Air Travel Tips for Wheelers And Slow Walkers

Travel by its very nature is an adventure. Factor a disability into that equation and things can get pretty scary. One of the biggest areas of concern for disabled travelers is air travel. People just don’t know what to expect. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, a little consumer education can give you the confidence and knowledge to effectively deal with problems as they arise. With that in mind, here’s some tips to help you along the way.

Before You Fly

  • Educate yourself on the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Get the free publication, “Accessible Air Travel” from the United Spinal Association at (800)444-0120.
  • Travel on a US based airline whenever possible, as the entire ACAA applies only to US carriers. If you must travel on a foreign carrier, learn the access laws of that country too.
  • Ask a lot of questions before you book your flight. Under the ACAA, US airlines are required to provide prospective passengers with basic information about the accessibility of their facilities, services, and aircraft. Such information can include facts like the location of seats with movable aisle armrests, the locations and dimensions of storage facilities for mobility aids, and the availability of an onboard accessible lavatory.
  • Inform the reservation clerk if you need boarding assistance, or the use of an aisle chair. The aisle chair is a narrow high backed chair used to board non-ambulatory passengers.
  • Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Accessible lavatories on aircraft are quite small and generally speaking you need to be able to transfer independently in order to use them. Airline staff will not assist you in the lavatory. If you use a catheter, devise a system for emptying your leg bag while en route.
  • Consider switching to gel cell batteries. Gel cell batteries are merely disconnected for air transport, while other batteries are removed and packaged separately. If you already have gel cell batteries, make sure they are clearly marked, so they won’t be inadvertently removed.
  • Reconfirm all arrangements directly with the airline at least 48 hours in advance. Make sure they have all your access needs noted.

At The Airport

  • In times of heightened security, curbside check-in may be discontinued. Check with your airline and airport to determine if this service is available. If curbside check-in has been discontinued, inform your airline that you need curbside assistance.
  • Advise the customer service agent at the check-in counter if you need to have a non-ticketed escort accompany you to the gate. Your escort will be asked for photo identification and then given a security checkpoint pass.
  • Allow plenty of extra time to get through security. All sharp objects, or anything that could be used as a weapon will be confiscated at security checkpoints. Carry your wheelchair repair tools in your checked baggage.
  • Advise the gate agent that you would like to preboard the aircraft. Under the ACAA your assistive device will only get priority space in the onboard closet if you preboard the aircraft.
  • Stay in your own wheelchair until you transfer to the airline aisle chair. Airline personnel may try to get you to transfer to an airline wheelchair at check-in or at curbside, but you are not required to do this unless you have batteries that need to be removed and packaged separately (spillable batteries). Gate-check your wheelchair, and have it brought directly to you at your arrival gate.
  • Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your wheelchair or scooter.
  • Remove any loose or protruding parts from your wheelchair or scooter. Protect your joystick with some type of hard covering. A plastic cup and packing tape works well.
  • Let a little bit of air out of your wheelchair tires. Carry-on all gel cushions. Baggage compartments are not pressurized.

During The Flight

  • Let the flight attendant know if you need to use the onboard wheelchair.
  • Remind the flight attendant 30 minutes before landing that your wheelchair needs to be delivered to you at the gate.

If Problems Arise

  • Ask to speak to the Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO). The CRO is trained and educated on travelers’ rights and airline responsibilities under the ACAA. All US airlines are required to have a CRO on duty 24 hours a day.
  • The US Department of Transportation operates a toll-free aviation consumer disability hotline at (866)266-1368. Travelers are invited to call this hotline to obtain information and assistance if they should experience disability-related air service problems.

  • A recognized expert on accessible travel, Candy is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She also shares insights, information and industry updates about accessible travel on her Barrier Free Travels blog. Candy can be contacted at Candy at EmergingHorizons dot com.