Eric Howk flies to rock shows almost every week despite accessibility challenges
Rock guitarist Eric Howk has had wheelchairs damaged during flights and once was abandoned by the attendant in a hot jetway while strapped into the aisle chair, his arms pinned to his chest.
But he still flies. And he urges more chair users to fight their fears and travel anyway.
“Some days, it’s totally easy. It just totally depends on who you’re dealing with,” said Howk, a manual-chair user who crisscrosses the country weekly for concerts with the popular group “Portugal. The Man.”
“It seems by and large like any time that something has gone wrong in my travel career, the airlines have done things to make it right and help me out as best as they can,” he said. “I don’t think everybody is trying to cause a scene or lose your chair or say something insulting. They want to do their job and you want to get to where you’re going.”
Howk, 38, called flying with a chair one of this era’s grand cultural experiments.
“How can we get everybody in the air? How can we make air travel open for everyone?” he said. “It’s a long way to go. But I think it’s important to be open to it and not let anxiety prevent me from traveling at all.”
Howk wasn’t always a flier.
In 2007, at the age of 25, Howk was partially paralyzed when a retaining wall in a friend’s backyard collapsed. He fell and slammed into concrete, breaking several vertebrae. His first time on a plane was during his initial rehab, an experience that he calls “a worst-case scenario.”
“When I first started traveling again and touring with bands, I just said, ‘f— it. I’m just gonna drive myself,’” he said, adding he was lucky to still have arm strength and hand dexterity. “For a really long time, my general rule of thumb was that if I have to travel 1,000 miles or less, I’m driving. I’m not getting in an airplane.
“Now I’m a little different,” he said. “I’ve come around to it.”
He said airlines still have work to do to make flying truly accessible for all travelers.
For one, Howk said airlines should start demanding better service from their contractors, who hire and manage most of the workforce at airports, such as wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers.
“The airlines are not looking for the best,” he said. “They’re looking for the cheapest.”
As an example. Howk said the people helping him transfer from his chair to the aisle chair to his seat could ask more questions and trust him when he explains what he can do.
“There’s times I go to buckle myself into the aisle chair and they slap my hands away and say, ‘Please, sir. Don’t. We have to do this,’” he recalled. “It’s just recognizing that different people need different things. It starts with education and asking the consumer more direct questions. How can we help you? How can we best assist you?”
Kristen Parisi had never been apart from her chair until she flew to her best friend’s bridal shower