It’s no secret, I fly Southwest Airlines whenever possible, which is currently restricted to the USA, but I’d fly international with them. Before my wheelchair life I was a fan of Southwest and appreciated the witty and often ironic flare of the crew’s humor, and with stellar accessibility, I’ve become a serious super fan now that I’m a 4-wheeler.
Even though laws were enacted for decades, discrimination ran rampant in the airline industry, and in all honesty still exists, but before it was politically correct and seen as financially viable to do so, Southwest was creating access. It’s quite possible that Southwest actually set the standard on serving the needs for people flying with a disability, and other airlines were left scrambling to comply to catch up. I almost get star struck by the experience, compared to some other airlines, amazed how well thought-out every step is as if they hired consultants to produce real solutions.
Booking + Check-In
Starting with booking a flight online, I’m asked about my mobility needs and the equipment I’ll be using, including if and where I may need assistance. I check the box indicating I’ll have a manual wheelchair, opposed to a power wheelchair, and that I cannot walk to my seat, which means an isle chair will be provided. Nothing to worry about now, and the day of my flight, I don’t arrive early because I know Southwest will do a good job; I don’t expect problems, mix-ups, misunderstandings, or complications. When I roll up to check-in, people are calm and courteous, not shocked and in awe that I’m flying all by myself; don’t feel patronized, I’m just another customer. At check-in, I’m asked about the wheelchair’s approximate weight and make and an informational tag is secured to the back of the chair. “Will you be needing assistance to the gate?” I’m always asked, to which I reply, “No thank you, I got this.”
Once through security, I head to the desk at my Southwest gate to collect one more tag for the wheelchair. If you wish to have your wheelchair waiting for you when you get off the plane instead of at baggage claim, then you need a brightly colored “gate-check” tag. This tag is only given at the gate desk, and wonderfully enough Southwest’s gate desk has a lowered counter, so very inclusive. Even now in 2020, very few airlines, other than Southwest, have incorporated this design. As a general policy, airlines will board people with wheelchairs first, but sometimes it’s the latter if you or the isle chair are late. Rather than being a spectacle on display for all passengers to watch, I prefer to board first, and with Southwest this is always possible.
At the Southwest gate desk, I inquire what time boarding will begin because though I cannot walk to my seat, the pathway to the bulkhead seats is just wide enough for me squeeze through. This wouldn’t be the case if I had my power wheelchair. Basically, this means that I don’t have to transfer to an isle chair and then to my seat; I would just transfer the one time. This is huge; saves time and energy. Sliding over to the window seat is also possible because there are no barriers to jump over, only seatbelts to watch out for. I don’t always take the window seat, but more often than not. I guess I’m just nostalgic for those classic take-off and landing views, and I like topography too.
Another accessible feature that sets Southwest apart from other airlines is the fact that on every flight, an onboard isle chair is available to people who cannot walk that wish to use the toilet. This is such a concern for many such people thinking of flying, and too many are still unaware that it’s available to assist during the flight, so I hope to spread this good news more here. Access to the toilet if in need is clearly the right (and humane) thing to do, and with Southwest, I don’t have to question whether or not one will be onboard. I don’t have to remember to ask in advance about it or double check on it on the day I fly; it’s there on the plane if I need it.
When I arrive at my destination, my wheelchair often gets to the gate fast and in one piece. The flight crew are always wonderful about letting me know that it has been brought up from cargo and waiting just outside the plane. After everyone else has disembarked, my chair is then wheeled on board and I repeat the same steps when I started but in reverse. Sometimes I’ll ask for a push through the gate if uphill, especially if carpeted and uphill.
And don’t forget, you can check two bags for free with Southwest. I travel with what I can carry, which comes down to one checked bag and one carry one, but that’s just me, so it’s still important to note, along with the fact that you cannot be charged a baggage fee if it contains your medical equipment.
So, thank you Southwest, you are a superior airline, and my first choice when flying.