In a world of protests and divisiveness, a pilot from United Airlines, leads a group of caring United Staff in a collaborative effort to help the Handicap This Productions Team on and off their plane. That may sound easy or like it’s “no-big deal”, but we are here to tell you that it was an incredible feat. When you are flying with a person who has a disability or special needs, you have to be ready for anything.
We have traveled all over this great country with our show, “Handicap This!” for over 6 years, we have been everywhere from Los Angeles to New York City, and places like South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Arizona. Many flights have been boarded and many hours spent waiting in terminals. We have worked with many different teams getting Mike on and off planes. It is never an easy process because of the situation Mike is in. For those of you who are new to our page, Mike Berkson, 27, has cerebral palsy and virtually no movement of his arms and legs. He uses a wheelchair and needs the assistance of at least two people to get in and out of his chair. (He had back surgery, spinal fusion, in 2006 putting metal rods on each side of his spine.) Mike is a brilliant, witty, and hysterical individual that I met 15 years ago, working as his one-on-one aide. That relationship blossomed into a friendship and that friendship has grown into a message that we share with all types of groups across the country.
That message was why we were flying on March 19th, 2016 from Baltimore to Chicago on Flight 4172 departing at 11:22am. We had just given a presentation the night before in Frederick, MD for the Scott Key Center. When we were checking our bags and getting our seat assignments, we got some bad news. We would be flying in a smaller plane. A smaller plane means less room to maneuver Mike on and off the plane. A large 747 is still a challenge, so we mentally prepared ourselves for what was to come. Nothing could have prepared us for the inclusion, collaboration, and teamwork that would greet us when we arrived at the gate. A smiling ticket agent, Jacqui Royster, helped us move our seats up from Row 7, to Row 3. The reason we want to be seating closer to the door, is so we don’t have to push Mike on the aisle chair for very long. The aisle chair is a device that Mike has to use once we get to the door of the plane. We have to transfer Mike from his wheelchair to this aisle chair. It is super narrow, so it can fit in the aisle, getting the person who needs it, to their respective seat.
Unfortunately, the aisle chair was not made with Mike in mind. Mike doesn’t have control of his trunk, he wears size 15 shoes, (so he can wear his leg braces) and his arms are perpetually sticking out. Think if you are using a machine at the gym, where you are doing chest flyes, the before motion is the best way to describe Mike’s arm placement. So, that is what we have to deal with getting Mike to his seat. When the aisle chair arrived, Denis (Mike’s father) and myself assessed the situation of getting Mike on this particular smaller plane. By the looks of it, it is going to be a bear. There doesn’t seem to be a way where we will be able to turn Mike once he gets on the plane. The one thing I have not told you, is that Mike is always in a lot of pain. Currently his legs are the latest culprit. So, we have to be extra careful of his legs, and like I mentioned before, he wears those size 15 shoes, adding to the limited space that already exists on airplanes. This is where we met pilot Eric Pawloski. He took charge and helped us navigate his plane. At first glance, it didn’t look like there was a way in heck to get Mike on this plane. We even had Jacqui look at other flights with larger planes for us to use. She revealed that we would have to either wait until 10:50pm on a flight that was oversold or go to Washington Dulles (we were at BWI) and fly out at 5:30pm. None of these options were to our liking, so we asked Mike what he wanted to do, since he was the one that was going thru the “gauntlet”, so to speak.
Mike, being a trooper, wanted to soldier on and get on this plane. We decided that going backwards would be our best bet getting Mike into his seat. My job was to hold Mike’s feet as he was being pulled through the aisle. Eric, the pilot, was behind me. When we reached Row 3, we found out that the arm rest did not move up, making the lift out of the aisle chair and into his seat a difficult transfer. Row 4’s arm rest did move up, so we decided that going back one more row was more than worth it. When we got there, the pilot asked if he should help lift Mike into his seat. The only problem was that there wasn’t any room other than climbing over 2 rows of seats to get there. What did our pilot do? You guessed it, Eric climbed over two rows of seats to get behind Mike to help with the lift. We never have seen anyone do that! It was amazing. We were able to get Mike safely into his seat in Row 4.
While this was going on, Mike’s Dad, Denis, was securing Mike’s wheelchair and getting it ready to be checked. You see, Mike’s wheelchair is placed with all the other bags that are on the plane. We use a type of “saran wrap” around the chair and place a note on it, so anyone that comes in contact with his chair, knows that it is not collapsible. We have been using this trick for a few years now, and it has helped limit the damage to Mike’s chair when flying. We were relieved that Mike was able to get to his seat, but knew that this was only half the battle, getting off the plane was going to be just as tough.
The flight was smooth and short, but what was awaiting us in O’Hare was another challenge. The jet bridge. The jet bridge is used to go from the plane to the gate. Unfortunately, this particular bridge had a “bump” that would make it even harder to get Mike off the plane. The aisle chair wheels would not be able to make it over this bump on the angle we had to use. We asked if we could move the jet bridge and then lower the gate. They weren’t having that. So, we had to come up with another way. When Mike and I are presenting we use a phrase that comes in handy in situations like these, that phrase is, Improvise, Adapt, Overcome! That is what we did! We opened the cockpit door so Mike’s feet had room for us to make the turn with the aisle chair to get it on the jet bridge. It was not easy. I wish we had video of this maneuver, because words to do not it justice. Luckily, we had the wheelchair manager of AirServ, Jose Lopez directing us, along with pilot Eric Pawloski.
Flying is never easy, getting Mike on and off a small plane is even more difficult, but when you have a team like we did on Saturday, working together, anything is possible. This was a true example of inclusion and what accessible travel is all about. We asked Eric why he went above and beyond the call of duty, he said, “I always ask myself, how would I want to be treated.” Simple, yet profound. If more people in this world thought this way, it would be a better place!
A huge Thank You to:
Gate agents: Jacqui Royster, Lynn Grossup, Lydia Hinson
Ramp agents: John Sandwell and April Sandwell
Flight Crew: Captain Eric Pawloski and 1st officer Natasha Tiunova
Flight Attendant: Robert Smalls
AirServ: Jose Lopez
Rollin’ to a town near you,
P.S. Another Thank You to AirServ Passenger Assistance Specialist Jontae Parker for helping us get on the plane on Thursday, March 17th when we flew to Baltimore!
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