I recently subjected myself to flying over the holidays. It made me pine for something supremely uncomfortable: my to-the-knee, non-walking casts.
You see, I had an epiphany during simultaneous foot surgeries over the past year. As physically challenged as I was at home -- from carrying a glass of water or going up the stairs to covering up all that fiberglass to take a shower -- flying for business in a cast was actually kind of fun. Especially when it comes to the dreaded security line: You get to go first.
I flew through more than half a dozen airports both big (Dallas, O'Hare, Reagan and Newark) and small (Omaha, Charlotte and Louisville) on three separate business trips. And I found the U.S. airline industry knew how to take care of people like me. Because there are so many of us: From the elderly to the obese to the disabled, these are the true road warriors who navigate despite their canes and crutches and casts at 30,000 feet.
So here are my seven tips on how to lose your fear of flying when you're on the D.L.:
1. Make sure your doctor says it's OK to fly. As if being squeezed into economy isn't already a feat fit for a contortionist, the addition of something like a cast amplifies the danger of blood clots. My doctor gave me clearance after a month and reminded me to get up occasionally and stretch my limbs. (Which is something we're supposed to be doing anyway.)
2. Arrange for service ahead of time. Arrange to be met at the curb with a wheelchair. What you want is a seamless handoff of your bags from the cab to the wheelchair so you won't have to wrestle with them. On the tail end of the trip, the rep who collects you at the gate should walk you all the way to the cab.
3. Pack light and try to do carry-on. This is important, because at least one of your bags may be in your lap and that can be unwieldy as you are pushed around the airport. Once on the airplane, you'll have plenty of room to store your stuff overhead because you will be among the first to board. Remember, you will have to get up to go through the actual screening.
And there are times when it may behoove you to stand up. I hoisted myself out of the chair, for instance, when I was begging for seats on an oversold flight once I realized the original flight would likely miss its connection to Omaha. I was taking 15 college students out for lunch and Q&A with Warren Buffett. And Buffett wasn't giving us a rain date. We ended up connecting through Dallas instead of Chicago... arriving around midnight before our morning meeting with the Oracle.
4. Bring cash and keep it in an easy to reach place. Flying with assistance is a lot like going to a hair salon. Everybody's counting on a tip. There's the rep who meets you at the curb and takes you to the gate. And the one who meets you at your connection. And then the one who takes you to the curb. They are not shy, either, about telling you how little they make and how they don't have benefits because they're non-union and contracted out by the airport. It's almost as standard in their patter as the day's weather forecast. If you're traveling on business, you can itemize all these as legitimate expenses. Along with the cabs and the bellhops at the hotel.
5. Leave plenty of time. Yes, you do get whisked through security and you are first to board. But you are LAST off the plane. And if you have a connection and it's in another terminal, it can be as nerve-wracking as it was for me when I went through Reagan to connect to Newark. My handler -- just before complaining about her lack of benefits -- informed me we would have to take seven different elevators to get to my gate. She wasn't kidding.
This may be why the New York Times last year noted the growing number of travelers who were in a wheelchair on their way to a city. But faced with being at the end of the line upon arrival, they miraculously found a way to manage on their own.
6. Dress simply. This is a rule best followed for any air travel unless you've got your own jet. Shoes, belts, coats all have to come off whether you can walk or not. Since I had foot surgery that required a cast, I only had to remove one shoe. And I made sure it was a slip-on.
7. Finally, moderate your fluid intake. And use the restrooms before you board. Airline lavatories are cramped enough without all the extra mobility devices. Enough said.
I'm only kidding, of course, when I say I would go back to a non-walking cast in order to reclaim my flying perks. I learned to adapt and remain productive. And I saw through a new perspective the thousands of people who triumph every day despite their own physical challenges.
Now I'm preparing to book my first ski trip since the surgeries. I just hope I don't need a refresher course on my seven little tips for the return flight.