"I love flying, and the thrill of seeing new places, but the process is a means to an end, not a pleasure," Martyn Sibley tells Reduced Mobility Rights.
It is impossible not to admire the drive and determination of Martyn Sibley. 28-year-old Martyn's condition is Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Because of his condition, he has to rely on technology, and the support of others, for just about everything able bodies take for granted.
Martyn has a Masters degree in Marketing and a bachelors Degree in Economics. He drives, has been scuba diving, he runs his own business; his passion for travel has taken him all the way to Australia.
I met Martyn at the launch of new services for passengers with reduced mobility held at Gatwick airport last week.
I asked Martyn how comfortable he feels when he decides to travel by air, and which are the steps he takes in preparation for a flight.
"Now I am very comfortable with air travel but it has taken years," Martyn says. "My parents used to organise our holidays so I had little stress then. As I hit 21 I wanted to go to Australia independently. This was a huge challenge to travel without family, but made more difficult and risky by being on the other side of the world. I had saved the money up, left 6 months to plan everything and began arrangements. To take an electric wheelchair on a plane is not easy!"
His preparations are not limited to arrange assistance at the airport and inflight, but also include arrangements for accessible taxis, hotels, equipment rental and Personal Care Assistants.
"Pulling this trip off gave me the confidence to travel many times more independently. I am always apprehensive because things have and will go wrong, but I know I do everything in my control to reduce this risk nowadays."
Martyn is now a veteran frequent flyer, which clearly transpires from the ease with which he negotiates with assistance at airports.
"Having shared my needs on the phone with the airline, I arrive 2 hours before a short haul flight, check-in my bags, tag my wheelchair (but keeping it until boarding) and head to the PRM desk. Here I am told what time to meet them at the plane. I am then free to go through security with my PA (including being groped and swabbed for bombs) and grab some food with everybody else. At the gate I use a transit seat to be lifted by 2 people, and to not be manhandled as much. The aisle chair is narrow but holds me tightly enabling me to be wheeled from my chair to my plane seat. The chair is then taken down to the hold."
The airport experience appears to be the least challenging part of Martyn's travels. Things are not as easy while in-flight.
"My inflight experience is not great. The chairs do not support me very comfortably and so I get a dead leg. I am unable to get to, let alone get in the toilets and so I limit liquid intake. I sometimes use my toilet bottle or leg bag, but neither is ideal. I struggle to feed myself due to the seating position and therefore require more assistance from my Personal Assistant than usual."
I then went on asking him which is the biggest challenges he faces when arriving at the destination.
"The worst situations on landing are communicating my needs in a foreign language, which makes me feel scared of being dropped," Martyn explains.
"The other is broken and mishandled wheelchairs. The number of times my chair has been knocked about is ridiculous. Also I need my chair immediately because I cannot sit in an un supporting manual chair, but often I am left waiting ages for my chair, or taken to baggage in a very uncomfortable position (having my head held by some stranger)."
Because of his personal experience, Martyn believes that wheelchair repair services such as the trial at Heathrow, running from July to September this year, should be rolled out at all airports.
"Baggage handlers should be held to account if they break a wheelchair," Martyn adds.
At the end of our interview, I asked Martyn if there is any particularly good, or terribly unpleasant experience he had while traveling by air he wished to share.
"Apart from the usual stresses, miscommunication, strange people and broken wheelchairs; the worst is so bad that it's funny," Martyn says.
"I was in Singapore on route to Australia and forced to leave my chair at check in. I was placed in a more supportive than usual aisle chair. My Personal Assistant and I were told to go to the special area where I was given a massive, bright yellow sticker saying "special" across it. I have never felt so excluded from the world that you just had to laugh it off."
About the author
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reduced Mobility Rights, Roberto Castiglioni has deep knowledge of PRM regulations and handling procedures, along with first-hand experience as travelling companion and carer of a passenger with reduced mobility.
Roberto is a member of ESAAG. Chaired by the Hon. David Blunkett MP, the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group, ESAAG, provides Easyjet with strategic guidance and practical advice on the evolving needs of passengers requiring special assistance. Easyjet is the largest airline in the United Kingdom by number of passengers carried.