Preparing for a Flight: Air Travel with a Wheelchair

Most forms of transportation, like car, bus, or train, allow wheelchair users to stay in their wheelchair during travel. One unfortunate exception is air travel. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being passed in 1990, airlines lose or damage an average of 29 wheelchairs a day. Because of this, people with disabilities must thoughtfully plan for air travel.

This guide aims to provide practical information to help you prepare for your flight. From understanding your rights as a person with a disability to managing mishandled mobility aids upon arrival, we’ll cover everything you need to know about navigating air travel as a wheelchair user or person with a disability. 

Know Your Rights

Being informed about your rights as a traveler with a disability is crucial. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a key law that protects disabled passengers flying on U.S. airlines.

The Air Carrier Access Act guarantees certain rights for passengers with disabilities, including:

  • Assistance with boarding, deplaning, and making connections.
  • Escort and bag carrying assistance through the airport
  • Assistance with handling and storing mobility devices on the airplane
  • Assistance with moving to and from seats as needed
  • Wheelchair users can stay on the plane until their wheelchair is brought to the plane door upon arrival at their destination

In addition to these protections, some lesser-known rights for disabled travelers include:  

  • Wheelchair Storage Closet: Most commercial airplanes have a designated wheelchair storage closet in the cabin. These closets typically accommodate only folding wheelchairs or smaller mobility aids such as power assistance devices or detachable parts of wheelchairs. Custom manual or power wheelchairs usually need to be stowed in the aircraft's cargo hold due to space constraints.
  • Securing a Wheelchair to an Airplane Seat: Sometimes passengers can secure a manual wheelchair to an empty airplane seat. This possibility depends on the dimensions of the wheelchair.
  • Complaint Resolution Officer: Each airline has a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) to handle issues related to broken mobility aids. If your mobility aid is damaged upon arrival, it is important to speak to a CRO before leaving the airport.

Communication and Planning for Your Flight

Effective communication and planning are key when preparing for a flight as a wheelchair user. Here are some essential tips:

Contacting the Airline in Advance

Contact your airline in advance to ensure they are prepared to assist you with accommodations such as an escort to your gate, assistance through security, or special arrangements when boarding.

Arrive Early to the Airport 

Prepare for potential delays beyond your flight schedule. Mobility challenges may require extra time or breaks to reach your gate. Security checkpoints can also take more time if you have a disability. While general guidelines suggest arriving at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights, passengers with disabilities may want to factor in additional time.

Airport Procedures

Navigating airports as a wheelchair user can be stressful, but knowing what to expect can help.

What to Do When You Arrive at the Airport

Upon arrival at the airport, check in with your airline. If carrying bags with a mobility aid is difficult, consider checking them. Notify airline staff if you need assistance getting your bags to your gate. If you’re traveling in a personal wheelchair, ensure a destination tag is placed on it.

Airport Security for People with Disabilities

As you approach security, the line will divide, directing you and your companions to a disability access line.

  • Internal Medical Devices: If you use internal medical devices or cannot undergo a traditional x-ray screening, inform TSA agents. Alternative screening methods, such as a metal detector scan or a pat-down are available.
  • External Mobility Aids and Medical Devices: External mobility aids and medical equipment like wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, braces, liquid medications, feeding tube formula, and IV bags may undergo extra screening. TSA officers may scan and swab these items. If you can't briefly part with them, let a TSA officer know, and they should accommodate your needs.
  • TSA Pre-Check: For those who find removing shoes, or jackets to be challenging, consider TSA Pre-Check. With TSA Pre-Check, you can keep these items on and often remain with your mobility aid. The process typically involves walking through a metal detector or receiving a pat-down, simplifying the security experience.

Boarding a Plane as a Wheelchair User

Once you get through security, find your gate. At the gate, speak with a gate agent about seat-strapping your wheelchair, wheelchair storage options, and requesting an aisle chair. You can also discuss cargo hold arrangements with staff handling your wheelchair if needed.

As a passenger with a disability, you and at least one member of your party can pre-board, allowing extra time for seating and storage of mobility aids. Airline staff will ask if you need an aisle chair or prefer to walk to your seat. Most airlines allow you to keep your wheelchair until you reach the plane door, at which point your wheelchair is stowed and returned to you upon arrival.

Handling Unexpected Situations

Air travel is one of the few transportation modes where you must temporarily part with your mobility aid. Being prepared for unexpected situations is crucial when traveling by plane as a wheelchair user.

What to Do If Your Wheelchair Gets Damaged or Lost

If an airline damages or loses your wheelchair, follow these guidelines:

  1. Make a Report: Notify airline staff of damage or loss of your mobility aid. They should direct you do a complaint resolution officer.
  2. File a Claim: Fill out a claim with the airline representative, providing details of the incident.
  3. Request a Replacement: If necessary, ask the airline for temporary mobility aid before leaving the airport. While these aids aren't custom-made, a local DME provider might have options that closely resemble a custom wheelchair for temporary use.

Throughout your travels, remember airlines are legally required to assist passengers with disabilities. Whether you need help before, during, or after your flight, reach out to airline and airport staff for assistance.

Accessible Travel Tips from Cory Lee

Friend of BraunAbility and travel expert Cory Lee has written many blogs for BraunAbility. Whether you’re flying, driving, or finding your next accessible travel destination, check out Cory’s articles below to learn more about his experience traveling as a wheelchair user, and where your next accessible trip may take you.

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