Flying With A Wheelchair: A Few Steps to Smooth the Way

Flying with a wheelchair is a lot like playing the tables at Vegas. You throw the dice and hope for the best. Sometimes, it really does feel like a craps shoot.

Although U.S. airlines are generally required to accommodate you, it would not be in your best interest to just show up at the airport and put that to the test. Flying and airports are strenuous at best, throw in an unexpected accommodation request and you’re just asking for trouble.

There are recourses available to you when things go wrong, but most people just want to get on the plane and on with their journey…they don’t want to be on-the-spot lawyers and fight for their rights. They just want to go. With a little forward planning, wheelchair and disabled travelers can lower the odds of an airport fiasco.

Making the reservation

Start off before you make the reservation. Do a Google search on airlines that are accommodating to disable fliers. Also search on airlines that are not…in fact, that’s the search that will reveal more. Other sites are good to check such as Chris Elliott’s troubleshooting blog,; Candy Harrington’s Barrier Free Travels and Emerging Horizons; or even my corner of the travel blogosphere, The World on Wheels. These sites have good, hard information on just who will accommodate you…and who will give you a hard time.

Go ahead and make your reservation with your preferred method…travel agent, by phone, or online. It doesn’t really matter. Make sure you know how much extra you’ll pay by using an agent or the phone…many airlines charge a premium for that. Also, know what the penalty is for cancelling your flight. Be sure you can live with that penalty if needed. Otherwise, book a refundable (but more expensive) fare.

Once you make the reservation, call the airline’s customer service center a couple of weeks before your flight. Airlines publish these numbers on their web site (search for “Contact Us” or “special needs”). Inform them that you’re disabled and will need help. Examples are that you can walk but not climb stairs or you cannot walk at all and will need someone to get you to your seat. A good airline representative will walk you through the process and even bring up things you didn’t think about, such as what kind of equipment you’re bringing, how much you need it at the airport, where it will be stored on the plane or at what point it will be checked in.

At the airport

You know how airlines like you to arrive an hour before domestic flights and two hours before international journeys? Add another hour if you’re disabled. The last thing you want is to be vying for attention when a couple of hundred other travelers are hording around you looking for that same attention. Arrive early, and make sure the counter agents know who you are and what you need.

Once past the arrivals counter, look for the handicapped line at security. Some airports have special lines for disabled passengers, some do not. It certainly doesn’t hurt to check.

Heard about all the controversy over the new enhanced screening procedures? Wheelchair passengers already have been subject to more thorough searches for years. Plan on that, too.

Once past security, find your gate and then the nearest accessible restroom to it, preferably a “family restroom” where you can have more room and have an aide go with you easily. Make sure you visit it one more time about 45 minutes before departure.

Go to the podium at your gate where the airline staff is and inform them that you’ll be on that flight and need assistance (the word does not always make it back to the gate from the arrival hall). Make sure they tag your chair, if necessary, or confirm that you can stow it in the cabin. Now relax.

At boarding time, most airlines will board you first. Not every airline does this, but most will. If you have made it plain ahead of time that you cannot walk at all (if this is the case for you), the airline should have people waiting at the jetway to transfer you to an aisle chair and physically put you in your seat.

Be aware that many airlines, especially in Europe, will insist you sit by the window. This is to prevent an obstacle to evacuation should there be an emergency. If you sit in the aisle or middle seat, you could impede those sitting next to you. If everybody in your row is in your party, you can let the airline staff know and they’ll let you sit in one of the other seats.

One more hint…if you have someone strong enough to carry you a few feet, I’ve found that some airlines will be amenable to sitting you in the front row (the bulkhead seat) if you let them know that they won’t have to carry you on board. I can carry my son to the front row so many gate agents are more than happy to the exchange of the bulkhead seats when they find they won’t have to do the heavy lifting.

Now, buckle in and enjoy your flight. When you get to your desination, just relax. Let everybody else deplane…you’re going to be the last one off anyway. The airport staff will do this process in reverse to get you off of the plane and (if everything goes right) your wheelchair will be waiting at the plane’s door.

Have a nice trip!

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