Thank you for publishing an On the Spot column about wheelchair travel on airplanes ["Smoothing the Way for Wheelchairs," by Catharine Hamm, March 15]. It is very welcome and very overdue.
Thirteen years ago, my husband became paraplegic. It can happen to anybody, any time.
Since then, we have continued to travel despite the great complexities involved. We used to go on trips; now we go on expeditions.
We have learned a lot about airline travel, ship travel, National Park trails, making hotel reservations, ground travel in foreign countries and more.
American-based airlines now have extensive sections of their websites that address passengers with disabilities. These should be consulted before making reservations.
Nevertheless, unless travelers are proactive, they probably will encounter problems. Some tips:
— Always tell the airline agent that you or your companion is wheelchair-bound. Otherwise, it is assumed that he or she can stand and walk a few steps. Thus, priority boarding and an aisle chair will not be provided.
This holds true for booking hotel and ship rooms, because rooms outfitted for wheelchairs can be booked by those who can walk and have more choice.
— Insist on bulkhead seats if you have "a fused or immobilized leg." You are entitled to them up to 24 hours before the flight even if they have been sold to others who do not qualify. Prepare to spend hours trying to attain them. At least one airline defines "immobilized" as a leg in a cast, not a leg or legs that cannot move.
— If a disabled person needs help taking medications (such as insulin), eating, using machines (such as oxygen) or toilet facilities — all acts that airline attendants do not do — then the companion/assistant is by law entitled to a seat beside the person with a disability.
— Always secure identification information to your wheelchair and note that it is privately owned. We watched my husband's chair be grabbed by a fellow passenger who had to make a connection; he thought it was an airline chair.
— Medical equipment that cannot be stowed below — such as a BiPAP machine, which allows the user to breathe easily at night — must be allowed in the cabin and does not count as one of the carry-on pieces of luggage.
Until the Air Carrier Access Act, extended in 2000 to include foreign carriers doing business in the U.S., is consistently and uniformly enforced, airline travel will continue to be an ordeal in both trying to book and actual travel.
Moreover, a big limiting factor is expense. Having to tip an airline attendant just to get through security and get from plane to baggage and vice versa renders wheelchair travelers unequal.
Other extra expenses can make travel impossible or rare for people who need to feel independent and lead normal lives even more than nondisabled people: paying for business class so the traveler can recline or have legroom (perhaps); paying for accessible staterooms on a ship, which generally are available only at suite or concierge levels; struggling for limited options in hotels that do not distinguish between disabled people who can walk and use a tub shower and those who must have a roll-in shower with a chair.
Disabled travel is inherently still unequal.
Wonders of Alaska
Good cruise column on the wonders of Alaska ["Eight Showstopping Alaska Spots," by Rosemary McClure, Feb. 15]. Not mentioned was the wonderful Alaska Marine Highway System, which starts in Bellingham, Wash. My husband and I took it from Bellingham to Juneau, another ferry to Whittier, drove to Homer and boarded another ferry for Kodiak Island, and from there traveled to the farthest outpost of the Aleutians — Dutch Harbor. Accommodations were very good, especially on the Columbia out of Bellingham. This is a great way to see all of coastal Alaska and to meet the people. It was much more interesting than a cruise ship.