Ripley and I just returned from a three-week vacation to California, a journey that included four plane rides, two three-hour airporter bus rides, a taxi cab trip, several Uber rides, and a whole bunch of hopping in and out of various vehicles driven by friends.
The biggest travel challenges are always negotiating airports. Ripley and I have flown quite a bit, but still, things tend to get a little interesting. I always contact the airline ahead of time to let them know I will be flying with a service dog. She fits underneath the seat in front of me (where a bag would go), so we don’t get special treatment in that way. Airlines do usually ask that we not take an aisle seat, to guarantee that Ripley does not accidentally impeded traffic, with a tail or paw getting run over by a flight attendant’s beverage cart, for instance. But this time around, I decided to ask for more assistance for the first time ever.
I was flying from El Paso to Phoenix, then San Francisco (SFO) on the way to California, then from SFO to Los Angeles (LAX), ending in El Paso on the way home. Both ways, I had only an hour for my connecting flights, and the airports in Phoenix and LAX are large. Travel is hard on me, and my body is unpredictable in these circumstances. The last thing I needed was to find myself either weak or partially paralyzed, because I just coming out of a paralysis attack as I was attempting to make that connecting flight. So, at the urging of a friend, I requested a wheelchair escort.
I flew American Airlines. The agent I dealt with was fabulous. As soon as I even hinted about my nervousness, she said, “Let’s get you that wheelchair.” All I had to do was get on the plane in El Paso, which is a small airport. In Phoenix, I would be met by an airline employee with a wheelchair, who would take me to my next flight. Then at SFO, another employee would meet me again, and take me to baggage claim. The same arrangements were made for me for my return trip. It all worked beautifully, and I am so grateful, especially since we had delays on the trip home, and I would have been hard pressed to make my connecting flight.
But, there was still some humor along the way, both because of my wheelchair, and simply because traveling with a service dog always keeps things interesting.
I was using my cane, to assist with walking. At the security checkpoint, they took my metal cane, and gave me a wooden one. Ripley and I were sent through the metal detector, and it went off. They asked if it was possible for me to go through alone. “Of course,” I said. We walked back through, I asked Ripley to sit and stay, and then I walked through on my own. No alert. Then I called Ripley through. The machine alerted. I knew it would, because of the metal on her tags and collar. The guard asked if he could pat her down. He did so, while she waited patiently. Then he dusted my hands for bomb-making material (which almost always happens), and we were cleared. I picked up my own cane, and all our other stuff, and we were off.
On the first leg of the trip, the El Paso to Phoenix flight, I was seated next to a large Latino man. As soon as I tucked Ripley into her space, he looked at me and said, “Does she bite?” I reassured him that he was safe, and that Ripley would not bite him. After landing, I forgot my book at my seat, not realizing it until I was at the front of the plane. Apparently, once you reach the front of the aircraft, you can’t go back. The young woman with my wheelchair was waiting for me just outside the door of the plane. She asked me to take a seat, and the flight attendant went back to retrieve my book once all the passengers had deplaned. While we were waiting, the pilot approached us. He took his cell phone out of his pocket to show me a picture of his dog. Then we were off, Ripley trotting along beside me as I was whisked to my next gate in the wheelchair.
I got to board first, in the Number 1 category. From Phoenix to SFO, we were in a window seat, next to a very slender woman, with a older man in the aisle seat. We had to wait a bit before take-off, and Ripley got bored of sitting under the seat, and popped up, placing her head on my lap. The man said he loved dogs, and asked if he could take a picture. Then the woman said, “Oh, I want a picture, too!” General oohing and aahing all around.
On our return flight at SFO, when I approached my gate, they called my name, asking me to come forward to identify myself before boarding. They told me they had changed my seat, putting me in the bulkhead, so Ripley and I would have more room. Nice! Again, I was in Category 1, because of my “wheelchair” status. When pre-boarding started, a man approached me, and he said he was going to escort me to the plane. He walked down the gangway with me, and he kept saying things like, “It is slightly lower here,” and “There is a turn to the left.” I was puzzled, but didn’t figure it out. As we got to the plane, he said, “She is in Delta 8.” Then the flight attendant took over, and led me to my seat. As I helped Ripley to settle in, and turned to lift my bag, she looked at me with some confusion and said, “You’re not blind?” I said, “No.” She said, “Oh. Sorry! That’s what they told me!” Well, that was a first!
I was seated next to a nice young doctor from Hong Kong, here doing research. We were delayed, waiting nearly half an hour before take-off. He and I were having a nice chat, when I felt a paralysis episode coming on. I managed to say, “Uh, sorry,” then my head dipped to my chest. He said, “It’s fine. Don’t worry.” I felt lucky to be sitting next to a doctor. He didn’t panic, or call a flight attendant over. Just let me have my time-out, and acted like it was perfectly normal. Whew. Also grateful that it happened while I was on the plane, and not while I was trying to get to a plane.
We waited out one final airport in Los Angeles, and the only incident there was this – I was sitting and resting, with Ripley at my feet, when I heard an odd sound. I looked up, and sure enough, someone several feet away was actually making kissy noises, trying to get Ripley’s attention. Seriously? Here we are, in a completely busy, crazy, loud environment – and this clueless person is purposefully trying to distract my dog?
Sigh. It felt really good to get home.