Surviving Those LONG Air Flights

Surviving Those LONG Air Flights – travel tips

Beverly Nelson

Airline commercials notwithstanding, traveling by air is no blissful float through the sky. Along with the overbooking and canceled flights, flyers with MS have to factor in anxious bladders, fatigue, and possibly mobility problems.

Just say no? No, says Beverly Nelson.

Athens, the Greek islands, 3 beautiful weeks! But my MS, my wheelchair, my bladder problem. I want to but–how?

That happened to me over 20 years ago and I took a chance and took the trip. Since then, I’ve been around the world many time–from Alaska to Australia; Singapore to San Francisco. The secret I have found is planning and more planning. I wish I could tell you everything is perfect since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act were put into effect. It isn’t always. Still, air travel is getting better. Try these tactics:

Seat requests

Make your seat selection when you make your reservation. Try for a bulkhead seat or one near the toilets. Be frank and honest with the reservation clerk about your needs and ability.

I prefer an aisle seat with a flip-up armrest. It’s much easier to get in and out. The Air Carrier Access Act says 50% of any new or refurbished airplane’s aisle seats should have flip-up armrests. But their location is elusive. Seats are continually being reconfigured on planes. Ask anyway.

Food requests

Make your meal requests when you reserve your seat. It is amazing what’s available–if arrangements are made at least 48 hours in advance. On an international flight I took last summer, I could have selected vegetarian, kosher, diabetic, low-protein, Moslem, Hindu, low-salt, low-calorie, low-fat, gluten-free, low-cholesterol, lacto-ovo vegetarian, or seafood.

Bathroom accessibility

Among the beneficial provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act is the requirement that all new airplanes with 60 or more seats have an onboard wheelchair small enough to go up the aisle to the lavatory. What if your aircraft isn’t new or hasn’t been refurbished? If you provide advance notice, a U.S. airline will provide the wheelchair and a cabin attendant will assist you to the lavatory door. Ask for details. Some lavatories are very small and some international airlines will help you into your seat but won’t take you to the bathroom.

Getting on and off

If you use a manual wheelchair, stay in it right up to the boarding door. Your wheelchair should be tagged “Wheelchair Gate Delivery”. If there is room in the plane’s cabin closet, your chair will be stored there. Ask for this when you reserve. It is very nice if you have a long layover and want to cruise the airport’s duty-free shops.

If you use an electric scooter or power wheelchair, ground personnel will need to disassemble/ assemble your unit for shipment. You can avoid damage to your equipment by giving advance notice and by having a copy of the manufacturer’s assembly instructions attached to the unit’s seat. I’ve had the assembly instructions for my scooter sealed in a plastic laminate.

Shortly before landing, remind the flight attendant that you need your wheelchair or scooter at the gate. The flight crew can communicate with ground personnel to ensure that your wait is as short as possible.

Know before you go

Just as you know about the places you’re going and the sights you plan to see, know what to expect on the flight. Ask questions! Is it a nonstop flight or will there be a layover between connections? How much time do you have to get to the appropriate gate? Airlines figure time for the able-bodied. You may need more time. Be prepared.


A few days before you fly, call and go over all your arrangements one more time.

Lighten up

This applies not only to what you pack, but to what you eat and drink. The less you indulge when you’ re cramped in that small seat, the better you’ll feel when you land. But don’t skimp on nonalcoholic liquids. The air inside planes is very drying. Choose water, juice, or noncaffeinated soda.


Pack a sense of humor. Travel is rarely perfect, and you can expect a few things to go wrong. Keep a lighthearted approach to whatever arises. Try to stay calm and maintain your composure even if you are dying of embarrassment at a mishap. A calm attitude allows people to help you, if that’s necessary.

Constructive complaining

Some flying problems require more than a sense of humor. A good complaint is good for the soul and good for the travelers who come alter you.

Start with the airline’s Complaints Resolution Official–there are usually several at the airport.

If they don’t satisfy you, write a 1-page letter to the airline’s corporate headquarters describing what happened. Write down the names of the employees you dealt with, and keep your tickets, baggage-check stubs, and receipts for expenses related to the incident. Give dates, cities, flight numbers, and the names of the employees–the rude ones and the helpful ones. Say what you’d like the airline to do, whether it’s a refund or a written apology.

If you want to do more, register a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Call the Aviation Consumer Protection Division at 202-366-2220, or write to or to the US Department of Transportation, C-75, Room 4107, Washington, DC 20590. A stronger formal complaint, akin to a civil suit, can be filed with DOT’s Assistant General Counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

If your complaint is related to safety or security, contact the Federal Aviation Administration at 800-FAA-SURE (800-322-7873), or write: Assistant Administrator for System Safety ASY-100, FAA, 800 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20591.

Flying with meds

* Bring enough drugs to last the trip–and extras, just in case.

* Pack your medicines in a carry-on bag; checked luggage may get delayed or lost.

* Keep your doctor’s phone numbers and your medical insurance card with you.

* Carry an authorization letter on your doctor’s letterhead for needles and narcotics, if you use any.

* Ask your doctor for an emergency set of typewritten prescriptions and store them separately from your medications.

* Keep your medicines in their original, labeled containers, along with a list of what you take, why you take it, and the prescribed dose. Note the brand and generic names. Drugs may have different brand names in other countries.

* Ask your doctor if you are crossing time zones and need to take medication at the same time every day. Some people wear an extra watch set to their original time zone.

Beverly Nelson, who travels with a lightweight chair, is editor/publisher of The Very Special Traveler, a newsletter about travel for people with disabilities.

For InsideMS readers, a 2-year subscription is $25. Write TVST, 1516 Wakefield Valley Road, New Windsor, MD 21776 or e-mail .

Additional tips were provided by Jim Keskeny of the National Programs Advisory Council.

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