By Craig Kennedy
When most people think about traveling on an airplane, they think of getting up way too early, long lines at Security, lost baggage, and inevitable delays. When most wheelchair users think about traveling by airplane, they cringe and say “can’t we just drive there?”
In addition to all of the airline hassles that most people worry about, wheelchair users have to get up even earlier to arrive at the gate for early boarding, pack twice as much baggage with medical supplies and equipment, and worry about the safety of their equipment on top of it all. But even with all of these things to worry about, traveling by airplane for wheelchair users is actually easier than ever if you are prepared and you know your rights as a passenger.There are many tips for traveling with a wheelchair, but above all you should know your rights. The Federal Airline Administration (FAA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Act (ACA) are long documents containing many requirements of airlines and their employees, many of which are not known by the airlines, their employees, or passengers with disabilities.
For instance, did you know that all airplanes with 100 seats or more are required by law to allow one folding, manual wheelchair onboard the plane? Even if the crew has to take their luggage out of the crew closet to make room for your chair, they are required to do so. As mentioned above, not all employees know this. To protect ourselves, we always bring a copy of the FAA code of federal regulations (www.faa.gov) with us for back-up.The travel process starts at home when you are booking your tickets. First, book a ticket that gives you plenty of time between flights. While wheelchairs are always the first to board, we are also the last off the plane once we land.
Be prepared for the possibility of your plane not arriving on time and the gate attendants not showing up with your aisle chair in a timely fashion, especially in larger connection airports like Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas. By giving yourself a minimum layover of an hour and a half to two hours, you will have enough time to accommodate possible hold ups and give yourself a much better chance to make your next flight. If the flights you are looking at with the longer layovers do not happen to be the cheaper flights, consider booking them anyway. The few extra dollars you are paying to avoid problems are well worth it in my experience. In addition to making sure you have enough time when booking your ticket, you should also make sure to inform your air carrier of any special needs ahead of time. Most online reservations systems have a check box for special requests, but double-check your work by calling the airline after you have made your reservation and make sure all of your needs are listed in your reservation profile.
They will need to know if you need assistance getting to your gate, if you need an aisle chair to get on and off the plane, if you have a service animal with you, and if you have any special seating requests or needs.The next step is to make sure to print your boarding passes at home. This will save some time even if you have to wait in line to check your bags. I always recommend checking your bags at the airline ticket counter, as more than 75 percent of all lost baggage is a result of checking your luggage at curbside. While you are at the counter checking your bags, make sure to double check again that the airline is aware of all your special needs. If you need to change your seating assignment, this is the place to do it. If you require the bulkhead for any reason, including spatial reasons or for a service animal, the airline is required to provide this for you as long as the bulkhead is not an emergency exit row. It is also not a bad idea to ask if your flight is full.
If they need extra room in coach, there is always a chance of getting bumped up to first class if you ask nicely.Once you have checked in and have your proper seat assignment and boarding passes, it’s time to head to Security. No matter where you are in the continental United States, travelers with disabilities are allowed to bypass the long lines that are typical of airport Security. Always look for a side entrance and make sure that a security official sees you approaching. They will bring you and the people you are traveling with through to the front of the line. Once you are at the front, you will be directed through a separate entrance while the rest of your party is taken through the standard metal detectors. Wheelchair users are assigned a same-sex security agent who will check the body with a metal detecting wand and pat-down your wheelchair for dangerous materials.After you have gone through Security, head to your gate and wait for a gate agent. If you need an aisle chair to board the plane, be sure to let the gate agent know as soon as they arrive. Even though you have already put this in your reservation profile, it is not always taken care of. Don’t just assume that because you are in a wheelchair that they know you need an aisle chair. You would be surprised how many times I have been asked “do you need help onto the plane sir, or can you walk?”
After you have settled in and have informed the gate agent of all your needs, check the time and don’t forget to use the restroom just before boarding. Although the Air Carrier Act requires planes of 60 seats or more to carry an onboard wheelchair, flight attendants are not required to assist you into the restroom.For the actual boarding of the plane and storage of your wheelchair, again, protect yourself by knowing your rights. For instance, I always bring my chair onboard the plane when possible. I have personally had major damage done to my wheelchairs on three different occasions, and always state this as a reason to keep my chair with me. Upon hearing this, agents are usually more helpful. Most folding wheelchairs will break down or fold up small enough to fit in any onboard closet. If for some reason your chair will not fit in one of the closets—and this does often happen—there are steps you can take to avoid potential damages. The first thing you should do is remove your wheels and seat padding and bring them on the plane. These items will easily fit into the overhead compartments or one of the onboard closets.If you are traveling by yourself, always take your chair apart for them before boarding or instruct them on how to do so. Do not let your chair out of sight until you are certain it is taken care of to your satisfaction. Second, you should make sure to very politely tell the people handling your chair to be careful with it because although it looks tough, it is breakable. I often remind them not to put it too close to the hydraulic doors, as they can do major damage to the chair.
Another regulation that is often overlooked has to do with carry-on luggage. Did you know that you are allowed an extra carry-on bag for durable medical equipment and medical supplies? Most travelers with disabilities do not realize this and often struggle to fit everything they need into one piece of luggage. I always bring an extra bag, and since wheelchairs board first, there is always plenty of room in the overhead compartments. Remember, however, the new 3-1-1 carry-on rule; it states that you must check anything larger than 3 oz of fluid, and must put anything smaller than 3 oz of fluid in a 1-quart sized, clear, zip-top bag in your carry-on luggage. This applies to medical supplies for travelers with disabilities as well.Once you are onboard and settled into your seat, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about until you get to your destination.
I do recommend watching how much you drink as you will not be able to use the restrooms. You can always make use of an external or a Foley (internal) catheter and a leg bag if you are not sure about bladder capacity and control, but don’t expect the flight attendants to empty your urine bag. Make sure you have at least one extra bag with you during your flight.When you finally arrive at your destination you will be asked to wait until the plane empties to get off. Just before landing, let the flight attendant know that you will need an aisle chair to get off the plane. That way they can make sure one is available while the rest of the plane disembarks. Once the plane is empty, be sure that you instruct the crew on how to reassemble your chair if you are traveling alone.If you do run into problems with damages to your chair, you are entitled to full reimbursement of the cost of damages and repairs. In the past, airlines were only required to cover up to $500 in damages, but this is no longer the case. If your wheelchair is lost or destroyed, they are required to buy you an exact replacement. Airlines are also required by law to have a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO), who is educated in ADA and ACA requirements for travelers with disabilities, at every airport that they service.
This should be the first person you talk to if you have any problems.I have been traveling with my wheelchair for over a decade now and have learned a lot through trial and error. Flying is still the most convenient and safest way to travel and once you master the details, traveling with a wheelchair will be no more difficult than getting out of bed every day.
Traveling by airplane if you are in a power wheelchair, while more challenging than a manual wheelchair, is also not as daunting as it seems if you are prepared. Here are some tips for improving your experience and avoiding problems:
- When asked if your battery is a “dry cell” battery, always answer “yes.” While the old spillable batteries are a thing of the past and gel cell batteries are perfectly safe, some employees still see “gel” as a liquid, and can be told it is a dry cell.
- Before boarding the plane and before they take your chair away for stowage, make sure to remove any breakable parts such as your joy stick, arm and foot rests, head rest, and sip and puff pieces. These items can be put in a separate bag and brought onto the plane with you.
- Always put your chair in manual mode so that the people handling the chair have to push it. Someone will inevitably want to take your chair for a joy ride if you don’t.
- Put your chair into full recline or tilt mode before you let them stow it. Unfortunately, the easiest way to put your power chair into the storage compartment is to pick it up and then lay it on its side. This can cause major damage to your chair. By reclining or tilting it, your chair becomes too long to lie on its side and they will have to set it in upright.
- Always ask for your chair to be brought back to the door of the plane after you land at your destination. Otherwise you will have to be transferred into a manual chair to pick your power chair up at baggage claim. The airlines can easily bring your chair to you via elevator.
- Once you have landed and the plane is empty, most airlines will want you off the plane immediately so they can clean and get ready for the next flight. They will try to put you onto an aisle chair until your chair arrives. You have the right to remain in your seat until your chair arrives at the door of the plane.Craig Kennedy is a published author, motivational speaker, and President of Access Anything, LLC, a nationally recognized leader in adaptive sports and adventure travel for people with disabilities. He has more than ten years of adaptive travel experience and more than 20 years of tourism and service industry expertise and has a unique insight into the world of living and traveling with a disability. Craig lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with his wife Andrea, a freelance writer, holistic healer, and co-founder of Access Anything. Craig P. Kennedy, Steamboat Springs, Colorado,