Top Tips for Flying in a Wheelchair from Cory Lee

Who doesn’t love the thoughts of jet setting away to that dream vacation destination? Relaxing and hearing the ocean breeze as it whisks through the draping palms is soothing to the soul, but getting to that tropical paradise can sometimes be quite the challenge and to be honest, even a bit nerve wracking as a wheelchair user. 

I have been flying with a powered wheelchair for the last 20 years and taken hundreds of flights. I know firsthand that boarding a plane is what often stops many people that use wheelchairs from traveling outside of their communities. Thoughts of wheelchair damages during a flight are enough to worry anyone and often prevents people from making lifelong memories with their family and friends in faraway destinations. 

My intent with this article is to give you tips on how to best prepare for a flight and highlight what to expect when flying with a wheelchair. After today, I hope that you will feel less stressed and more confident in planning, preparing, and boarding a flight, so that you can soon be on your way to that dream destination that you have long desired to visit. 

Booking and Preparing for a Flight as A Wheelchair User

One of the very first steps to booking your flight as a wheelchair user is calling the airline directly. Speaking to a representative will help answer any questions that you may have and prepare the airline in knowing that a passenger will be flying with a wheelchair. Be prepared to explain the dimensions of your wheelchair, including height, width, length, and the weight of the wheelchair. Also, if you are flying with a power wheelchair, it is very important to know the type of battery that your chair uses. Is it a wet, dry, lithium, or gel cell battery? If you are unsure, ask your wheelchair supplier prior to flying, as it is important to the airline. 

Once your flight is booked, it is now time to prepare your chair for the flight. I encourage you to purchase an Apple AirTag and place it somewhere inside your chair. This allows you to always track the whereabouts of your wheelchair with your phone. Doing this has calmed my nerves more than once in knowing that my wheelchair is on board the plane with me. 

I also have a sign printed that I hang on my wheelchair that has information on it of the weight of my chair, my name, and my phone number, and also the dos and don’ts of how to properly handle my wheelchair. I have photos on there showing where the switch is that puts my chair on manual or push mode and how to lock it in place. I also have printed on there to “NEVER LAY CHAIR ON ITS SIDE”, and to “PLEASE LEAVE THE CHAIR UPRIGHT”. The more information you can give the ground crew that will be handling your chair, the better your chair will be, so be direct and polite. 

In your carry-on bag, also be sure to pack some Velcro, zip ties, and duct tape. This will help you to have handy any “quick fix” items if repairs are needed when your chair is returned to you, so that you can get yourself out of the airport. I also find it very helpful to prepare a list of wheelchair repair shops within the destination prior to flying, just in case further repairs may be needed after my flight.

As a person using a wheelchair, you will be the first one to board the plane and the last one to deplane, so being on time (2 hours early for domestic flights and 3 hours early for international flights) is very important! Being better prepared gives you a sense of relief before you have even arrived to the airport. 

In-Flight Wheelchair Accomodations

As flight day is approaching, be aware that it may be difficult for you to use the restroom during flight. Most flights have a very small restroom and if a caregiver is needed for transfers, the space may prevent a problem. I always drink lots of water two days before my flight. This get my body hydrated more, so that I can then start cutting back on my food and drink intake. Although this is not the healthiest way to fly, I find this the easiest way for me to get to my destination. I do pack a urinal jug and a blanket to cover myself in case an emergency arises during my flight, and I cannot wait until the plane has landed. Some wheelchair users choose to wear adult briefs and others may use a catheter. Whatever works for you is what I suggest, but just know that you can request a small wheelchair (identified as an “aisle chair”), to be left onboard your flight. This will get you down the aisle and to the toilet if needed. Someone will have to push you, as the tires on this are not big enough to roll yourself even if you are able to do so. 

When you arrive at the gate (where you’ll board your flight), request to speak to a ground crew member that will be handling your chair. This will give you the opportunity to explain how to push your chair underneath the plane and how to lock it into place. 

Once your ticket has been scanned and you wheel yourself down to the the plane door, the airport staff will assist you with transferring from your wheelchair into the aisle chair, so that you can safely board the plane. Since I cannot self-transfer at all, I choose to have underneath me a transfer sling with handles that the staff can easily lift and maneuver me from my chair to the aisle chair with. I use the AbleSling Lite, but there are also other great slings such as the Perfect Lift if you are unable to assist with transfers. 

As the staff is transferring me, my companion is removing all removable parts from my wheelchair and placing them in a carry-on bag. These parts include my knee pads and my headrest. Since my joystick cannot easily be removed, we always wrap it with bubble wrap and then place a plastic bag over it and secure it with masking tape. We have tried other tapes, but the masking tape works best, as it can be ripped and removed easily once the chair is returned to me after the flight. 

We also grab my wheelchair cushion and place it in my seat on the plane. This helps me to be more comfortable during the flight and since my cushion has air pockets in it, it helps to prevent pressure sores during long flights. 

Be aware that most airlines no longer use straws, so if this is needed during the flight for you to enjoy your beverage, pack your own in your carry-on bag. It’s important to think about what makes your everyday life easier and more accessible, and then think of ways than you can implement that onboard the plane.

Inspecting Your Wheelchair After Landing

After your flight has landed and everyone else has deplaned, you will then be transferred to the aisle chair with the assistance of the airport staff. If your flight begins or ends in the United States, you can request to remain in the plane seat until your wheelchair has been brought as closely to the plane door as possible, as you may be more comfortable in the plane seat than in the tiny aisle chair without your own cushion. 

Once you have been reunited with your wheelchair, inspect it immediately to see if any damages have occurred during flight. If you see that something has been broken or damaged in any way, ask for a CRO (Complaint Resolution Official) to file a formal complaint. Make sure you do this prior to leaving the airport so that they can document the damages. Once you are home, you can and should also file a report with the DOT (Department of Transportation) on their website

Hopefully, the damages, if any, are minimal and you are able to roll out of the airport and continue on your way to enjoy your epic and long-awaited destination. I have often used my zip ties and duct tape to quickly repair loose or broken parts until the airline was able to get a local repair company out to complete further repairs. 

Although flying as a wheelchair user can be stressful, remembering to be patient with both airline and airport staff is important. I am a firm believer that you can get a lot more accomplished by being polite than you can by being bitter and angry, so I always try my best to remember this when dealing with the hustle and bustle of a travel day. No one wants to fly all day only to find that their wheelchair has been damaged during flight, but if you do, focus on finding a solution to the incurred damages and make sure that all claims are properly filed. Once all of this is done, focus on enjoying the rest of your time living your best life and making those lifelong travel memories. 

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