limbs on a plane

With all the attention paid to TSA/security checkpoints, it’s easy to forget that getting through security represents a statistically small part of your traveling day. Consider the following hypothetical prosthetic wearer’s jaunt from his home 30 minutes away from LaGuardia airport down to DC for the day:

7:00 AM: leave house for airport
7:30 AM: arrive at airport
8:00 AM: arrive at security checkpoint metal detector
8:20 AM: leave security checkpoint
9:00 AM: flight departs for DC
10:00 AM: plane door opens at gate in DC
10:15 AM: get in taxi for ride to White House for lunch with the President
10:35 AM: reach destination

Of the roughly 3.5 hours spent traveling to our nation’s capitol to grab a meal with the leader of the free world, 20 minutes – which, in my extensive experience, is an inordinately long time to go through the pat down and swabbing procedure (i.e., it has never taken me that long at any time in the last 5 years) – was security related. (I’m not counting standing on the security line in this analysis, as that’s the same for ambulatory people with LL/D and able-bodied individuals. I focus instead on the immediate post-metal detector screening, as that procedure is quite different for the two groups of people.) That means that more than 90% of your travel time involves something other than security. And remember, the above example is for a local flight. Fly from New York to California, and the numbers get even more skewed.

I say this not to minimize the importance (and stress) that clearing security can cause, but rather, to emphasize that there are a host of other travel-related issues that influence the quality of your flying experience. For example, has anyone flown in or out of Dulles Airport? I encourage you to do it, but only if you wish to receive credit for completing your first half marathon, which is about the distance from the gate to the terminal exit. Do you have that awesome Tumi over-the-shoulder garment bag – the thick one – that allows you to pack several days of nice clothes while minimizing wrinkling and still fitting in an overhead compartment? I do, but I haven’t used it in 4 years because I resemble the misshapen laboratory assistant of a 1950’s mad-scientist B-movie flick as I lurch through crowded airports bent over against its weight, losing sensation in my neck and shoulder as the sweat pours from my forehead.

With these issues in mind, and with winter sending many people in the U.S. scurrying for warmer climes on those magical winged transportation carriers, I offer you my non-security-related travel tips for individuals with LL/D.

1. location location location

While you’re still sitting comfortably in your home, there are several things you should consider when preparing to fly. And it begins when you order your ticket. Where do you want to sit: window, or aisle? As a left above-knee amputee, my preference is the aisle. It doesn’t particularly matter to me which side of the plane I’m on, but getting trapped in the middle or window seat is an annoyance.

That’s because I tend to take cross-country flights, during which I try and get up 2-3 times because I’m incapable of sitting for much more than an hour without moving around. Having the freedom to get up without inconveniencing the people next to me is nice. Nicer still is not having to stumble through the impossibly narrow space between my row and the row in front of me, a 3-6 foot journey that ranks somewhere between ballroom dancing and tight-rope walking in degree of difficulty.

If I could sleep on planes, I might argue for window seating, especially on cross-country flights. Nodding off in an aisle seat so that your head can slump forward just far enough to wake you up repeatedly in a self-inflicted form of sleep deprivation is an exquisite torture, as you wake up both exhausted and with stabbing neck pain. (The cheap neck supports sold in airports I find useless when worn as designed, though I’ve had limited success with them backwards – i.e., under my chin – as they keep my head slightly more upright than nothing at all.)

The window seat, in contrast, allows you to rest your head against the side of the plane, which saves your neck, but in turbulence, can cause some nice skull-to-cabin-frame shots worthy of a penalty-inducing NFL hit. However, the shape of airplanes usually means that the window seat has some sort of abutment jutting into your foot space where the wall meets the floor. Accordingly, when in a window seat, I always try and get the right side, so that I can comfortably move my sound limb to accommodate for that cabin design characteristic.

The other benefit, incidentally, of an aisle seat is that when the flight is over, I can get into the aisle immediately, which gets me off the plane more quickly. And since strapping myself into an enormous tube with possibly plague-carrying cohorts isn’t how I’d ideally choose to spend my time, fleeing it as quickly as possible is always high on my priority list.

2. to roll or not to roll

While still at home you would also go about arranging for aid from airport personnel if you require assistance getting from one place to another in the terminal. This isn’t something I’ve ever done myself, as I walk everywhere. But I know many people with LL/D who both need wheelchair assistance, and/or want/enjoy the related benefit of being able to shortcut their way through the security line. (The ability to jump the security line via wheelchair leaves me paralyzed with conflict, as my “condition” would undeniably entitle me to ride in the luxury of the airport issue device that functions only marginally better than your average shopping cart.

On the other hand, I’ve spent my entire post-amputation existence in large part denying the fact that I’m “disabled,” so voluntarily jumping in a wheelchair seems like a betrayal of that ethos. My solution is to silently seethe with (self) hatred as the 14 wheelchair-bound travelers invariably cut me off just as I’m nearing the front of the line and totter their way through the metal detector at a pace that makes paint drying an action sport in comparison.)

When deciding if you want/need this kind of assistance, the internet can increasingly provide you valuable information. Detailed terminal maps and photos can give you a sense of the environment you’ll have to traverse. Just this past week, my wife – who boards a plane only after writing letters to me and my kids that we are to open in case JetBlue forgets how to take off or land – received detailed instructions from me over the phone as I guided her through the terminal while sitting in front of my computer.


Of course, this isn’t a foolproof approach. The American Airlines terminal at JFK is a beautiful metal and glass creation that, from the outside, looks like the kind of place you’d like to be in if you have to get on a plane. This is how AA shows its masterpiece on its website (click on the picture below to see the image more clearly, though trust me, it won’t help):

AA being what it is, elects to provide you a nondescript, essentially useless map of its terminal that primarily informs you that it’s located in the same patch of ground as multiple other terminals! On the bright side, you get the opportunity to admire it’s fine interior in detail as you walk across half of Queens between security and your gate. Of course, you can’t get any sense of that from the fantastic information made available to you on AA’s website.

3. the weight of the world on your shoulders

You’ll also need to decide what kind of luggage to use. When I first started traveling a lot for work, I had a gorgeous, look-of-envy-generating Tumi bag. (If you want to simultaneously project success and traveling competence, surround yourself with luggage bearing the distinctive Tumi lettering. And a healthy line of credit.) People who saw me pulling my overpriced bag out of the overhead compartment knew that I was a man of substance, a stylish traveler who had the kinds of things in life that they only dreamed about. On the other hand, people who saw me walking through the airport with it frequently rushed over and tried to pry my mouth open with plastic knives from the nearby Cinnabon to prevent my imminent death from self-asphyxiation secondary to the grand mal they were certain they were witnessing.

I’ve since opted for a cheap (less than $100) rolling carry-on suitcase. It fits perfectly into overhead bins, and allows me to fit everything I need for a 5-day business trip to California inside. And on those interminable walks through airport terminals, its wheels smoothly traverse the vast expanses that threatened to end me as I staggered underneath the Tumi brand.

Similarly, I ditched my attractive and sleek messenger bag because walking with a prosthesis while my computer and other accoutrements smacked against my legs and/or backside became a harrowing exercise in fall avoidance. In addition, due to the fact that we individuals with LL/D often carry prosthetic-related gear with us, the limited space afforded by messenger bags became ever more annoying to me the longer I used them.

So I’ve reverted back to my high-school days and opted for the business-inappropriate but highly functional backpack. I rationalize this decision by reminding myself that (a) it keeps me in touch with the average man on the street, and (b) it looks sillier to stumble around like a monkey on crack than it does to wear a sports coat, slacks, and a backpack. (Doesn’t it? Wait – don’t answer that.)

In a similar vein, what, prosthetically speaking, should go in your luggage? Assuming you have both checked and carry-on bags, the correct answer – and yes, there is a correct answer – is that everything important that relates to your prosthesis stays with you and your carry-on bag. You have a battery-powered prosthesis? The charger and batteries stay with you. You have an extra liner? It stays with you. And for the love of all that’s holy, if you have an extra prosthesis or aren’t wearing your everyday prosthesis when you get on the plane, do not ever, under any circumstance, put the prosthesis in checked luggage. It’s a lot easier to replace your hair dryer, a spare set of clothes, and bag of toiletries than it is your arm or leg.

4. our federal right to nonsensical language

George Carlin, God rest his soul, decried the inanity of airline terminology, asking, “What does it mean to pre-board? Does it mean to get on before you get on?”

Despite the oxymoronic nature of the term, “the preboard” is a Federally-granted right for people with LL/D. The Air Carrier Access Act states that airlines “must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.”*

I find it inexplicably satisfying to be one of the first 5 or 6 people on a plane, comfortably putting my luggage in the empty overhead bin of my choice without a small army of people impatiently trying to push behind me to their seats. This benefit has become more valuable as airlines have increasingly limited flights in an effort to save money, thereby ensuring that the planes that do take off are usually filled to capacity. Boarding late, while desirable because it means less time spent in a giant cannister with people you’d generally prefer to stay as far away from as possible, is a lot less attractive when you’re sitting in row 5 and your luggage is in row 28 or, (gasp) heaven forfend, underneath the plane. So I choose to view this as a legitimate benefit that I obtained as a result of getting crushed between two cars.

The aforementioned Air Carrier Access Act also contains this important piece of information:

[Airlines] must permit passengers with a disability to bring the following kinds of items into the aircraft cabin, provided that they can be stowed in designated priority storage areas or in overhead compartments or under seats, consistent with FAA, PHMSA, TSA, or applicable foreign government requirements concerning security, safety, and hazardous materials with respect to the stowage of carry-on items. . . . [M]obility aids, such as canes (including those used by persons with impaired vision), crutches, and walkers[.]

In implementing [their] carry-on baggage policies, [airlines] must not count assistive devices [ ] toward a limit on carry-on baggage.** (Emphasis added)

With airlines squeezing dollars out of travelers by imposing rapidly-escalating bag fees on them, getting a freebie – your assistive device – on board is a financial windfall. And though prosthetics are not specifically listed in the regulatory language above, that language clearly covers such devices.


Go forth and fly, my brave followers! And please let me know what travel hints/tips you have to help other prosthetic wearers as they jet around the world.

* 14 CFR § 382.93
** 14 CFR § 382.121

For more detailed information about the Air Carriers Access Act, visit the Department of Transportation’s website here. If you have a problem at the airport, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, which can impose financial penalties on noncompliant airlines.

5 thoughts on “limbs on a plane

  1. Excellent post, full of insights I can identify with. I went with the rucksack option for years, until I finally got hand-luggage with wheels. To me, it makes all the difference in the world – it’s quite literally a burden off my shoulders.

    Also, ever since I fell running to gate, and twisted my prosthetic out of alignment, I always carry an allen key with me, which I have found is best to alert the staff to, when going through security, as they invariably pull it out after seeing it on the x-ray.

    Great blog 🙂

  2. Anton

    Good point. I too carry an Allen wrench “just in case.” I do NOT flag it for TSA beforehand. They only pull it out and ask me about it about 1/3rd of the time. When they ask me what it is, I just tell them it’s for my prosthesis, which always seems to satisfy them.

    I don’t know if the ease with which I can get it through security should make me happy or terrified.

    Thanks for reading less is more!


  3. I guess I am sort of a weird guy, but I found this article hilarious. I flew a lot before TSA. Some after 9/11 mostly for family visits. When I get to the metal screener I boldly say have a wooden leg (gets their attention). The last time I flew they wanted to take off my Reeboks, I said I would be they would have to put it back on because I could not pull my pants down to take my leg off to put the shoe back on. I only got swabbed. I wear Reeboks because the have not metal. They don’t seem to get it. I wear short when it is not cold and they need no explanation they usually wave me through. Do you realize how much C4 could be packed in just the tubing????? Well I tend to run on and on so lets just hope your insight will be helpful to us who do not log as many miles a you do.. Good flying!

  4. Dave – I laughed so hard, I had tears streaming down my face! I love the description of people trying to pry open your mouth with plastic knives from Cinnabon – truly a visual gem. Here’s me being vain again, however, I cannot overcome the fact that a backpack invariably pulls my carefuly chosen travel outfit askew, thus amplifying my limping gait. Therefore, I go with the option of an ultraslim, inner laptop bag which only contains the laptop. The bag falls nicely at hip level and does not hit the back of the leg. All powercords and other accroutement are relegated to the check-in luggage. Ahhh…there’s the rub….I always check-in luggage. I have a non-electronic prosthesis which affords me the luxury of not having to carry other components. The slim laptop bag and purse relieve the stress of having to find overhead space and reduces the impact of carrying or rolling a bag through that half-marathon trek. Unfortunately, it means standing around the luggage carousel continuing those scintillating conversations you started on the plane.

  5. As a frequent flier, I enjoyed reading this article. As a below the knee amputee, I always fly wearing shorts (weather permitting) and with a cane. Even though I don’t need the cane to walk, it gives other travelers a visual cue to allow you more space when walking through busy terminals, etc. One time I even got a free upgrade to business class on a trip to Moscow which I’m pretty sure was attributable to the visual cues subtly presented to the airline staff.

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