the guy once I was safely on the plane 😜)

So after a bit of a nightmare start I was on my way, getting preferential treatment. I went through the staff security section missing the general area altogether and was taken through to the departure lounge (stopping at the loos on the way through) As it was so early everything was shut, I spotted a vending machine and hobbled over to get a drink and snacks and hobbled back as someone was trying to take my wheelchair. She’d hurt her ankle while on holiday and was struggling to walk and her husband figured a wheelchair would be easier, but no luck as it was mine! While we were waiting more disabled people arrived and were also abandoned near the gate, the guy who brought me through said that he’d be back for me but no-one else had a clue what was happening to them so I let them know that we’d be sorted out…at some point in time…everyone else was going through the gate and heading towards the plane and no-one had come for us. People were getting antsy and one man walked himself through the final check area and sat back in his wheelchair on the other side. Eventually a couple of assistance staff arrived and pushed us through 1 at a time. I was one of the last to go through and I realised that we were being “parked” to the side after the desk and left in a queue. I was put at the front and got this amazing view! The other picture is of the line of people in wheelchairs but it’s not a great view, there were 10 of us waiting for this flight. 

Next we got relayed down to the Tarmac as 3 guys pushed us a part of the way down and passed off to the next guy. Once we got to the Tarmac my guy was there and he checked I was ok and got his tip. We then had to get onto the transport vehicle and were raised up on the flatbed bit of the truck the same as on my trip out. The vehicle was filled with wheelchairs and we all had a seat and hoped for the best as they drove us over to the plane and raised us up to the doors.  

This time all of our seats were at the other end of the plane so we all had to struggle down the aisle with everyone staring and waiting to depart as we were the last ones on the plane. On the outward journey we were all sat at the back so it was much quicker and easier to get us to our seats without disturbing other passengers.

The staff in Newcastle airport were lovely again when we landed and the transport vehicle was quickly brought to the plane and we didn’t have to wait too much longer to disembark than everyone else. The vehicle was more modern and had seats rather than wheelchairs which felt safer than the ones in Spain but it was the same process of being taken up and down on the back end like a pallet of stock being delivered. We were then taken into the assistance departure lounge and pushed through to get our luggage and then out to our onward journey. The guy who took me was really nice and even pushed me out to the bus stop where I was getting picked up.

The entire experience was not what I expected, I have no idea what I did expect, but this wasn’t it. The staff who dealt with me in Newcastle were all great, they explained what was going on, when they would get me and what to do. Obviously the language barrier in Spain was a problem, but they didn’t even seem to try to speak to people and explain what was happening. I hated being treated like cattle, left in a line and moved up and down on the end of a truck. It made me feel very much like a second class citizen, it was depressing being left in places, not informed about what’s happening, not able to get on and off the plane at a similar time to everyone else and not allocated seats that made sense on the way back. I found it dehumanising and depressing. The equipment in Spain was old and a bit scary and the staff seemed overworked and stressed trying to deal with the number of passengers that required assistance which made me feel even more like a second class citizen, as if I wasn’t good enough for the airport to spend money on having the right amount of staff, or even starting the shifts before the passengers started arriving for flights! The staff in Newcastle also seemed overworked and told me that they didn’t get time for breaks and there wasn’t enough of them to manage all of the people who booked assistance. They also said that the desk was manned by a security guard who wasn’t trained on assistance and this was what caused the confusion when I arrived as he wasn’t fully aware of the systems and processes so people often got frustrated and caused complaints. Assisted travel is brilliant. I will use it again in the future but next time I’ll know what to expect and try to not let it get me down as its not making us the same, it’s treating us very differently to do the same thing. Having more staff, proper explanations of what will happen and current equipment will be a good start, but I’m not sure how to manage the rest of the problems. I guess a lot of it is in my head and I need to get past that, but I do feel that being treated with respect and not abandoned and left in queues is also essential. Being treated and dealt with the same as able bodied people is obviously not realistic on all occasions, but being treated similarly and respectfully is all I want. In the case of this experience of air travel I think we’ve got quite a way to go yet.

Vic xx

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