Assisted travel is not only for people with walking difficulties and it costs nothing.

Since 2014 I have had to request assisted travel due to hip and back problems. It is not an issue with walking but with having to stand in queues that can cause me a lot of pain. That has meant 26 airports and 43 times being assisted as some of the airports were passed through more than once.

Do not be afraid to request assisted travel if you have difficulty walking, hearing or seeing or if you are not accustomed to flying through large and/or busy airports. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, international airports were becoming increasingly busy, noisy and used self-check-in systems which could be done from home or at the airport at a computerised kiosk. Our first time at doing this at a kiosk was very daunting so being assisted is very useful. Even if you are not using the assisted travel service, there is usually a member of staff from the airline wandering near the kiosks to help passengers, especially us older ones who are not that confident with technology.

If you have requested assisted travel it is worth arriving at the airport a little earlier than stated on the ticket so that there is time to get an assistant for you. Every airport has its own system but all within certain parameters. Generally these are to assist you from the time you arrive at the airport to depart or have just arrived at an airport on an incoming flight. When departing the assistant will take you through the full procedure of checking-in, going through Emigration and Customs, taking you to the Departure Gate and, when boarding starts, take you to the plane door. If you are unable to walk or climb stairs you will be transported to the rear door of the plane in a special vehicle and, if necessary, assisted to your seat. On arrival at an airport you will be met at the plane exit door and assisted through Immigration and Customs, to collect your luggage and to the door where you expect to be met or to a taxi rank. In most airports, an assisted passenger is taken to the front of the queue at Immigration/Emigration and Customs if they are separate. If you are travelling with a companion, s/he will be permitted to go through these with you.

If you are in need of a wheelchair, there is usually someone at the entrance who should be able to assist you as to where to go to get your wheelchair or, in some airports, they will have a wheelchair at the door. We have had an instance where the person who assisted us with a wheelchair at the entrance wanted a gratuity so do check before you accept. Also, in some airports the assistants are employed by the airline and in others, like South Africa, they are employed by the airport. In fact, where they are employed by the airline they will not usually assist you if you are not flying on their airline.

If you have requested assistance for other reasons, you should go to the check-in kiosk or counter and let the attendant know that you are an assisted passenger and what assistance you require. You should receive all the assistance listed above but if you are hard of hearing, have limited sight or being assisted because you are elderly and don’t know the systems that well, request that, should there be a change in departure gate or time that someone comes to tell you. All assisted passengers are taken to a waiting room until their original or connecting flight is preparing to board but you may be taken to the departure gate early if there is a large number of passengers being boarded. Some of the waiting rooms have ablution facilities but others do not. Similarly, some have a small coffee shop facility while, should you want refreshment while waiting you will have to go to an outside shop.

Generally, we have had good experiences with assisted travel but there have been some really bad ones too. Our best has been at King Shaka International Airport in Durban and the worst at Santiago in Chile. As my husband and I travel together we find it easier to get a taxi home from the airport and each time we have come through this particular airport we have been escorted to the taxi rank and once our escort bargained with the taxi driver to get us the best deal.
What went wrong in Santiago? It would be easier to say what went right. We had flown from Panama City where our flight had already been delayed by 3 hours so we only arrived in Santiago at 11pm. There were 5 passengers plus 2 partners to receive assistance. We were told to wait at the front of the plane until the wheelchairs arrived. Finally one did and I was told to use it and Trevor to come as well. We didn’t see any others on our way up the ramp and we learnt why when we got to the main corridor. Waiting for us was an 10-seater golf cart! We got on to that and 1×1 the young man brought all the others up from the plane. We then begin a long and winding journey through the airport. Suddenly we stopped at a set of double doors marked Emergency Exit. Our driver stepped off of the cart and took some photos of the signs on the doors on his phone and then got back on and drove a bit further. Once again he stopped at a pair of double doors but these were open and he went inside. He came out with a young man in a wheelchair and got him to sit on a bench. He went inside again and came out with 3 more passengers. More driving around and we finally arrived at Immigration where, usually, assisted passengers were taken to the front of the queue but not this time. First, he asked the 3 newest passengers to go with him and 30mins later he returned and took 2 other passengers. This time he was back in 15mins and took 1 of the wheelchair passengers and was gone for another 30mins. In the meantime, we were watching incoming passengers complete health questionnaires in connection with Covid-19. Why he didn’t give us the forms to complete while we waited we’ll never know. A lady with Supervisor written on her overall came past but would not speak to us as we did not speak any Spanish. Finally he got 2 wheelchairs and let Trevor push mine while he pushed the other passenger. Instead of going to the front of the queue we just joined the general one which explained why he had taken so long each time. Once we had been stamped in we turned a corner only to find that officials were waiting for us to complete the health forms. By the time we arrived at the carousel to collect our luggage it had already been taken to the left luggage section. The other passenger had someone waiting for her so he asked us how we were getting to our hotel and we tried to explain that COPA had agreed to get us to the hotel but he understood that he was to take us to the taxi rank. While we tried again to explain a very kind gentleman, who spoke both English and Spanish, explained the situation to the young man and agreed to take Trevor up to the COPA offices. He told us to remain where we were. Well, once they had gone up in the lift, he pushed me over to some chairs and left me there. After another 15mins we were finally on our way to the hotel.

Another not so great experience was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We had flown in from Munich and been met as expected. Our connecting flight was not due to leave for another couple of hours, 10:30pm, and the assistant said he would be back to take us through in an hour. When he hadn’t arrived and we could see that our flight was being checked in, Trevor went up to the counter to remind them that we were waiting for a wheelchair. Yes, yes it will be done; don’t worry. He went up a 2nd time as the boarding queue got shorter and no sign of any wheelchair was seen and got the same response. Suddenly we were the only 2 people sitting waiting and a gentleman came passed and asked why we had not boarded. We explained and, to this day, nearly 6 years later, I don’t know how he did it but a wheelchair appeared, he literally ran us through check-in, security etc and to the plane door as they were preparing to close it!

These are 2 extreme situations and there have been a couple of others causing real frustration but, as I have said, on the whole it has been a helpful and pleasant way to get around the large and busy airports of the world.