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Why I always board a flight early

Blue sky with white clouds, viewed from a plane.
Photo by Billy Huynh

If I had to pick my least favorite location, it would have to be an airport.

Throngs of strangers, long lines, less than nutritious food options, endless rules and restrictions, authoritative staff rooting through my bag and swiping their hands toward my crotch – this is the stuff of nightmares. Especially for someone like me, who tends to panic in the face of any one of these factors.

And panic I did. For years, I would find myself in a full blown panic attack every time I flew. It would usually begin in the security line, when the tone of a TSA agent would rub me the wrong way and send me spiraling into a deep rage. It would start to escalate as the fear of not having enough time to buy a water bottle would give me tunnel vision.

And then it would crescendo as boarding began and the entire fate of my life and future happiness rested on whether or not there would be any space for my carryon bag in the overhead compartment. Cue: hyperventilation and rage tears.

I would hover by the announcing flight attendant, elbows out, sure to be the first person in my boarding group to reach the jet bridge. I would count the passengers boarding before me, preemptively determining that there would be no room left for my bag and seething at the staff, the airline, the airplane, THE WORLD for the inevitable and forcible confiscation of my bag.

And on the majority of occasions when I was able to roll my bag right on the plane, the previous 20 minutes of incessant worrying had already taken it’s toll, tears filling my eyes and rolling down my cheeks.

Everything changed when I found myself in the airport as a person with a visible and undeniable disability.

I had plantar fasciitis and was wearing an air cast on my left foot. I was in my usual amped up state waiting for my flight to board when, all of the sudden, I heard the magic words: Any passengers who need extra time on the jet bridge may board now.

Me! That’s me! I grabbed my bag and limped over to the lady. When I handed her my boarding pass, she scanned it, and I walked through. I was the first passenger to board the main cabin. Miracle of miracles!

The next time I flew, the cast was off. Dammit. BUT I had a night splint in my bag that I used when I slept. Sneaky me devised a plan – I’ll put on the night splint when I get to the gate so I can board early again!

This night splint is made for sleeping, not for walking. But I was determined to avoid a panic attack and board in my special group, so I sucked it up and hobbled over to the desk in my night splint.

Again…it worked! I was first to board the plane, no questions asked. My eyes were filled with tears when I got to my seat – this time, tears of joy.

I used this “trick” a number of times over the subsequent months, with continued success. It was a pain in the butt to put on my act, but it was worth it.

On a certain journey, I arrived to the gate just before boarding was about to begin. There wasn’t enough time for the night splint song and dance.

I had a choice to make – board early without a visible disability, or not?

I took my chances and marched up to the gate at the sound of the early boarding group. (Ok, maybe I milked my slight limp.) I was braced for the worst and ready to endure questioning. Except, the questions didn’t come. She scanned my boarding pass and I walked toward the plane, no air cast or night splint required.

Looking back, I can laugh about my insecurity over using this accommodation. It didn’t occur to me that my anxiety, and invisible illness, could be a completely valid reason for needing to board a flight early. I was so fearful of “breaking the rules” or “being caught” that I failed to recognize that this service exists for me. I need extra time on the jet bridge.

Other people may be able to board with their boarding group without losing their shit, but I cannot, and that’s ok. There’s a service for that.

What strategies do you use to manage airport craziness? How have you learned to ask for what you need while traveling?

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