Flying with a Disability: Air Travel 101 for Wheelchair Users

Getting the urge to head somewhere warm for spring break? You don’t have to limit yourself to domestic travel in a wheelchair van. We asked Darren Brehm, co-founder of AbilityTrip, a website devoted to accessible travel information, for some tips for flying with a disability to your next vacation destination.

Darren and his wife, Faith, en route to Punta Cana demonstrating flying with a disability.
Darren and his wife, Faith, en route to Punta Cana.

Flying is a fantastic mode of travel. It can’t be beat in terms of safety, performance, or convenience. However, for the traveler with a disability, flying can be a daunting proposition…so daunting that many wheelchair-users assume they can’t travel by airplane and stick to road trips in a wheelchair van instead.

As a wheelchair user and an avid traveler, I have experienced more than my fair share of surprises and challenges when flying with a disability. However, careful planning and proactive management can help minimize unplanned hiccups. If I’m traveling by plane, I always make sure to take these precautions:

Pre-Flight Preparations

  • When booking a flight, the first thing to think about is the duration. This is especially important if you have trouble shifting your weight in your seat or getting up to use the bathroom. Some airplanes do have very small chairs on board to get a person to the airplane lavatory, but I personally never felt comfortable trying it. I always try to avoid flights longer than eight hours for these reasons.
  • The second thing to investigate is direct versus indirect options. Sometimes a journey with a connection or two will cost less, but these often have short windows between landing and takeoff. It always takes extra time to get off an airplane when using the help of assistance. To avoid missing a connection and unnecessary stress, I always try to book direct flights whenever possible, even if it costs more.
  • The third thing to think about is the type of airplane, particularly if you have large pieces of equipment like a scooter or motorized wheelchair. This is especially important if your equipment does not break down or fold up. All equipment is stored in the cargo hold of the airplane and must be able to fit through the cargo door. On a couple of my early adventures, I had my motorized wheelchair brought to me partially dismantled, and on another, I wasn’t able to take a flight because the commuter airplane was too small for my wheelchair. Therefore, I always try to fly on larger airplanes like Airbus 319s or 320s or Boeing 737s or higher.
  • Finally, think about the seat location on the airplane. If possible when booking, try to select an aisle seat, and place your companion next to you in the middle. This adjustment can be made at the airport, but it’s one less thing to think about if you can do it in advance.

 

Airport Arrival

I recommend arriving at the airport between 1.5-2 hours before the scheduled departure for domestic flights, and 3 hours for international. Typically, there is no “front of the line” shortcut for individuals with disabilities. Sometimes they will tag medical equipment at check-in, other times they prefer to do it at the gate. Whenever they tag medical equipment, if it is motorized, they will ask what kind of battery it has. If it is dry or gel, no problem. If it is wet, they will want to remove the battery and store it in a sealed container for the flight. They will also want to know if the equipment will be “gate checked”, meaning using it until moments before the flight.

flying with a disability with American Airlines Security

Once you’re checked in, it’s on to security. Individuals who cannot stand and walk through the scanner will need to be searched. Jackets must be removed and sent through the x-ray machine; shoes can stay on if a search is going to take place. I don’t know what the official rules are for searches, but here is what typically takes place during my search:

After removing my jacket and backpack from my wheelchair, I drive up to the metal detector and park in front. The TSA agent in charge of the scanner will then yell, “male assist.” After 1-5 min., a male TSA agent will come for me. He will navigate me through the scanner and tell me where to park. Typically, he will ask about my items on the x-ray machine. Because I travel with a companion, I tell him not to worry about my stuff because my companion is taking care of it. After being offered a private screening and instructed about the process, he will pat down my chest and arms, and then my back. Because I cannot lean forward, he must undo my chest strap and lean me forward on his forearm to check my back. After that, my legs and groin are thoroughly checked. After my body is cleared, the TSA agent will use a small swab to take samples from various parts of my body as well as the wheelchair for testing. The testing takes about 2 min.

It may sound like an extensive routine (these days it’s extensive whether you’re in a wheelchair or not), but it’s worth it. I’ll have a follow-up blog tomorrow about actually boarding the plane.

Darren Brehm, Managing Partner of AbilityTrip, has 8 years of entrepreneurial and corporate leadership experience; he is currently an Engagement Manager with McKinsey & Company. He holds a B.S. in Finance from SDSU and a MBA with distinction from Harvard. Both he and his wife, AbilityTrip co-founder Faith Brehm, were seriously injured in a vehicle rollover accident which rendered Darren with a high-level spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia.