Following on from our previous blog. Where we were invite to speak at the 4thannual airport leadership PRM conference in Paris. I thought it would be a great to take to the streets of Paris to:

  1. Explore its culture known for elegant beauty, cafes, pastries and historical buildings — such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. 
  2. Understand accessibility for wheelchair users.

The trip started at Bristol Aiport, United Kingdom.

With our flight direct to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. At Bristol Airport the special assistance team are fantastic and accessibility is generally very good (where I also sit on their disability advisory group). The boarding was seamless and smooth with the ableSeat.

Wheelchair problems on arrival

On arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport, it was clear a few challenges lay ahead of us. Special assistance took around 10 minutes to get to the cabin door – which is perfectly acceptable. However, they did not speak much English and immediately boarded to lift us into the aisle chair. Cabin crew had noticed, my electric wheelchair was not at the door and rather a manual one.

After 15 minutes of waiting and cabin crew/special assistance chatting, the airport advised they could not bring our electric wheelchair to the door… (as the wheelchair had to go through a special baggage area which is where the lift was to bring the wheelchair up, as disembarkation took place via an air bridge).

Your right to have your wheelchair brought to the cabin door

For wheelchair users who fly regularly, know it is your right to have your wheelchair brought to the cabin door. Cabin crew advised us exactly that and were happy for us to remain on the aircraft until the wheelchair arrived. By this point, 20 minutes had passed since landing and we were still on the aircraft.

The airport was persistent my wheelchair wasn’t coming, I was getting frustrated and wanted to get of the aircraft. Rightly or wrongly, I did agree to get off the aircraft. I was easily transferred to the aisle chair with the ableSeat, the French Special Assistants had not come across the ableSeat before and were very impressed, they welcomed the ease of transfer to the aisle chair.

Aisle chair transfer from cabin door to baggage claims area in front of the public

Then to my disbelief the special assistant said I did not need to transfer to a manual wheelchair. Proceeding to push us through passport control, into baggage claims (where special baggage as comes up) in the aisle chair whilst not being strapped in! I was waiting for 20 minutes before my wheelchair arrived.

By this point, I had been waiting 40 minutes for the wheelchair to arrive. Imagine if I was still on the aircraft…

The wheelchair was damaged

When the wheelchair arrived it was clear it had been damaged. The joystick was missing and the arm rest was bent! I normally take the wheelchair joystick off, including arm rests for this reason. So a mistake on my part, or maybe not?

Shuttle at Charles de Gaulle Airport

Within the Charles de Gaulle Airport the CDGVAL (airport shuttle train – no fee to pay or tickets required, free to all users) allows you to move around landside linking quickly and easily terminals 1, 2, 3 + RER-TGV railway stations + PR, PX remote car parks in 8 minutes. Trains run every 4 minutes between 04:00 AM and 01:00 AM and is very accessible for Wheelchairs – you can literally drive/wheel on and off with no assistance, brilliant – I hate to say it but I believe this was the best part about the airport…!

Shuttles with level access for easy drive on and off access at Terminal 2 – Paris CDG

Airport to CDG Hotel

I stayed in the Innside Paris CDG Airport Hotel which is near Terminal 2, a few minute Shuttle ride and a 5 minute stroll to a lovely modern, clean and friendly hotel with large rooms and comfy beds. However, when booking the hotel there were no accessible rooms left (and with our meeting being in the hotel over the few days we were there and the nearest accessible hotel being 20km away at the time), we had to upgrade to a much larger room to make it work – this meant no shower, and having to hoist over the toilet.

Exploring Paris as a wheelchair user

There are three transfer options to Paris; Train (60mins), Bus (75-90mins) or Taxi (30-45mins).  One of the cheapest transfer option is taking the regional RER train. This takes around 50 minutes to reach the city and costs around 10€ one way.  Another cheap transfer option is the bus which can be between 8-16€  one way depending on the Bus Company.

Initially we decided to take the bus to Paris thinking it would be the easiest and safest way of travelling. Taking the Airport Shuttle to Terminal 1 or 2 and a 4 minute walk to the bus access points.

We soon found out that traveling to Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport as a wheelchair user can be challenging, so you need to ensure you do plenty of research on accessible Paris transportation.  

At the Bus access point there is a waiting room where you can purchase your bus tickets, you can buy online or on the bus.  We were waiting for the bus and the time of arrival on the display board of arrival times did not seem to lessen. Nearly an hour went by,  we then found out from a friendly French lady there was a problem with the traffic, with a lot of police around, all traffic was being delayed.  

Broken lift/ramps on the bus

Once the bus had arrived advising us that it could take up to 2 hours to reach Paris due to traffic. Though that didn’t put us off, we asked if they could accommodate my wheelchair.  Unfortunately, the Bus Wheelchair lift was broken so there was no access!  Now to plan B as over an hour had passed, so we looked at taking the Train.

Back to the airports free train shuttle and to Terminal 2 where the RER train from Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) to Paris City is located.  Trains are Line B of the Paris RER system and run at least every 15 minutes. They alternate between fast and slow trains.  All trains stop at the key stations in central Paris. The slow trains stop at about 6 or 7 additional stations in the suburbs, think we must have caught the slow train as it took an hour to the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame Train Station.   

There were signs showing Disabled Access points to board the train, with the platform even being raised for levelled entry. However,  I could not board the train due to a large gap between the platform and the train. The train driver got out and said he would radio through for a member of staff to bring a ramp so that I could board the train.  We had to wait for the next train to arrive and a member of staff with a ramp.  

Be sure to ask for assistance at the help desk at the train station

All aboard and on our way, though the dilemma/no reassurance if we could get off the train!  Arriving at Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame Train Station and to our relief we were met with a member of staff with a ramp.  Then a 10 minute train to Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel – no access for a Wheelchair on this line, it seems from this stop onwards most of the services are out of bounds for those on wheels.  

Picture of where we had to get the 2nd bus in order to get to the Eiffel Tower

The only way to the Eiffel Tower from the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame Train Station was to catch two buses.  The first bus a 1 minute walk from the train station which we found easily, it had an automatic ramp for Disabled access and friendly bus driver.  The second bus is a few minutes walk and again with good access. 

Accessibility at and around the Eiffel Tower

A short walk to see the Eiffel Tower, which was an amazing sight and well worth the two and half hour journey. At the Eiffel Tower there was a disabled toilet.  You are able to go around the Eiffel Tower easily and entry is free, you just need to go through a security check of your bags etc.  

Inside the grounds of the Eiffel Tower is accessible and looking up the middle of the tower seeing it’s amazing structure and engineering is astonishing, a wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris, which is named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower, taking two years, two months and five days. The work started in 1887 and the tower was inaugurated in 1889.  

Apparently there is a rental wheelchair near the top of the elevator that is reserved for disabled and elderly visitors. Wheelchair access at the Eiffel Tower is not possible to the top (3rd) landing.  For safety and security reasons they don’t allow wheelchair visitors to the top.

General building accessibility in Paris

There are lots of old buildings in the city centre that are not accessible, and many of the tourist destinations are far apart from one another.  There is some challenge to getting around by wheelchair due to the occasional cobblestone street.

We stopped in a local café where customers were typically sat outside even though it was a cold autumn afternoon, then we realised the café had heaters under the canopies so it was actually toasty and warm while we sat outside and ate our French soup and baguettes. 

Returning back to hotel with challenges again using the train

Homeward bound the same way we came, and again the challenge being the train journey back, we had to wait for the platform staff to be in place from the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame Train Station and also at our arrival station at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) Terminal 2 before we could board the train, this took around 30 minutes. 

All in all you will need to spend a considerable amount of time travelling by wheelchair and planning accessible train, buses or taxis routes.  While there are one or two accessible Metro lines, only one will bring you to tourist destinations, so you will not be able to rely on the subway. 

Departing from Charles de Gaulle Airport

I was astounded to find when we arrived back at Terminal 2 using the shuttle from the hotel, there was no wayfinding to help locate special assistance desk, nor did I see any special assistance call points.

We made our way to easyJet checkin to find there was not a special assistance desk, and so we had to ask and pointed to a general check in desk – although check in was a breeze. We were not told though where to meet special assistance, nor did we know what they looked like.

So we made our way to the gate about 10 minutes for before the gate opened. Made our way to the front next to speedy boarding to the easyJet crew could see us waiting. Still no signs of special assistance and easyJet proceeded to started speeding boarding. After 5 minutes, a chap in a pair of jeans and a shirt with a walky-talky approached us and asked if we wanted special assistance.

Now I don’t know if this was by luck or easyJet phoned through, but I did not have any contact with special assistance until this point. Now for many people with a disability this is just not acceptable at all. For such a major airport, with no clear wayfinding, help points or special assistance desks I find it really hard knowing other disabled folk will face the exact same problem. I recommend when checking in to ask for special assistance to help through security and to the gate in order to get the re-assurance and help you require.

The Verdict – Paris and Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport as a wheelchair user

My verdict – The overall travel to Paris, experiencing Paris & its culture, seeing the Eiffel Tower was exciting & created treasured memories, yes there were challenges, but with a zest for life, an open mind and a let’s do it attitude we created an amazing accessible day out in beautiful Paris.

Paris itself is reasonably accessible with the right planning, and the airport is majorly behind the curve with a tremendous need for review. In it’s current state, Im sad to say, I would not be recommending flying to Paris CDG airport without pre-warning people on what to expect as a wheelchair user. And be prepared to fight with the airport staff to get the assistance and help you require. In the meantime, I will be sure to make this known to right people.

Learn more about the ableSeat and how it can help you as a wheelchair user