How I Survived A 17 Hour Flight As A Wheelchair User

Editor’s Note: Since the vast majority of the flight I am describing took place under cover of darkness (with an 11 p.m. scheduled departure), I was not able to take many quality photos. I have included photographs from other sources, as well as some I have taken on previous long-haul flights with this and other air carriers.

I am a triple amputee and wheelchair user, but I still love to fly. Many people with disabilities are reluctant to travel, especially on airplanes, because we are separated from our mobility devices during the flight. Some of my readers have said that they won’t fly until they can take their own wheelchair into the aircraft cabin. While there is work being done to make that a possibility, it’s not here yet. So I thought I’d write this article about a flight I recently took from Dubai to Atlanta — one of the longest in the world.

I have taken a lot of trans-atlantic and trans-pacific flights since I became a wheelchair user, with flight times ranging from 7 to 14 hours. Until this past November, the longest flight I had ever taken was between Hong Kong and Seattle, which covers a distance of approximately 6,496 miles (using the most direct route). In November, after a wonderful vacation in the United Arab Emirates, I added the much longer Dubai – Atlanta flight to my travel map. I pulled this flight overview from FlightAware:

Delta Flight 7 Dubai to Atlanta Stats & Information

Operated by Delta Air Lines as DL 7, the flight took 16 hours, 50 minutes from wheels-up to wheels-down and traveled a total of 8,143 miles. The most direct route for the flight would have been 7,595 miles, but there were deviations to avoid flying over countries like Iran and Iraq, and to bypass some bad weather in the United States.

Primary Concerns

As with any flight of significant length, my biggest concerns are about using the bathroom during flight, preventing pressure sores from developing due to an extended period in the seated position, and the potential for contractures in my leg muscles. Since I am unable to stand, pressure relief is extremely difficult on an airplane, and a flight of 17 hours (plus the time in my wheelchair at the airport) is dangerous. As with every article on this website, I write from my own experience and perspective. I will share how I addressed my concerns on this long flight, but you should consult with your doctor to determine if air travel is right for you.

I booked a lay-flat seat in Business Class.

On long distance, international flights, the Business or First Class cabin is the best place for the wheelchair traveler to sit. Although the price of these tickets is substantially higher, the lay-flat seats allow passengers to shift their weight and relieve pressure. Pictured above is the Business Class cabin on the Delta Boeing 777-200LR aircraft. This was the plane serving my flight from Dubai to Atlanta. Each seat offers direct-aisle access, so I didn’t have to deal with anyone crossing over me to get to the bathroom. The seat reclines 180 degrees, forming a fully-flat bed. The controls are within easy reach, and you’ll be down in less than 30 seconds.

Delta Boeing 777 Business Class Cabin and Seats

Business Class passengers receive a full size pillow and duvet blanket. This turns the seat into a remarkably comfortable sleeping alcove. On the 17-hour flight from Dubai, I was able to sleep for about 10 total hours – more than half of the flight! The ability to keep my legs in the outstretched position protected me from muscle, skin and tissue contractures, which my doctors have warned will be a danger for the rest of my life. Even sitting upright in my wheelchair for a full day can be dangerous, as it is truly a struggle to stretch my muscles (and the grafted skin on my legs) back out after extended periods of time. Thankfully, the Business Class seat allowed me to avoid that struggle and maintain my comfort.

Two full meals were served – dinner immediately after takeoff, and breakfast shortly before landing. Drinks and snacks were available throughout the flight.

In the roughly 7 hours I spent awake, I was able to watch TV shows and movies on the entertainment screen at my seat. There was a large selection of titles, all of which are available with English subtitles. A pair of noise-reducing over-ear headphones are provided to Business Class passengers, but I brought and used my own noise-canceling Bose QC25s.

For a more in-depth read on the benefits disabled travelers receive from premium cabin air travel, read my article First Class for the Disabled Traveler: Luxury or Necessity?

If you’re wondering how I paid for this flight – it was with airline frequent flyer miles:

Delta Flight Ticket, Purchased with Skymiles

Yes, you read that correctly. I paid $44.90 out of pocket, plus 90,000 Delta Skymiles for a ticket that would have cost thousands of dollars. While many of my miles are accumulated through frequent travel, I also earn them through rewards credit cards and other special offers. Even the infrequent traveler can earn A LOT of miles through credit card sign-up bonuses and everyday spending.

You can also use fewer miles to upgrade economy class tickets, or to pay down a ticket’s cost through the “Pay with Miles” programs offered by some airlines. In this instance, I paid for the entire ticket using miles, and my monetary cost was only the government and airport-imposed taxes and fees.

This blog isn’t focused on the strategies used to gain luxury travel for cheap, but I do plan to write a basic overview of the topic in the near future. In the meantime, check out my friend Michael’s blog, TravelZork, or my friend Rene’s blog, Rene’s Points. Both of them write about Delta and their partner airlines frequently.

I used the airplane’s bathroom – twice.

There are many ways non-ambulatory travelers “take care of business” on the airplane. Some catheterize and use a leg bag, others limit their fluid intake and “hold it,” and many use the onboard aisle chair to access the airplane’s lavatory.

Onboard Aisle Chair for Using the Bathroom on the Plane

On shorter domestic flights or anything under 5 hours, I typically hold it. Most short-range flights are operated by small aircraft that have similar small lavatories. Wide-body aircraft used on long-haul flights have much larger lavatories that can accommodate many of us with mobility impairments. In the photos above (taken in different aircraft/airports not related to this flight), you’ll see me onboard an airplane in an aisle chair, and you’ll see what an aircraft aisle chair looks like.

The aisle chairs that are stowed inside the plane are much smaller and less comfortable than those used in airports. But, they can get the job done.

On this 17-hour flight, I used the lavatory twice. The flight attendants assisted me in transferring to the onboard aisle chair, and pushed me into the accessible lavatory. From there, it was up to me to make use of the facilities.

If you brought a family member, friend or personal care attendant along with you, they can go inside and help you in the lavatory. Yes, it will be a tight squeeze, but most people can make it work. I have chosen to “hold it” on ultra long range flights before, but on this 17-hour flight, I wanted to stay hydrated and comfortable. This meant two trips to the bathroom, and that was OK. The flight attendants were happy to help.

My recommendation is this: If you intend to use the bathroom during flight, ask for assistance as soon as you feel the need to go. It will take the crew some time to set-up the aisle chair, and it is an unbearably slow roll to the accessible lavatory, which is often in the economy class cabin. On this particular aircraft, the accessible loo was in Business Class, so it wasn’t that far of a roll. I also make it a point to wait until meal service has concluded, so that service and clean-up will not be delayed for other passengers. This is particularly important on flights with a late departure, as passengers will want to eat and get to sleep as soon as possible.

I have more information about using the airplane lavatory (including pictures of the lavatories themselves) in this FAQ article – Lavatory: How To Use The Airplane Bathroom If You Cannot Walk Or Stand.

I sped through Passport Control & Customs with Global Entry

There is nothing worse than going through an inquisition at the border when you return to the United States. Yes, we usually get to skip the lines at passport control, but there is still time spent interacting with the border agent and scanning our luggage at customs. Naturally, as wheelchair users, we’re last off the plane and we just want to get to the bathroom!

Global Entry Kiosks at Airport

This is why I have Global Entry. It is a trusted traveler program and costs $100 for a 5-year “membership.” The program is administered by the government and involves a background check, but speeds you quickly through passport control and customs.

I roll up to the kiosk (pictured above), insert my passport, scan my fingerprints, and answer a few questions on the screen. “NO TO ALL” is the answer they’re looking for, and there is a handy button to do just that. The machine will snap a photo of you (it always gets the crown of my head – short people and wheelchair users never get a face shot) and prints out a short document. From there, you hand that to the border agent and they will rarely say any more than, “Welcome Home!”

Global Entry also gets you out of the customs line and the requirement to send your bags through the scanner. In more than 20 re-entries since signing up for Global Entry, I’ve never been stopped at Customs once. This saves me time and frustration, and gets me to the bathroom much faster!

But, immigration isn’t the only benefit to Global Entry – you’ll also get TSA PreCheck at airport security, which speeds up the entire TSA screening process. You’ll get a modified patdown, and you can leave items in your bag that travelers normally have to take out (laptops, toothpaste, hand lotions, etc.).

You can learn more about your rights at airport security in my FAQ article – TSA Airport Security Screenings for Travelers With Disabilities: How It Works.

I relaxed (and showered!) in the Business Class lounge.

After a 17-hour flight, I definitely felt grimy and needed a shower. With a 3-hour layover before my flight home from Atlanta, I had time to visit the Delta Sky Club. Access was free with my Business Class ticket, and I took a shower in one of the wheelchair accessible showers. It was clean and equipped with a shower bench and handheld showerhead/nozzle. What a treat!

Airport Lounge and Wheelchair Accessible Shower

After my shower, I grabbed a free beer from the bar and did some plane watching on the outdoor patio. I even ran into a few friends in the Sky Club (one of whom had been on my flight!), so it was a great way to spend my first few hours back in the United States.

Final Thoughts

Air travel is exhausting. 17 hours in a pressurized cabin is not fun, regardless of where you are sitting. And not everyone enjoys air travel as much as I do – I am a self-admitted aviation geek. If you can’t afford a premium cabin seat, I recommend that you break up your flights with connections wherever possible. Had I not been able to reserve Business Class, I would have opted for connections in Europe (Amsterdam or Paris if flying Delta and their SkyTeam alliance) and another in New York or Boston. I have taken a few long-haul flights in economy, but I have always had a row of economy class to myself so that I could stretch out. I’ve accomplished this feat by booking closer to my date of travel, and on flights that look fairly empty. A friendly chat with your gate agent can often help you get a preferred seating location.

I didn’t sign up to take one of the longest flights in the world without some advance planning. I had traveled by air before, knew my capabilities in terms of getting to the lavatory, and also recognized my need for the Business Class seat. Make a plan that aligns to your abilities – one that you can be confident in – and I hope you will enjoy the ride. Safe travels!

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