I get to travel quite a lot due to the nature of my business and take it for granted that most passengers are like me…mobile and able to move around the terminal buildings and the aircraft easily. I have never really thought about how differently abled persons travel or known what efforts are made to ensure that these passengers travel well. The extent of my knowledge would be to assist such clients of ours, by ensuring a wheelchair is booked for them on the flight, Travelling with my mum when she went to India recently for hip replacement surgery gave me some valuable insights into the amount of work involved in dealing with such passengers.
Today, differently abled passengers comprise a huge sector of the travelling public, – more elderly people are travelling today to visit friends and family, and the younger people who may be disabled due to accidents, or by birth, are travelling more for work and pleasure.
A very important point to note is that you must ensure that a wheelchair request has been made on your airline booking at least 48 hours before travel, else it may not be possible to get a wheelchair. If you are booking your ticket online, make sure you include this in the booking and if you are booking your ticket through an agent, ask them to request for one.
Secondly, it is not possible to do an online check in for a wheelchair passenger – if you are travelling with such a passenger, you may be able to check yourself in online, but the wheelchair passenger can only be checked in at the airport. This is so that the staff can verify that the passenger is fit enough to travel.
Travelling with my mum on a wheelchair this time, we used Qatar Airways.
The check in at Nairobi’s JKI Airport was uneventful and the person assisting with the wheelchair parked us at a café and came to get us when boarding was announced. One of the advantages of travelling with a differently abled person is not having to queue anywhere – we just zipped through the gate check and security, and were among the first to board the aircraft.
On arrival in Doha, we waited for all the passengers to disembark first – we thought my mum would have to climb down the stairs and as she was moving very slowly at this time, we didn’t want to hold up any passengers. As we got to the door of the aircraft, one of the hostesses asked us to wait as she had asked for the special lift, as she didn’t want my mother to climb down the stairs. The airlines have a special lift that comes right up to the door of the aircraft and allows wheelchair passengers to disembark. The lift is brought down to ground level and the wheelchair passengers are driven in a separate coach to the transfer area. Once in the transfer area, the passengers are seated in a separate lounge to await boarding for their onward flight.
All these services are performed by a team of professional handlers – they even have a form which lists all the wheelchair passengers that they need to tick off. There is a supervisor in charge of the team, and they are updated by the airlines as when the boarding commences so that they can get their passengers to board ahead of the rest of the passengers.
The services provided in both Doha International airport and Ahmedabad airport were very professional – the handlers were very able and helpful, and experienced. They guided us through all the procedures, making sure my mum was comfortable throughout the process. Furthermore they did not accept any tips or gratuities.
In the aircraft itself, all the stewards and stewardesses were eager to help her, offering their support and facilitating her movement to her seat – it was a very pleasant experience to be on the receiving end of so much concern and care.
One doesn’t give much thought to what goes on behind the scenes, unless you are a differently abled person or traveling with such a passenger, but it is a whole industry in itself. The team of handlers and their coordination of thousands of passengers connecting on so many different flights, the special lifts and lounges, the carts used to transport passengers in the airport itself and the separate buses for transportation from the airplane to the terminal building – all these require considerable resources and planning
I really applaud the airlines and airports for ensuring that differently abled passengers travel just as comfortably, if not more, than normal passengers.