Making the Flight Easier for Older Adults

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Over the weekend I went to the moving celebration for my 87 year old great-aunt.  Trust me, it really was more fun than it sounds.  She is moving later this week from the Houston area to the Portland area to live with some family members there.  She has never been to the area she is moving to, and is leaving a very long life in this part of the country behind.  It’s a big move.  All of the relatives here gathered to visit with her and have lunch together before her next big adventure.  She is excited, but appropriately sad at all that the move will mean.

While her mind seems to be sharp as a tack, her physical limitations seem to be creeping up…as I’m sure they do for most who are fortunate enough to reach their 87th birthday.  For example, she has trouble walking the distance to the mailbox, so when the conversation shifted to her actual flight from Houston to Portland, I listened intently.  I have traveled extensively with a little one, but have not yet traveled with someone in the older age brackets.  I found the conversation and the trouble-shooting to be a real learning lesson for me, so I thought I would share it in case you have the opportunity to travel with someone with some mobility issues in your family.

Have a traveling companion:

My first question I asked when I heard about her upcoming adventure was, someone is going with her right?  Thankfully, they were way ahead of me in the planning stages, and one of her sons will be making the trip with her.  I was 100% ready to raise my hand and volunteer to go with her if that hadn’t already been arranged, as air travel and airports can be confusing to those who haven’t done it in a while…especially at 87 years old.  At the very, very least if no one can make the trip, make sure to get a gate pass to go through security and help the traveler until they are on-board the aircraft.  Also make sure someone is waiting on the other end of the journey at the gate.

Direct flights whenever possible:

Just like with young travelers, older travelers benefit greatly from keeping the itinerary as simple as possible.  Getting through the airport and on the plane is hard enough, so whenever you can eliminate stops or connections, do it.  In my great aunt’s case, she is able to take a United flight directly from Houston to Portland, so thankfully that is the option they selected.  Saving a few bucks by connecting somewhere would not likely be a wise choice in the end.

Allow plenty of extra time:

The last thing you want when traveling with an older adult with mobility issues is to be in a hurry.  Get there even earlier than you normally would as you don’t know how long it will take to get through security, wait for the cart, etc.

Eliminate as much walking as possible:

Sitting on the plane is not really an issue for my aunt, but getting to the plane can be a huge challenge for someone with mobility issues.  The key here is to eliminate as much walking as possible.  During our informal travel planning discussion yesterday, we came up with the plan of my mom and I dropping my great aunt and her son off at the terminal.  They will then not have to deal with navigating the parking lot and walking what could be a fair distance from their parked car with bags (she is moving after all) without much assistance.  They will then get a wheelchair to take them to the check-in and security area.

Her reservation has been tagged with United as needing an “e-cart” and wheelchair.  This just requires a phone call into the airline.  This means that she will be driven through the terminal in one of those golf cart type vehicles, and then she will have a wheelchair to help get her from the gate area, down the ramp, and to the airplane.  She can then just have to walk from the end of the jet bridge to her seat.  It is possible to get assistance with that process as well, but she can manage that amount of walking.  Even though her reservation has been tagged with needing that assistance, they will need to also remind the agent at check-in so that the assistance can be provided.

Select a seat at the front of the plane:

Getting on and off the plane is much easier if you don’t have to make your way all the way to the back of the aircraft, so get seats as close to the front as possible.  When I asked where their seats were, I was told that unfortunately they were at the back of the plane.  As soon as they said that I was on my phone looking to see what other seats might be available on the 757 that is taking them to Oregon.  I saw that there were some Economy Plus seats toward the front that would be a better option.  Yes, they may cost more money, but if this is a one-way trip for an 87 year old to start a new journey in a new part of the country, I would happily pay the extra money to make it happen.  However, I then got a better idea.

Call in favors:

I realized that since their flight is this week, that there was “R” space available (confirmable first class upgrade space on United), and since I have friends with expiring United regional upgrades that will go “poof” if they aren’t used by January 31st, that there was the perfect storm to call in a favor to put them literally at the front of the plane in first class.  I was able to work it out to use my friend’s confirmable regional upgrades, and within about 20 minutes of realizing I had a chance to make their flight easier, it was done.

I realize not everyone has a friend with expiring upgrades, but you can take a look at the Coupon Connection forum on Flyertalk and sometimes strike a deal with a new “friend”.  Though do realize that you are technically not allowed to sell things like upgrades.  You can also sometimes use miles or miles/money to upgrade a ticket.  This is sometimes not a very good deal, but when the trip is one such as this, the value on paper may be very different than the value in reality.

Make a hard trip a bit easier:

My great aunt (and her traveling companion) seemed to be very happy with this new development and their improved seats.  She said she had flown in first class once before in her 87 years and had a very nice experience.  She was excited about getting to do it again.  She now will be toward the front of the plane, can check up two 70 pound bags for free, use the priority check-in and security lines, and get a bit more attention, food, and drinks on the flight.  The idea was born out of a desire to simply not have her walk as far to get on and off the plane, but the result will hopefully make the transition to her new journey a more pleasant one.

Those were the issues that we were able to trouble-shoot for ahead of time, but I’d love to hear from those who have more experience flying with members of the “Greatest Generation” than I do.  I also hope to report back a little about how their journey went after it happens!

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  1. Great post. I would just advice your aunt to manager her expectations regarding flying United domestic first class. If she flew first class before she probably flew the real first class and could be frustrated to what she will get on this trip 🙂

    My own successful experience has been convincing my mother (not even close to 87 years old) to ask for wheelchair whenever she flies. She is perfectly fine but has some knee problems which gives her lots of pain if she walks long distances. First time she sat on a wheelchair in an airport she cried since she felt like a disabled person. However, after the experience in not having knee pain, zipping through security line and immigration, being the first to board the plane and sitting in the bulk head when flying domestic she is the first to request the service, I would recommend it to anyone that needs some help. She now gets to her destination in good shape and does nit have to spend days in the hotel room because of her knees.

  2. Great post. My dad is 87 and stopped flying a couple of years ago – too many unknown variables like standing too long in lines or sitting too long in a seat – they can’t win! I hope your aunt has a wonderful trip and enjoys her new life.

  3. I have travelled extensively with two 85+ parents. They recently passed away. But one thing besides the seat up front is to make sure the FA’s know to let them use the first class rest room. They simply can not navigate the long walk back and stand up waiting their turn. This simple thing really made a difference for us.

  4. And, when connecting flights are required, allow lots of time for them to comfortably make the connection. (The Web booking engine may only offer a short (30-60 minute) connection in a hub, but later connecting flights are often available. You may be able to book the later connection for the same price using the Web “multiple cities” option, or by booking what is available on the Web, then calling Res to book a later connecting flight. Note that flight changes during the first 24 hours are usually free.)

  5. Last summer I was able to help an older lady who was traveling alone from our hotel to the same smaller regional destination. I got to converse with a lady with no offspring who had been an educator her whole life. AWESOME! She was far from 87, but mobility issues start much earlier than that for healthy/average people. I don’t know what kind of set up she had, but the airlines took care of her after a certain point although I was happy to help her as long as necessary. On another note, I am soon flying to visit my 82 year old uncle who will be flying to Venezuela next week and Brazil in the fall. He is lucky to be a healthy lifelong adventurer, but since he’s old I need to visit.

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