Flying as an Amputee
Cabin pressure, security procedures, luggage and simply knowing where you’re going – all standard issues when flying but these are even more difficult when travelling as an amputee. The good news however is that you are able to bypass a lot of queues and get through security quicker, as well as free priority boarding for you and a few of your travel companions.
In the past 2 weeks, I have boarded 3 plane flights, varying from 6 to 10.5 hours. With my international European competitions, I have also encountered very short journeys and have encountered the same issues. I have flown as a full-time wheelchair user and also as a fully ambulant amputee and they each have their own unique access needs.
The main thing that I have learnt through flying with a disability, especially before I was able to walk is that you have to be able to put aside your pride and accept help. Depending on the airport, the walks to the various terminals can be very long, especially if travelling with a heavy carry-on and you may need an extra hand (or leg).
Before you fly
You’ve chosen your ideal destination and have spent weeks/months saving and preparing for your trip. You’ve contacted your travel agency or hotel and have booked a room, which is appropriate to your access needs. Some travel agents will speak to the airline ahead of time, to have assistance ready at the airport but it’s always worth checking with the airline yourself to ensure they have actually done this.
Many airlines have an online portal, which tells you either the appropriate contact number for the disability assistance team or an online form. Nevertheless, there are some airlines that still require a paper form to be filled in and sent to them – so it’s worth it getting done early. Make sure you contact them at least 48 hours before you fly and if you are a wheelchair user, make sure you have your wheelchair dimensions and weight details ready.
Airlines and airports offer a wide range of disability assistance services– whether you need help getting onto the plane, through the airport or just to inform them you have a disability, it’s their job to look after you. Just be honest with the level of support you need and they will be able to cater to your needs.
I personally try and get extra leg room if I am able since this allows me to remove my limb during the flight and keep it elevated.
For a full list of the assistance avaliable with airlines and airports, visit the Civil Aviation Authority’s website here.
Upon airport arrival
Airports will have a dedicated special assistance centre/booth/section. They should be clearly signposted however any employee should be able to point you in the right direction. The team there will look at your flight details and a porter will assist you. If you are a wheelchair user, they will often want to push you round the airport. If you are not conformable with this, inform the individual and they will stop.
At the assistance desk, you need to have the confidence to be honest with your needs. They are often super keen to assist you and will ensure that you are chaperoned through the whole airport – I often felt too uncomfortable with this as a very independent person so I just told them (when I was a wheelchair user) that I would meet them at the gate for them to assist me then.
If you’re an ambulant, very able amputee who still struggles with queuing, I suggest, if you feel comfortable, to wear shorts through airport security. Airports will have a dedicated line/section for those with assistance and they are often keen to shun those without disabilities so having a visible prosthetic may make your journey more comfortable.
As you can imagine, it is extremely likely that the metal detector will go off so you will be asked to go through the x-ray machine, which requires you to stand with both feet apart and your arms above your head. The machine will pick up a large blob where your prosthetic is and the airport security officer will then pat down that area. They will most likely also swab your prosthetic for gunpowder traces but it’s a very quick process.
If you’re a wheelchair user, you won’t go through the metal detector (funnily enough) however someone of the same gender will search you. They will often pass a small metal detector over sections of you and ask you to lean forward (if you’re able) for them to check your back. The officers are meant to ask you if you’re in any pain before they touch you however sometimes they don’t so if you are, just tell them. They will also swab your chair, as they would with a prosthetic leg.
Airport security will not ask you to go into a different wheelchair or remove your prosthetic limb, unless they believe it is necessary (suspicious behaviour or any other reason similar to those without disabilities). If they do ask you to remove your limb, they are obligated to do this in a private setting.
Boarding the plane
As a passenger with a disability, you are able to board the plane first. As I personally remove my leg during the flight, this allows me enough time to get settled and remove my leg, placing it in the overhead locker before the other passengers get on board. When I first started running and went to Ireland, I travelled with my standard prosthetic, running blade and crutches. I placed them all in the overhead locker and made a bit of a joke with the cabin crew that there wasn’t enough leg room on the flight – she looked horrified and didn’t know what to say.
If you're a wheelchair user or struggle with steps and this is essential to get onto the plane, the assistance team will often chaperone you around the airport and you will have access to a special lift, which requires no steps. You will be asked to transfer to a special, much narrower wheelchair, which is easier to get through the airport isle. Your wheelchair will then be taken down to the holdall or sometimes not, if the airline has enough space in the upper deck of the aircraft.
As I have said above, I tend to take my leg off during the flight as I don't find it particularly comfortable to sit with for hours, especially given cabin pressure. My stump always significantly swells during a flight so I would suggest wearing a stump sock, to make the fit of your prosthetic easier at your destination.
If you don't feel comfortable hopping/aren't able to hop to the bathroom, it is the cabin crew's role to help ensure that you receive help. Have a think about how you will access the toilet before your flight and discuss this with the airline.
It is not down to the cabin crew to help you with any feeding, drinking, dressing or other forms of assistance so if you need this, you will need to travel with someone that is able to help you.
Overall, just sit back, relax and enjoy your flight and your new destination!