In preparation for our trip to London I worked with our airline (Air Transat) with the help of our local Flight Centre to ensure the smoothest trip possible. I had read several other bloggers with kids in wheelchairs who had damaged and delayed wheelchair arrival on flights. I had also read about seat issues on flights. I was determined to avoid any complications and mishaps. After many emails and phone calls and even a few visits, I felt like we were as prepared as possible. The only thing left was to fly. How did we do it?
Pre-flight prep. The airline had a medical form for Sebastian’s doctor to complete. This enabled us to get an increase in carry on allowance since I needed to take all of his medicine and supplements on board. I tried to get his Seat2Go approved for the flight but it was a no go. I then made sure his car seat was approved. And despite the small seats on board we were able to secure it, with the very helpful staff at Air Transat. The pilot even helped us get it out post flight, with a few of his own kids he was no stranger to the ins and outs of car seat fasteners. Since we use the anchor belts in the car we had not been aware of the easy way to loop the seat belt through the back of the seat (seat cover unattached). The car seat was a necessity for Sebastian since he cannot sit on his own. He needed it for take off and landing as well as eating/drinking, sleeping and watching movies on board. He did take some time out cuddling with each of us but spent a fair amount of time in it as it provided the support he needed. We requested the seats directly behind business class where there was also a basinett available for Tallula (which we tried on the flight over, but in the end she slept in my lap). We made it clear we could not fly without these seats. We needed the space in front of us. Sebastian kicked his feet a fair bit which would not have been possible or pleasant for someone in front of us. The flight staff was always on hand to get whatever we needed, be it ice for his milk or retrieving our carry on full of meds which had been placed in business class. We had two carry ons, a diaper bag and a bag full of wheelchair parts (I’ll get to that).
The wheelchair. I spoke with a lot of folks, other parents as well as staff from the wheelchair company, about flying with the Red Racer. We took off all removable parts (seat cushion, back of seat with headrest and laterals attached, arm rests, foot rests, and tray) and placed them in an IKEA bag (which was folded in our carry on until the moment we needed it). The flight staff took that onto the plane and stored it in an overhead compartment. I folded the back down on top of the chair base and secured it with small, white plastic fasteners. I had read about attaching something personal, like a photo and short description of the child on one of my CP parents’ online group forums. Something to remind the ground staff that this hunk of metal was something a child depended on. So I created this card.
And it worked. I was also there, taking apart the chair with a baby strapped to my chest in a carrier as Ali got Seb secured in his car seat on board (which had been a challenge on the flight over). I met and spoke to the ground guy who would be transferring his chair below. Personal connection. It was then placed in a protective bag. When we landed I notified the flight staff we needed something that would be able to cut the plastic fasteners so we could put the chair back together. Due to security restrictions on what you can take on board (scissors/nail clippers), they called the necessary staff and made it happen. Upon return to Toronto as Ali went to put the chair back together he saw the ground crew reading the card. He smiled and told Ali it was a great idea. When we took Seb out to put him in his chair, he talked to Sebastian, using his name. He also helped put the chair back together. It was awesome. And the Red Racer? Fully intact.
Airport security. The airport and Air Transat were extremely helpful and accommodating at both Toronto Pearson International Airport and Gatwick (London) Airport. When we arrived at security in Toronto we were approached and asked to move to the front of the line. In London, there is a specific line at security for families/persons traveling with additional needs and/or children. There were never any issues with medications and liquids. Of course I was asked to taste Sebastian’s milk, but that’s normal. From the staff and security end of it, this was the smoothest travel I’ve experienced! And we’ve done a lot of flying! Security did pat down and brush over Sebastian (and his chair) while he was in the Red Racer, but only with his dad or me by his side. I was very impressed and thankful for how we were treated. When we arrived at check-in in London, they were expecting us and took care of us right away. Despite the small seats and aisles on Air Transat, I would fly them again due to such exemplary service. We even had one of the same flight attendants on our return flight and it was wonderful to see a familiar, friendly face.
Airport parking. We weren’t sure about long term parking so went with the ParknFly associated with the Flight Centre. We chose the ‘valet parking’ option, which was a joke since the lot was not at the airport and you still had to take a bus to and from the airport. This was challenging traveling with the luggage and equipment we had (wheelchair, stroller, car seat, 2 large suitcases, 2 small carry ons plus diaper bag). Thankfully, Ali convinced one of the lot guys to take the bus and and then take our car back to park. When we got picked up from the airport, we loaded everything onto the bus and then we were told we had to wait another ten minutes after arriving at the lot to get our car. Apparently, if you call from the airport they can have it waiting from you but their phone number is not on the website (!!!) or the coupon we had, only the receipt and we had no idea where that was. Unfortunately they did not inform us of this and after a 9 hour flight from London we were exhausted and just wanted to go home. Once we made it back to ParknFly we received pretty rude service. While we were waiting for our car, 10 mins turned into a half hour only to find out our car had been brought up but was parked out of sight from the waiting area and no one notified us that it was there. I’m sure the annoyance factor was magnified by our extreme jet lag, but it was rude none-the-less. We also had no idea how to get out of the lot, since we we’re not instructed upon checking out/paying. Thanks to the friendly and informative lot guy, we made it out and on the road. Despite pure exhausted, Tallula was the only one who slept on the ride home.
Jet lag. It happened. We survived it. It was worse coming back but easier to deal with since we were at home.