Following neatly on from my previous blog, How to travel like a princess (on a pauper's budget), below is a nifty comparison of the special assistance on offer at three London airports. As the Princess was devoid of energy and feeling less than princess-like at the time of travel, she decided to seek special assistance and found that the offering varies from airport to airport. However, whatever the format, it was definitely worth doing. It gave me the opportunity to conserve my energy and not tire myself out by the time I had reached the plane.
Stansted Airport, Palma Aiport and Ryanair
I booked special assistance via the airline with which I was flying, Ryanair. I hear you groan but it was so easy to arrange via the app on my phone. As soon as it was arranged, I received a confirmation email.
However, when it came to checking in, I never pay the additional amount to guarantee seats together with my party because in my experience, a party is always seated together. Unfortunately this was not the case with Ryanair and the prince and I were allocated seats 20 rows apart.
I called Ryanair and alerted them to the fact that I had requested special assistance and although I didn't require help boarding the plane, I was going through chemotherapy at the time and needed to be seated next to my partner. They agreed to re-seat us together although they initially wanted me to pay but I refused as I said they were just out to make money and it was a scam, so they waived the fee and threw in priority boarding too!
So we arrived at Stansted Airport on departure day and reported as requested to the assistance guest in the check-in hall where I was immediately allocated a wheelchair. Rather than waiting for a porter to push the chair, the prince decided to wheel me himself.
We set off for security and found a separate lane and entrance for disabled passengers so chose this lane and whizzed through security in record time, being taken by a member of security to the front of a lane. In fact, the security staff couldn't have been nicer - it seems being in a wheelchair affords you some respect, or was it pity, I couldn't tell!
On arrival at the gate, the ground staff noticed me in the wheelchair and when the flight was called, the prince was permitted to wheel me all the way down the air bridge to the door of the aircraft from where I walked onto the plane and to my seat.
I had received no instructions from Ryanair as to the procedure on arrival so we walked off the plane expecting a wheelchair to be waiting for me, but it wasn't, so we proceeded to walk to the exit, all the while expecting a chair to be waiting at some point - but it never materialised.
On arrival at Palma Airport, we made our way directly to the Sin Barreras desk which was lurking at the back of the departures terminal.
Once I had shown my boarding pass, we were asked to be seated in the waiting area. After waiting about 10 minutes, a porter arrived with a wheelchair for me and took me through a door which I discovered was a dedicated security lane for disabled passengers.
I had to get out of the wheelchair to remove the liquids from my suitcase and then walk through the machine but at the other side, I settled back down into the chair. Then we waited again. It became apparent that they were waiting for a few wheelchair-bound passengers to take us up to the departure lounge together. As we were keen to do some duty free shopping and have a bite to eat, the prince told the porter that he would wheel me himself and with that, we embarked on the lift ride and walk to the lounge. On entering the lounge, we realised that in using the dedicated disabled security meant that we bypassed the big duty free shop and most of the eateries in the departure lounge and had actually come out by the gates. There was a small duty free shop which had what we needed and there were still a couple of snack bars, but we had missed the main hub of departures.
We arrived at the gate and as the flight was about to board, the porter appeared, took control of the wheelchair and pushed me to the front of the queue. When boarding started, she wheeled me down the air bridge to the entrance of the plane for me to make my way to my seat. That was an unexpected treat!
Having learned my lesson on the outbound flight, we remained on the aircraft whilst the other passengers disembarked. Then we were guided by a member of the crew to a door on the opposite side of the aircraft where an airlift vehicle awaited us. I sat in the wheelchair as we were lowered to the ground, then transported around the perimeter of the airport to a door. I was wheeled straight into the passport hall and past the queues of tired, waiting passengers, to a dedicated disabled lane, where the prince and I had our passports checked without waiting. The porter continued to push me through the baggage hall (remember the Princess takes carry-on luggage), through customs and into the arrivals halls where he parked me at a convenient location.
We were off the aircraft and into our car in less than an hour - amazing
Luton Airport, Palma Airport and Easyjet
Arranging special assistance via Easyjet is pretty easy but not possible (as far as I could see) via their mobile app and I had to visit their website using a link on the confirmation email.
On departure day, I checked in at the special assistance desk at the airport. Due to all the building work being carried out at the airport, it was a bit tricky to find and at the time, was a small, makeshift, cordoned- off area near security. However, on production of my boarding pass, I was allocated a wheelchair and opted to be wheeled by one of the party rather than wait for a porter. We were advised to ignore our actual gate and report to a specific gate number 40 minutes before the flight.
We were instructed to stay near the left-hand side of the entrance to security and would be taken through a separate channel. This wasn't the case, the channel was blocked off and there was no-one about, so we just lifted the barrier and went through anyway. When we reached the security lane, we were pretty much ignored and no members of the security staff came forward to help us. In fact, we had to push our way into one of the lines as we had bypassed the queues, which was met with some dissatisfaction by people queuing, despite the fact that I was in a wheelchair.
I had to wheel my wheelchair through the security machine and of course, it beeped, so I was given the pat down. It is fortunate that I am able-bodied and I wonder what happens if someone who is immobile and wheelchair-bound goes through.
Then my suitcase was selected for a random check and I was asked to open the case where the security officer rummaged through my case and removed quite a few bits before sending it back for another scan. When the suitcase returned, it was left to me to pretty much repack my case. I thought this was bad as he could see I was in a wheelchair, again I am fortunate I am able-bodied but what if that had happened to a severely disabled person?
40 minutes before our flight was due to depart, we reported to the gate as advised and were met with a porter who guided us, and some other disabled passengers also on our flight, through a series of lifts and stairs (yes, I had to walk up and down a few stairs - again, what about people who don't have the use of their legs?) and into a minibus, which transported us directly to the steps of the plane, where were boarded the plane ahead of the other passengers.
On boarding the plane, I mentioned to a member of the crew that I had requested special assistance at Palma Airport and I was advised to remain on the plane whilst the other passengers disembarked. So that is what we did and once the plane was empty, the crew advised us that the wheelchair was waiting and I was met by a porter with chair who wheeled me up the air bridge and into the terminal, fast-tracking me and my party through passport control and into the baggage hall.
On the return leg from Palma Airport, most of the process remained the same as above, except for the fact that we were not permitted to take the wheelchair down the air bridge to the aircraft, but I was permitted to board the aircraft before even the speedy boarders, so that was something.
Back at Luton Airport, we remained on the plane until our fellow passengers had disembarked, then the crew indicated our transport had arrived.
We walked down the steps of the aircraft and were met by a porter who helped us into a minibus, which then whizzed us around the perimeter of the airport and directly into a very packed passport hall. The porter wheeled me past lanes of queuing holidaymakers, straight to a desk without waiting.
Gatwick Airport, Berlin Schonefeld Airport and Easyjet
Gatwick Airport (North Terminal) provided a whole new experience in special assistance.
The special assistance desk proved a little tricky to find and we had to ask someone to direct us - it was upstairs rather than being downstairs near the check-in desks at the other airports.
The desk turned out to be a separate security channel for special assistance and families. I was asked whether I was OK to make my way through security and into the terminal unaided, which I am, so we queued for about 5 minutes before getting through.
I was very impressed that the facilities in the airport once you retrieved your suitcase. There are individual booths with a surface onto which you lift your security tray and luggage to repack. There are boards on which to rest your feet to replace your shoes if they had to be removed. It is all very well organised ad thought out.
We had been instructed to report to the special assistance desk in the departure lounge which was easy to spot in the centre due to its bright turquoise colour.
I "reported for duty" and was asked to wait in the dedicated waiting area where there was more than enough seating for passengers requiring special assistance and their travelling companions.
After no more than 10 minutes wait, we were approached by a porter who guided us to the waiting vehicle - yes, I was going to have my first taste of an airport buggy! A few other people were helped into the buggy, as we were all for the same flight and before we knew it, we were being whizzed through the terminal.
We arrived at a lift so we had to leave the buggy, walk into the lift to another waiting area, where we exited the airport into a airlift vehicle, which delivered us to opposite side of the plane to where the passengers were already embarking the aircraft. We filtered onto the aircraft and found our seats.
Now we know the procedure on arrival at the destination airport, we remained in our seats until we were instructed to leave disembark into a minibus, which again whizzed us around the perimeter of the airport and delivered us into a dedicated passport control hall - just for the six us!
We were in and out of the airport in record time, maybe within half an hour of landing - that's German efficiency for you.
For the return leg, I reported to the special assistance desk and after waiting for 15 minutes, was met by a porter who popped me into a wheelchair and wheeled me into a lift, outside the airport through what looked like a loading bay into another lift which took us up into the departure lounge. He asked us to meet him back in the same place an hour before the flight, which we did.
Once again, he took us down in the lift, back through the loading bay, into a vehicle, round the airport to the actual gate, where I was wheeled to the front of the speedy boarding queue. He then remained with me until he had delivered me safely onto the aircraft - despite a delay of nearly two hours! We chatted to him and he was a really lovely man, who spoke excellent English and told us a lot about the history of Berlin's airports.
Back at Gatwick, we were met by a lovely guy whose buggy was waiting at the end of the air bridge. He drove us all the way (and at Gatwick it is a loooooooooong way) to passport control. There, we didn't even have to get out of the buggy - he took our passports and handed them to the officer, who came out of his cubicle to check we matched our photos and hand our passports back to us. We were then driven through the baggage hall (no stopping required) and the customs channel and delivered into the arrivals hall.
I am due to fly again in a few weeks time, this time from Heathrow Terminal 3. I am really keen to see how a big international airport such as Heathrow treats its disabled travellers. However, I will be travelling with my sons, aged 22 and 19 and they are both already indicating their reluctance to wheel me through the airport, as if it may ruin their image or street cred. I haven't told them that it means that we may get through security quicker which means more time in the bar in departures - that may swing it!! Watch this space...
Heathrow Airport, London to Kennedy Airport, New York via Virgin Atlantic
Well, I did it! Due to a leg op in the middle of August, my mobility was somewhat impaired by the time we were due to go to New York and the boys realised there was no option but to organise assistance for me for our trip.
We arrived at check-in with plenty of time to spare. I had booked us into the lounge so we wanted to maximise the time we spent there. Once checked in, I mentioned that I had requested special assistance and was directed to the assistance desk, located one floor up, by security - and a Pret a Manger.
Son no 1 headed there for a much-needed caffeine fix, whilst son no 2 waited at the desk with me to be assigned my chariot for the duration of our stay at Heathrow Terminal 3.
Rather than the reluctance that had ensued prior to the trip, now the boys were squabbling over who should get to wheel me and they relished in taking turns to push their old mum through security and into the private lounge I had booked for us.
Security was efficient and I was afforded princess-style passage through, not even having to get out of the chair whilst I was gently patted down. Once in the lounge, the boys and I relaxed with a G&T, snacks and excited chatter ahead of our flight to the big apple.
Soon, it was time to head to the gate and son no 1 took great delight in attempting to freewheel me down various ramps, but was disappointed to discover that the wheelchair was fitted with a brake which enabled as soon as the handle was released. We arrived at the gate and as premium passengers (princess style all the way!) AND with a wheelchair, we were whizzed through in double-quick time. No sooner were we through, we were being ushered onto the bridge towards the plane (a 787-900 Dreamliner, if anyone is geeky enough to care - wow, just wow).
A good experience from Heathrow, just a 7 hour flight before we discovered how I would be greeted and treated by Kennedy Airport staff.
The boys had arranged to visit the cockpit once we had landed, so I languished in a seat in an empty Upper Class cabin, decreeing it the rightful place for a princess. We exited the plane to find that there were no wheelchairs and waited a good 10-15 minutes for it to arrive.
This time the boys were relieved of their pushing duties and only had to keep up with the man whose job it was to push wheelchairs through the airport. As we approached immigration, we all took a deep breath, in anticipation of a potential long wait ahead of us.
But that was not to be, because they must have known I am a princess as we were lined up at the Diplomatic desk and fast-tracked through security in a flash, arriving at the baggage belt at the same time as our luggage. Through to arrivals, to the transit desk, told where to meet our car, wheeled there and at that point, we parted company with the wheelchair pusher. Remembering that America has a tipping culture, I was ready with my wad of $1 notes and thrust a sufficient amount into his grateful hand. This is the first time I have tipped any of the assistance staff - I am now questioning whether I should have tipped the others in the past.
Before we knew it, our 4 nights in NYC had passed and we were back at Kennedy Airport, checking in at the Virgin Atlantic desk. This was the first time the check-in staff have noted the request for special assistance and rather than having to go to a desk to secure a wheelchair, it was brought to me, together with a Sheniza (a lovely Puerto Rican lady) to push me.
There was a bit of a process, as is the American way. Sheniza first pushed me into a holding pen, where both my wheelchair and her ID were scanned and linked and she was accountable for that chair until I boarded the plane. She expertly navigated me in the chair through the appropriate security channel and into the departure lounge.
I mentioned that we wanted to go to the Duty Free shop and this was apparently the first time she had ever received such a request. I suggested that the boys could wheel me around departures but Sheniza explained that she had to stay with that wheelchair until the point I boarded the plane! She parked me at the gate and went away, only to return just before boarding and lined me up with the other wheelchair-bound passengers.
And then, I love Sheniza for this, she somehow managed to put me at the head of the queue and I was...wait for it...first onto the plane. It's like she knew I am a princess. Unfortunately, at the entrance of the plane, I had to turn right (we all know that real princesses only turn left) but not far to the premium cabin, so still more regal than, shudder, economy!!
Just the last leg of the experience, how would Heathrow Terminal 3 fare on my return. To be honest, it was a bit of a shambles. Once again, like when we arrived at Kennedy, there were no wheelchairs waiting. The boys had already exited the plane ahead of me and so had to wait on the bridge, whilst I once again princessed it up in a comfy Upper Class seat. However, I became impatient and there were other passengers more in need of a wheelchair than me, so we decided to start walking (slowly, there was not other speed for me at that time).
We met the wheelchair not far from the bridge and I gladly slumped into it, ready for my journey through the airport. The boys decided they would push me and there was no opposition from the member of staff to whom I had been assigned and he happily relinquished his duties.
Once at security, we were met with scenes like a refugee camp, of course it was prime time for flights from the US and far east to arrive. However, we were directed to the special assistance and priority queue and before long, were into the baggage hall, through arrivals and within an hour from the plane landing, we were in our taxi and on our way home.
This was a pretty smooth experience, except for the delay at both ends waiting for a wheelchair to arrive at the aircraft. If it hadn't been for that, it would have been a 9/10.