Travelling in a Wheelchair

It’s that time of the year again, when one of the best grass roots Oracle user group conferences takes place, the Rocky Mountain Oracle User Group Training Days in Denver Colorado. I’ve been privileged enough to present at this conference several times in the past, and always have an absolute blast at it, so I try to submit a few papers each year. This year, I had three papers accepted. Two of them were designed to be deep-dive sessions, one on delivering Schema as a Service and one on delivering Database as a Service, and the other one is a presentation on Snap Clone, which is functionality within Enterprise Manager that takes advantage of Copy-on-Write technology (available either through storage technology or CloneDB in the Oracle Database) to take thin clones of Oracle databases.

But this post isn’t about that. It isn’t even about anything remotely Oracle related. Those of you that have known me for a while know that I’ve had some unfortunate issues with both my back and my left knee (caused by the aforementioned back issues). Unfortunately this year the problems have arisen again, so both standing and walking for any length of time are particularly problematic for me. That means that this year I travelled to the US for the first time using (mostly) a wheelchair. While I can still walk through security scans and so on, anything longer than 5 minutes or so on my feet becomes pretty damn painful, so I thought this was going to be an interesting experience.

If you’ve never had to get around in a wheelchair for any length of time, you really have no understanding of just how difficult it can be to get around in them. It can, for example, take a reasonable amount of brute force to push yourself around in one of them (depending on the surface you’re going over). Even though you’re on wheels, you can get caught in relatively small cracks and nearly tip out of the chair (as Tim Gorman found on when he was pushing me around Denver airport parking lot! 🙂 ). Heading up even relatively small hills can likewise be quite difficult.

All of which I knew to start with, as I’d been using the wheelchair around the shops at home for a while. But this was going to be my first real experience travelling with one. So I rang Qantas (the airline I was travelling with) several weeks before leaving to ask what I needed to do, and whether they needed any information. They asked me for the dimensions of the wheelchair (length, width and height) as well as the weight, and told me they had entered all the information they needed onto my booking, so it should be fairly smooth sailing. I was to be escorted to and from each flight, and someone would help me get between flights as well. They also told me that my first flight (coming to Denver means a short puddle jump in a small plane to Sydney, followed by about 15 hours to Dallas, then another hour and a bit to Denver) was going to be in a Dash 8, and the wheelchair would need to be put in the hold for that flight but I could use the wheelchair to the foot of the stairs, and it would be brought to me at the foot of the stairs again when I landed.

It all sounded too good to be true. And it was. 🙂 Their “smooth sailing” was very hit or miss. My wife dropped me at the airport, coming in with me to check my luggage (try pulling a suitcase around when you’re in a wheelchair!). The lady at check-in was very helpful, but she had none of the details about size and weight that I had provided earlier, so we had to try and guesstimate all of that again because I couldn’t remember the exact figures – so much for all the details being on my booking! After that all got sorted out I said goodbye to my lovely wife and made my way through security. As I have had the same knee replaced twice, I always set off the security scanners and need to be patted down (unless the airport happens to have those full body scanners which make life SO much easier for me when travelling!). From there I wheeled myself off to Qantas Club for a quick latte before heading off to my first flight.

The escort to my first flight turned out to be someone saying “It’s time for you to go now”. That didn’t really matter, as it was a short trip to the gate. At the gate, I was escorted down to the tarmac (via a lift) before everyone else boarded, and as promised they put the wheelchair in the hold. Both myself and the stewardess asked for the wheelchair to be tagged as premium luggage so it would come back to me at the foot of the stairs when we got to Sydney.

Well, that didn’t happen. I had to ask the guys unloading the plane to bring it over as a separate request. What’s more, I waited with the poor stewardesses on the tarmac for 20 minutes for the escort. The stewardesses couldn’t just leave me on the tarmac, and eventually a guy came over from the next plane (apparently handled by a different company even though it was still a Qantas plane) and he took me up to the gate. He said this was a frequent occurrence for planes from Canberra, which doesn’t fill me with confidence for travelling with Qantas again if I still need a wheelchair! When I finally got up to the gate, the escort that had supposed to turn up in the first place finally arrived – no apologies to me or the guy that had helped me (poor form!).

If you haven’t travelled through Sydney before, the domestic and international terminals are separated, and you travel by bus between the two. My new escort took me up to the international transfer lounge, and left me in the hands of Terry, and went off happily having fulfilled his role for all of about 5 minutes (as you can tell I was thrilled by how hard he worked!). Terry, on the other hand, was really good. He took me back down to the tarmac (another area), loaded me up in my wheelchair (first time I’ve ever been in a wheelchair lift), and we drove over to the international lounge, having quite a friendly chat as we went. When we arrived there was an area for people who needed assistance like me to be parked in, so he left me there for someone else to take me through security.

The guy that picked me up there was, to be succinct, fantastic! He took me through Customs and security with an absolute minimum of fuss, collected all my scanned stuff like the laptop and so on while I was being patted down (which happens every time at Security because of my fake knee) and then to the gate. He even checked how long the flight was going to be to see if it was more worthwhile for me to wait in Qantas Club, which as it turned out wasn’t worthwhile as the flight was going to board in 20 minutes or so. He then made sure the wheelchair would be in the main part of the plane with me, which made it much quicker and easier to get it back when I got to Dallas.

The flight to Dallas was the one I was really dreading. It’s about 15 hours, which for someone who is 6 feet 3 inches and stuck in cattle class is normally not good. To my surprise the flight was probably only 2/3 full, so I had an empty seat on one side of me and the aisle on another, so I actually got more sleep on the flight than I normally do. I had to pop some painkillers once, but compare that to the flight to UKOUG in December where I was on heavy duty drugs every 4 hours and you can guess I was very happy with the flight. 🙂

When I got to Dallas, my escort must’ve been the brother of the last guy in Sydney, because again he took really, really good care of me. As this was the first port of call on US soil, I had to clear Customs and Security again. He managed to handle all of that very smoothly, including collecting my luggage and then pushing me and it to the drop-off point for the luggage – not an easy feat when you’re pushing two items at once! He even took me on the train to move to the terminal where my departure gate was, so again I was very, very happy.

Unfortunately things went downhill again when we arrived at Denver. The flight was only short (a bit over an hour), but when we arrived there was one escort and about 4 or 5 people needing help, so I walked the wheelchair up the ramp to the gate (too steep to do it in the wheelchair) and then wheeled myself out to Baggage Claim where I was met by my good friends Tim and Kellyn.

So overall, I managed to successfully travel from Canberra via Sydney and Dallas to Denver in a wheelchair. Because I travelled in the wheelchair, my pain levels on arrival were MUCH lower than when I travelled to UKOUG on crutches. The experience of transferring between planes was a bit hit or miss, ranging from no help even turning up to some absolutely fantastic help, so Qantas gets a mixed bag of marks from me.

One thing I would stress though – when things were difficult, it was still possible for me to get up and walk short distances. Compare that to the people who can’t get out of wheelchairs at all, and I had it damned easy! If you are able-bodied and can get around without any of these issues, thank your lucky stars or give thanks to whatever god is pertinent to you, because it’s only when you’re put in the place of someone who has to deal with being in a wheelchair all the time that you REALLY get an appreciation of just how hard it can be. To those who are in a wheelchair permanently, all I can say is “RESPECT!”


After 22 years of working at Oracle in just about every role except Marketing and Support, I am now working as a Senior Managed Services Consultant with Data Intensity, specializing in Oracle Database technology, High Availability and Disaster Recovery solutions. I am also a member of the OakTable Network, and have presented at RMOUG Training Days, Hotsos Symposia, Oracle OpenWorld conferences, and other user group events. I have co-authored the Expert Oracle Enterprise Manager 12c and Practical Oracle Database Appliance books published by Apress, and am one of the authors of the Building Database Clouds in Oracle Database 12c book published by Addison Wesley.

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