Editor’s Note: Alan Chaulet is the Vice President of All Wheels Up, a non-profit advocacy organization. He recently attended the group’s annual event and had to travel a long distance to get there. It was his first long distance trip in many years and I asked him to share his experience of traveling far from home as a wheelchair user.

Alan Chaulet, a white man wearing glasses and a grey sweater against a blue wall.

Last month, I finally had the privilege of attending the All Wheels Up Global Forum on Wheelchair Accessible Air Travel. This is our organization’s annual working group that was first held in 2017. The event brings together many stakeholders including wheelchair users, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, university researchers, engineers, disability advocates and regulators to take a deep dive into the engineering and design of a wheelchair spot for airplanes.

I’ve been involved with All Wheels Up since 2014 and have helped build it from the ground up with Michele Erwin — for many of those years, it was just us moving the group forward. When I started working with Michele, many people thought we were crazy to dream of having wheelchairs fly in the cabin of airplanes. People in the industry and government really laughed in our faces and we almost gave up multiple times, but we knew it was possible and so did the disability community. I have fond memories of the regular phone calls we had and am grateful to everyone who has helped us over the years.

Michele and I make an excellent team, but we’ve worked remotely the entire time, living across the country from each other. She has always understood that I can’t travel places or be there for in-person meetings with all the different companies and organizations around the world that we work with. There’s only so much you can do remotely, though. You need to be around people and build relationships to succeed. 

Recalling my last trip on an airplane (in 2015)

In previous years, I wasn’t able to attend our annual event because of how difficult it is to travel with a wheelchair and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The last time I really traveled was to Washington, D.C. back in 2015 for the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy Advocacy Conference. I flew that time and conducted some firsthand research that you can see on our website, including the video of my wheelchair being loaded onto the plane at Washington Reagan National Airport.

Since that 2015 trip, my DMD has progressed and traveling by air has become much harder for me. During that last flight which was just an hour I had to be held during takeoff and landing because I don’t have the trunk support — I barely lasted the flight on the seat cushion. Working on accessible air travel shows me everyday how easy it is for your wheelchair to be broken even if you do everything right and take off everything you can at the gate. We need to be able to fly in our wheelchairs. 

Planning a trip to Washington, D.C. for the 2023 All Wheels Up Global Forum

This year, there has been so much progress towards making air travel more accessible that I couldn’t miss our working group — it would have really hurt my career. So many amazing people were going to be there, most of whom I’ve never met before or only talked to on Zoom, LinkedIn or Facebook. I needed to be there.

About a month or two before the event, my parents and I decided that we would be going.

It was a formidable challenge having to travel to the nation’s capital. It was slated to be an 8 to 10 hour drive. We started the journey early in the morning at around 7 a.m. and spent pretty much the entire day driving.

Selfie taken in van with Alan's parents in the foreground and he in the background in the early morning pre dawn light.

It was a nice ride and we drove past all the different cities on I-95 such as New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia and listened to several different NPR stations on the way. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see Manhattan when we drove by because it was incredibly foggy!

Reflecting on the All Wheels Up working group

When we finally arrived, it was intimidating knowing that this would be the first time Michele and I would meet in person. I was relieved when we met in the hotel lobby and it wasn’t awkward at all. Nothing was different from how we talk everyday.

During the event, I was honored when Michele presented me with an award recognizing my 10 years of service to All Wheels Up. It has been tough work for a long time and I’ve sacrificed a lot, so it was very humbling to be recognized for it.

One of the best moments of the event was having Senator Tammy Duckworth give a fireside chat about accessible air travel.

It was an honor to hear her speak. She’s done so much bipartisan work for accessible air travel and the disability community over the years including the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, which required airlines to report how many wheelchairs they break. She was also responsible for the feasibility study of in-cabin wheelchair restraints.

The Senator’s not done yet, however. The 2023 FAA Reauthorization, which is expected to be passed by the end of the year, will require reporting on the type of damage done to wheelchairs, mandate that airlines provide information on whether wheelchairs will fit in airplane cargo holds, plus more feasibility research and much more.  

We also heard speakers from Boeing, Raytheon, Rights On Flights, Air4All, Airlines for America, Delta Flight Products, Alaska Airlines, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Air New Zealand, Microsoft, University of Michigan, NAIR, Virginia Tech, Collins Aerospace, Q’Straint, the Department of Transportation, and many other organizations over the two-day event.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recorded a video for the second year in a row to describe what the DOT is doing to support accessible air travel.

Lessons and thoughts about future travel

In our hotel, I had to sleep on a pull out couch that was very low to the ground — my dad had to lift me in and out of bed which was really difficult; a hoyer lift would have helped dramatically, but hotels are known to have platform beds that you can’t slide a hoyer under. The next time I travel, we’ll definitely bring my hoyer lift and bed risers.

We bought a new portable shower chair online before the trip, but it wasn’t good compared to others I had looked at including the Go-Anywhere or Bath Mobile.

One of the first things I did when I got home was ask members of the Living With MD Facebook Group how other disabled travelers manage everything. Their responses will help me be much more prepared next time I travel. 

10 hours by car was way too long so I am already considering traveling by airplane next time. An hour flight is so much easier.

I regret not flying and traveling more often in my life especially when it was physically easier for me. It will take some time for us to be able to travel in the cabin of airplanes, but people like Cory Lee and John Morris show that you can fly with your wheelchair extremely often. Each of them travel at least every week and multiple times per week in most cases. I hope to travel more now.

I’m looking forward to being at our working group next year! Hoping to be a speaker too. There were many people I didn’t have the time to introduce myself to that I wanted to meet. 

Thanks to all the sponsors, including Airbus, Boeing, Microsoft, AMSAFE, MDA, ADAPTS, Dyne, Edgewise, Raytheon, PVA, and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, who made our event possible. I am also grateful to everyone on our team for pulling the event together, namely Michele, Steve, Alexandra, Blake, Gary, Mindy, Alex, Maddie, Robin, Dave, Walt, Karyn, Bill, Mary, and Rich.

I want to also thank my parents Catherine and Lionel for helping me make this trip. They put aside many things because they knew how important it was to me and my career. They were with me the entire time and were there to support what I wanted to do over the three days in Washington, D.C.

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