By Arash Bayatmakou
There I was, sitting in a flimsy collapsible wheelchair on the tarmac, with the hot starry sky above me and hundreds of frantic and upset travelers walking past me to ascend the stairs into the massive Boeing 777. Most people didn’t seem to notice me as they scrambled past and those that did make eye contact glanced away quickly, seemingly pitying me as they climbed up into the airplane.
Living with a spinal cord injury is not easy, to say the least. Getting around town and into and out of cars and buildings and houses to get through day-to-day life is difficult enough. But traveling internationally presents a host of new challenges that one must overcome just to get from point A to point B.
Last month, I had just finished a trip to Chile for continued physical therapy and rehab and after weaving our way through the traffic-clogged streets of Santiago, the taxi had dropped my buddy and I off at the airport with plenty of time to catch our overnight Air Canada flight. We had arrived with plenty of time, informed the grumpy man behind the check in desk that I would need an aisle chair to get onto the plane, and once he indifferently nodded and shrugged us away, we had made our way to the gate to wait for our plane to board.
I have traveled on planes enough since my injury to know that I must communicate my needs repeatedly and meticulously to different members of the airline at all the different parts of the airport in order to ensure that everything happens smoothly: that the airline has an aisle chair with which to board me onto the plane (personal wheelchairs are too wide and bulky for the narrow aisle), that we can take apart my wheelchair and stow parts, if not all of it, in the closets and overhead bins – much to the frequent dismay of the flight attendants who usually refuse to remove their personal belongings to make room, before they sometimes finally concede – and that we can board the plane before all of the other travelers in order to easily get to our seats. So this time, as any other, we had communicated all of this and assumed that things were in order.
The airline didn’t announce that the flight was delayed, it just became clear when an hour had passed after our boarding time and nothing had happened. The Air Canada staff didn’t even seem to know where the plane was (we were in a ground level gate without the jetway to the plane so no one could see it) and didn’t ease the travelers’ concerns by staying silent. Things started to get a little tense, as expected, since most of the travelers had connecting flights to catch in Toronto and it was clear that many would miss their connections.
Finally, we were told that the plane was on the tarmac and that buses would shuttle us there to board. Immediately, I recognized the challenge this would pose to me and I flagged down the Air Canada employee who wasn’t frantically running around trying to quell the unrest. It turned out that he was the manager and I politely explained my situation to him and asked if they had a plan to get me into the plane. He blinked and stared back at me in silence. I repeated my request, this time a bit more forcefully and he waved his hand at me dismissively, crossed his arms and just stood there apathetically.
Some people believe that it can be easier and better to speak a foreign language when one is angry or intoxicated, likely from a lack of inhibition or restraint. As such, after two weeks in Chile, my Spanish was flowing strong and following the uninspiring response from the Air Canada manager, the verbal tirade that flowed out of me felt so natural that I even surprised myself with the extent of my vocabulary and the grammatical accuracy of my complex sentences. The manager shrugged and walked away.
A few minutes later, a friendly young guy wearing a Santiago Airport t-shirt and assisting an elderly woman in a wheelchair approached me. Upset at how I was being treated by the Air Canada staff, he offered to help. “Estos huevónes no saben nada,” he said. These idiots don’t know anything. He had seen someone in a wheelchair get into a plane from the tarmac before and said that the airport had a specific device that he would try to secure to help us. I was simultaneously baffled and grateful when he took out his personal cell phone and started making calls. A few minutes later, despite the continued confusion and indifference of the actual Air Canada staff, friendly young guy assured us that we would be ok. “No te preoccupes.” Don’t worry, he said with a smile.
And that’s how I ended up on the tarmac, almost four hours after our designated departure time, with the plane towering behind me as friendly young guy attached the wheelchair I was sitting in to a device with small wheels and levers that would slowly climb up each stair, all the way up to the plane door.
I’m not sure if Air Canada realized or appreciated just how helpful friendly young guy had been since they had completely excused themselves from helping me and never once took initiative to resolve the unexpected set of events. Even when we finally got into the plane, they didn’t have an aisle chair available and seemed surprised and annoyed to have to “deal with me.” Thankfully, my buddy is the strongest person I know and he effortlessly piggybacked me from the flimsy wheelchair to my seat.
I’m not sure what the moral of story is, maybe just that sometimes no amount of preparation or communication will be enough to assure a smooth journey. Or maybe that when traveling, especially internationally, one should be prepared for any kind of adversity or challenge. Or maybe that there are kind, generous people out there and it’s imperative to be grateful for them. Or maybe just that Air Canada really sucks and needs to step up their game. Probably all of the above…