Playing for a rugby team, Max Woodbury learned to live with flying’s regular challenges and occasional humiliations

Playing for a rugby team, Max Woodbury learned to live with flying’s regular challenges and occasional humiliations

On planes with more than 60 seats, federal rules require airlines to provide a narrow wheelchair for passengers who need to use the bathroom in flight.

Max Woodbury, who flies numerous times a year as part of a wheelchair rugby team, says he has never used one. Nor have most of his teammates.

“We’ve basically had strong people that would fireman carry or lift someone to the restroom when an emergency happened,” he said. “That’s happened several times. We always joke with everybody when they have to do that.”

Several travelers said they’ve had long waits for a crew member to bring the aisle chair or have been told one is not on board. Some said flight attendants have said they do not know how to use the aisle chair and asked if they can hold it until landing.

Max Woodbury, of Oregon, visited the Galapagos Islands on a family vacation last winter. Max Woodbury | Courtesy Photo

Woodbury, a 47-year-old from Oregon, says he feels lucky to have a suprapubic catheter, which allows him to relieve himself into a bag that can be dumped by a traveling companion or once he’s off the plane. 

He describes himself as “a C6 quadrapalegic with strong shoulders” who is “pretty active,” playing rugby and racing with a handcycle in marathons. His fitness makes traveling easier, he said. Nonetheless, flying requires more preparation and discomfort than it did before he was paralyzed by a worksite injury. 

When his wheelchair has been damaged, Woodbury said he’s been lucky to have been traveling with an athletic chair that he could use as a spare. Or, he has used an old chair he keeps at home while waiting for repairs. 

Woodbury doesn’t see his air travel mishaps as “something detrimental” given how often he flies. He acknowledges that many people with disabilities feel differently and says he feels lucky that he does not have to travel with a power chair, which he fears would be more difficult and damaged more often

Usually, Woodbury said, strangers are willing to do what they can to help him have a good trip. He recounted several such kindnesses when his family traveled to the Galapagos Islands last winter. Tour guides, pilots and others made sure he could board tiny planes, float on a kayak, and reach a viewing spot on a hardened lava flow so he could see nesting blue-footed boobies. 

But on that same trip, one tour guide was directed by his manager not to assist him into his seat on a Jeep. Woodbury’s wife unbuckled, climbed out and managed to do it by herself. 

“I feel like that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “Someone’s choice to be helpful or not.”


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