10 January 2009

Family travel: 'Can we take our disabled son to Florida?'

Q. We have three young children, one of whom is six and severely disabled. We want to go to Florida next year, but have no idea of the mechanics of taking our disabled son on a flight. He won't be able to sit still in an aeroplane seat for more than a few minutes, and is too unmanageable to sit on our knees. Normally, he travels in a slightly larger than normal car seat (which we will need to take with us anyway for use in the hire car), but what will we do with it and his wheelchair on the plane? Are some airlines better than others at dealing with this kind of thing? And there is one further complication: our son has a cochlear implant. Can we avoid taking him through any electronic- scanning devices? J Thatcher, Nottinghamshire

A. Even though travelling with a disability has become easier, it still requires a lot of forward planning, and is not without its hurdles.
Tackling the flights first: you need to establish a dialogue with the airline early on. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) both fly from London to Miami and Orlando, and have comprehensive disability guidelines; Virgin even has a dedicated number: 0870 990 8350.
An experienced and understanding travel agent could also be a useful ally, since he or she will know the procedures (and aviation jargon) for looking after disabled travellers.
The airline needs to know the details of your son's condition, and that you will be taking a wheelchair, so that the appropriate preparation can be made on board the aircraft, and cabin crew are aware of your family's needs.
If you are taking a battery-operated wheelchair, you must inform the airline 48 hours in advance of the weight, dimensions and battery type. If you can take the wheelchair on board, it won't count towards your carry-on limit. Under the Dangerous Goods Act, battery-operated wheelchairs must be stored in the hold. If the battery is spillable, it must be removed, unless the chair is to be stored upright during the flight.
In relation to the car seat, BA rules say that if parents wish to bring their own on board, it must be securable by the normal aircraft single lap strap. The seat must also face the same way as the passenger seat, and not exceed the width of the plane seat. The dimensions vary with each airline, but an economy seat typically measures 17in-20in. Check with the airline when you are booking to ensure that the car seat fits the plane seat.
Wheelchairs set off metal detectors at airport security, so both your son and the chair will have to be hand searched; you have the right to request that he is searched in private.
The metal-detector archways used for security checks produce magnetic fields that can cause speech processors to become corrupted. To prevent damage to your son's cochlear implant, it is advisable to remove the processor and turn it off before passing through any such apparatus. The processor must be X-rayed, which can be done safely as long as it is turned off. It is also advisable to carry your son's ID card and the equipent's user manual, to show to security staff on request.
For much more information and advice, see the excellent website flying-with -disability.org. You may well conclude, though, that it will be considerably less stressful to enlist help in organising your first trip, so consider a specialist operator such as Disability Travel (020-8731 2111; disabilitytravel.co. uk). It organises tailor-made trips, including to the All-Star Music Resort in Disney World, Florida (pictured left). These take into consideration everything from flights to accommodation. Prices depend on specific needs. Access Travel (01942 888 844; access-travel. co.uk) also offers tailor-made holidays to Florida.
Send family travel queries toThe Independent Parent, Travel Desk, 'The Independent', 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or email crusoe@independent. co.uk

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