Sunday, June 17, 2012

Zen and the Art of Motorized Wheelchair Maintenance

PITTSBURGH -- People who fly a lot know that it isn't much fun anymore. Full flights, shoes off, raise your arms over your head when you stand in the giant full-body scanner. I get it. It's annoying. But try traveling with a motorized wheelchair. Sometimes the baggage handlers take the chair apart and then they can't put it back together. It happened again yesterday.


We've had problems in the past of having the chair taken apart, so this time we decided to attach a huge, bright-yellow, laminated card that explains how to release the brake (so the chair can be pushed like a stroller). The card also says PLEASE DON'T TAKE THE CHAIR APART. Our most recent trip included 6 flights. I was asked at least twice "How do you push the chair?" meaning that not everybody noticed or read the huge, bright-yellow, laminated card. Yesterday in Atlanta before our flight to Pittsburgh after a 9-hour flight from Honolulu, I showed the baggage handler guy how to release the brake to push the chair. I pointed out the huge, bright-yellow, laminated card and said -- not with anger or frustration but with as much compassion as I could -- PLEASE DON'T TAKE THE CHAIR APART. And yet, when we arrived in Pittsburgh, when everyone else was off the plane and long gone and we were still waiting for Larry's chair to be brought up to the jet way, we knew. We knew the chair was in pieces, somewhere. 

I know that I have to stay calm in these situations. Getting angry doesn't help because the offending party, the person who took the chair apart, is in the city that we left behind, oblivious to the havoc he or she has created. In these situations, I need help from the folks at hand. It usually goes like this:  

Me to flight attendants Do they know that he has his own wheelchair and that we need the aisle chair and two people to help lift?  Flight attendant Yes, we alerted them. So we wait a little bit, and eventually the skycaps show up with the aisle chair to help Larry off the plane. Then I ask any airline employee who hasn't already high-tailed it to Olive Garden (including the pilot) Do you know when his chair is coming up? That's when the fun begins. Phone calls, walkie talkies, hand wringing (that's from the flight attendants who realize that something is wrong or from gate agents or pilots who want to turn the plane around fast and we're in their way). Sometimes the chair is rolled down the jet way just then, having been pushed from the cargo hold to an elevator and then down the hall to our gate. Yeah. But when it doesn't show up at that point, we know. They have taken the dang thing apart.

 Yesterday, we heard it for ourselves over the walkie talkie. It's in pieces.

At this point, Larry is on the aisle chair (one of those narrow straight backed chairs that fit down the aisle of a plane -- not something that one should sit on for more than a minute or two) and we are waiting just outside the plane on the jet way. The pilot asks if we can be moved up inside the terminal because they have another flight to get out to which I reply That isn't our problem. It's pretty obvious what our problem is, and if they push us aside, they will forget us.

Now everybody knows that the chair is in pieces and I'm the only person who knows how to put it back together. So I do that (no details here because I don't want to cause trouble for the person who used common sense and broke some rules to help us). 

There has to be a better way. For our sake and for the ease and safety of the baggage handlers and the airlines. We need to figure out what that is.