2 Tips for Flying With Ankylosing Spondylitis
Last updated: June 2023
Flying is always a nightmare with ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Even when I've flown in best-case scenarios—like in an upgraded premium seat—the pain remains, and the days after a flight leave me feeling stiff, painful, and exhausted. That said, I am a lover of travel and I prioritize it in my life. It's what makes me happiest.
I also have to travel quite a bit because my fiancé's family lives in two different countries. Basically, I've had to come up with some ways to make the experience less of a nightmare. Here they are:
Buy a hanging footrest for your airplane seat
When you're sitting in economy seating on a flight (like the majority of travelers), it's a living hell to sit in one chair for several hours—especially with AS. It makes my hips tight. It makes my back burn. It kills my neck. One of the things that I always want to do is lift my legs just a few inches or feet to give my sacrum a break.
Fortunately, there's something that sort of, kind of, actually works—but you do need a seat in front of you (with a tray for example) on which to hang it. The hanging footrest basically swings from the tray table in front of you, giving you a small ledge to put your feet on. There are adjustable straps! Most of them say that they work best for shorter people, but I'm 5'8" and a bit, and it worked fine.
There are also small footrest tables that aren't on swings, but they're heavier and I haven't used one. I won't say that it alleviates the suffering, but it takes the edge off every now and again when you need to put your feet up to take some pressure off.
Call the airline ahead of time and declare a disability
Declaring myself disabled is something I felt uncomfortable doing for years, despite knowing I needed some help during travel. For one, I need to get up a lot during flights because AS makes me stiff and painful. I call the airline ahead of my flight and request an aisle seat. I say, "I am disabled." The airline doesn't know what AS is, and they don't care that you have a "bad back." They need to hear the words "disabled" or "handicapped" in order to fulfill your request. In the past five flights, I've requested aisle seats and I've been given them free of charge.
Disabled passengers are allowed to board priority as well, even if they don't mention "disability" when boarding. You can declare it and let them know you don't want to stand.
A note on assistive devices: While I don't need a wheelchair and haven't requested one, calling ahead of time (or ordering one when booking) allows you to request one as well.
Obviously, every single airline experience is different and there will be employees who aren't helpful and airports that are not situated to handle or support disability of any sort. But this US government Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights helps you understand what your rights are. I recommend checking with your country and airline of origin.
Has changing your diet helped manage your pain and flares?