Traveling is an exciting endeavor — but if you’re in need of wheelchair assistance, the airport process can be overwhelming. With advance planning and the right communication, flying with a wheelchair can go more smoothly. Depending on mobility and specific requirements, getting wheelchair assistance at the airport may suit a variety of needs and desired levels of assistance. To help you get started, the editors at U.S. News put together this guide of things to consider and helpful tips from wheelchair travel experts.
Preparing for the trip
When you or a loved one is traveling in a wheelchair, advance planning is key for a smoother trip. If possible, look for nonstop flights, as changing planes will add additional transfer needs. Once you’ve selected the airline you’ll be flying with, be sure to check its specific guidelines for travelers with wheelchairs. When you book your flight, select the wheelchair assistance option to notify the airline of your needs.
“Plan in advance. I know, that seems so simple, but it is one of the best things wheelchair users can do for air travel,” says Alvaro Silberstein, founder and CEO of Wheel the World. He adds that most airlines have a section on the website when booking where you can detail your accessibility needs for your flight.
Contact the airline and airports directly
“Contact your airline in advance to inform them about your needs; they are legally obligated to provide necessary assistance,” says James Thai from luxury travel company Exotic Voyages. The U.S. Department of Transportation enforces the Air Carrier Access Act, which makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers with disabilities and requires airlines to assist travelers who need it.
Debra Kerper, an accessible travel specialist at Debra Kerper Travel who has traveled to more than 30 countries in her wheelchair, also emphasizes the importance of speaking directly with an airline representative to detail your needs. “After reservations are made, call the special services desk at the airline,” Kerper says. This is where travelers needing wheelchair assistance should tell the airline about their needs, including if you will be traveling with any type of equipment.
If your device uses batteries: “Tell the airline what kind and voltage, measurements and weight of the device as well as make and model,” Kerper adds. She also advises that at this point travelers request seats and share any other specific needs, such as an aisle seat or a seat close to the plane bathroom.
Keep in mind that it is especially important to communicate with the airline you’re flying if you go through a third-party site or app to book your flight. “If I buy it through the airline or make whatever arrangements, they’ll have someone who will walk me from gate to gate. But if I buy it through an app like Hopper or something, it doesn’t always get the message through that I’m ADA,” says Darcy Malangowi, 47, who travels from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, on a semi-frequent basis.
For those who purchase through a third-party travel app such as Hopper, you will have to go into your profile while booking to indicate that you’ll need assistance and specify the type of help you will need. According to Hopper, you won’t be able to add your assistance needs once your booking is already completed, so in that case you will have to contact the app’s support team to request assistance. Either way, it’s best to contact the airline directly as well to ensure your needs will be met.
After your air arrangements are complete, reach out to the departure and arrival airports to get details on accessible drop-off, pickup and parking locations. In addition to getting airport and airline specifics, familiarize yourself with the Transportation Security Administration’s guidelines for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions.
How to request wheelchair assistance by airline
Click on the links below to read more about the assistance policies for the following airlines for travelers with disabilities.
Types of airport wheelchair assistance
Whether you are wheelchair-reliant or you need to request wheelchair assistance due to mobility constraints while at the airport, passengers have rights and options.
— Through the airport: If you need wheelchair assistance and won’t have your own wheelchair once you arrive at the airport but can walk onto the plane on your own, let the airline know. When you arrive at the accessible entrance, an attendant with a wheelchair will meet you to take you to check-in, through security and to your gate. Similarly, when you arrive at your destination, you can get wheelchair assistance to the baggage claim and pickup areas.
— Airplane boarding: Notify your airline if you will need assistance boarding the aircraft. The staff will need to arrange an aisle chair that can safely transport you from the gate onto the aircraft and into your seat. You should also clarify if you’ll have your own wheelchair or mobility device, and if this will need to be checked prior to boarding the aircraft, as this will need to be arranged with the airline.
Arriving at the airport
You should arrive at the airport as early as possible to check in and have enough time for the security screening. It is recommended that travelers who have a battery-operated wheelchair and need assistance get to the airport at least an hour before the standard airline check-in time.
“Arrive two to three hours early to minimize stress,” Kerper recommends. She also adds, based on her personal experience, “I believe in self-identification even though the airlines are not allowed to ask what your disability is. As a bilateral below-knee amputee, I feel that explaining my situation makes my experience easier for me and for the crew.”
If you are driving and parking at the airport (or you’re traveling with a companion who is), most major airfields provide wheelchair-accessible shuttle buses from the parking area. You’ll have to check with the airport for more information.
Contact TSA Cares
To help streamline security screening, TSA recommends that passengers contact the TSA Cares helpline at least 72 hours before departure via phone at 855-787-2227 or through its online form.
Established in 2012, TSA Cares provides information to passengers with disabilities on what to expect during security screenings and will share travelers’ information with TSA agents before arriving at security. The service does not provide expedited security screening. Travelers will still need to sign up for TSA Precheck to go through security quicker.
In 2022, the helpline aided about 46,000 travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and special needs. TSA Cares is available for travelers Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST; on the weekends and holidays, its hours run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.
Security vetting options
Once a traveler makes it to security, they will have several vetting options to choose from: advanced imaging technology, a metal detector or a pat-down.
If a passenger can stand with their arms above their head for five to seven seconds, they will be directed to go through the advanced imaging screening. If this technology is not available at a particular security checkpoint, walking through a metal detector is another option. For those who cannot stand or walk through a metal detector, TSA agents will conduct a pat-down. Pat-downs can occur while travelers sit in their mobility devices. You always have the option to request that a pat-down be conducted privately if you prefer.
Keep in mind that wheelchairs and other mobility devices such as scooters will have to be examined as well, either by a TSA officer or through the X-ray machine.
What to expect before boarding
Once you’re through security, you’ll want to make your way to the gate area. If you’re being escorted by airport personnel, they will bring you to your gate.
Here are a few things to consider doing before you board your flight:
— Stop at a bathroom to use the facilities before you arrive at your departure gate.
— If you’re traveling with a service animal, find a pet relief area for your dog.
— Get any snacks or food prior to arriving at gate.
Once at your gate, notify the gate attendant you have arrived and provide detailed information on the assistance you may need. Any equipment such as a wheelchair, walker, motorized scooter or mobility device will need to be gate-checked. If you need to be transported onto the aircraft, an agent will pick you up at the gate in a small wheelchair called an aisle chair to bring you onto the plane and get you into your seat.
If you will need medications or any special items during your flight, remember to keep those in your personal item to carry on to the flight.
Storing mobility devices in cargo
Travelers should note that airlines are required to only transport manual wheelchairs into the plane’s cabin. Battery-powered wheelchairs are usually stored in the cargo area of the plane, as they’re too large to be safely stowed in the cabin. If your chair has to be stored in the cargo area of the plane, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Regulations for battery-powered chairs
Most importantly, the Federal Aviation Administration has strict rules when it comes to battery-operated wheelchairs, so be sure to consult those regulations before flying.
Spillable batteries are allowed in wheelchairs and other mobility devices. If the battery is protected from spilling and meets other FAA standards, it can remain attached to the device in the cargo compartment.
If a device does not have protection for the battery, the battery will have to be removed and stored in a traveler’s carry-on bag. Passengers will have to notify the airline where that battery is located as well. Note that non-rechargeable lithium batteries are not allowed onboard.
Tips for gate-checking your chair
Despite having procedures in place to handle wheelchairs and other mobility devices, airlines still continue to have high rates of mishandling travelers’ wheelchairs. In 2022, the DOT reported more than 11,300 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled; that number is up from the roughly 7,200 wheelchairs and scooters that the DOT reported to be mishandled in 2021.
Here are some tips for checking your wheelchair:
1. Get a tracker: Kristin Secor, author and owner of the wheelchair-accessible travel blog World on Wheels, suggests travelers attach a tracker such as an AirTag to their wheelchair before checking it. “This can be a fantastic tool in the event that the airline misplaces your chair,” she says.
2. Prepare your wheelchair to be checked: “Always gate-check your wheelchair and remove any loose parts or items that stick out and are more prone to damage (i.e., joysticks, cushions, headrests and foot plates),” Secor advises.
3. Give the airline instructions: Another rule of thumb is to write instructions down for airline staff on how your chair should be handled.
What to do if your chair is mishandled
Per the ACAA, if an airline loses, damages or destroys a wheelchair or other assistive device, the airline must pay for the damages up to the original price of the chair or apparatus. If you notice damage to your device — whether it’s to the armrest, seat cushion or anything else — report it immediately to the airline’s baggage claim once you reach your destination.
If the airline refuses to take responsibility for a damaged device, travelers can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Boarding and seating
By law, airlines must offer preboarding to disabled travelers. Travelers can also make this request when booking a flight.
When it comes to seating, most airlines have designated seats with certain disability accommodations. To ensure you’re seated in a comfortable and accessible seat, travelers should either select a seat at the time of booking or notify the airline as soon as possible if using a third-party booking site to accommodate any needs.
If the airline doesn’t allow advance seat assignments, communicating with the airline and requesting early boarding to accommodate your disability should allow you to pick a seat that meets your needs.
Using the plane bathroom
“In a plane, I just use the top of my seats as my crutches or whatever just to hop to get there,” says Malangowi about using the restroom while flying.
For wheelchair passengers, this is the reality some experience while flying. It’s also one of the reasons many are discouraged to travel.
Do your research before traveling. Once you book your flight, learn more about the plane and its layout before you depart. Seatguru, a website where you can view plane configurations by route or flight number, can be a helpful tool to research the plane, seats and bathroom locations on board. To avoid any issues during the flight, some disabled travelers will use the airport restroom before boarding, wear incontinence briefs, or use catheters or other similar devices.
Be sure to ask the airline staff if the plane you’ll be flying on has an accessible bathroom. Under the ACAA, most wide-body aircraft with more than one aisle are required to include at least one accessible bathroom. The bathroom must be able to allow disabled passengers to enter, maneuver and leave the facility. Facilities must include door locks, call buttons, grab bars, sinks and dispensers that travelers with disabilities will be able to access.
Keep in mind, though, that currently the rule does not apply to certain older planes or smaller aircraft with only a single aisle. An amendment to the ACAA aims to change the standard for new single-aisle planes beginning in 2033, but as of now they are not required to have an accessible bathroom.
If you do need to use the bathroom during your flight, let the attendant know. The attendant will transfer you to an aisle chair and push you to the bathroom — but you will have to transfer yourself to the toilet and be able to take care of your own needs while in the facility.
Reaching your connecting or arrival destination
By law, airlines are required to help when deplaning. Wheelchair travelers are the last to exit the plane. Notify the airline at booking if you need assistance to debark the aircraft.
If you are connecting to another flight, make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get to your gate.
If you have reached your final destination, the airline staff will help you deplane and take you to baggage claim. Once you have your luggage and chair, check for damage before leaving the airport. If you notice any damage, be sure to report it as soon as possible.
You’ll likely also want to prearrange your means of transportation at the arrival destination once you have your itinerary planned, so everything can go as smoothly as possible when you arrive.
The future of accessible travel
Addressing mobility aid mishandling
Legislation is in the works to improve accountability in accessible travel. In May 2023, Congress introduced the bipartisan Mobility Aids on Board Improve Lives and Empower All Act. If passed, the bill would require:
— The DOT to evaluate the frequency and types of damage to wheelchairs and mobility devices during air travel.
— Airline carriers to provide information on procedures to safely transport mobility devices on planes.
“As a frequent flyer whose wheelchair is regularly broken or damaged, I understand firsthand how deeply frustrating it is that our aviation system still fails to make sure every passenger with a disability is treated with dignity and respect,” said Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, co-sponsor of the MOBILE Act and chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation.
Rethinking plane seats
Although airlines try to make those wheelchair travelers as comfortable as possible on the plane, the ideal situation for many of these travelers would be to remain in their wheelchair rather than being transferred to a seat that may become uncomfortable for them. The MOBILE Act would also require the DOT to research ways to let wheelchair-bound travelers remain in their chairs rather than be transferred to a regular seat.
Last year, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg vowed to create a new rule that would allow passengers to remain in their personal wheelchairs. “We know that this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfill,” said Buttigieg in a video posted by the Paralyzed Veterans of America in July 2022. He reiterated this sentiment in a roundtable discussion hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris for the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 2023.
While an official rule has yet to be announced, one airline has taken the step to improve air travel for wheelchair users: In June 2023 at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Delta shared a new seat design prototype that would cater to wheelchair travelers. The seat would allow passengers who use power wheelchairs to remain in their chairs during their flights. The seat would also come with a headrest, tray table and cocktail table. This new prototype will need to be certified and go through testing before approval and implementation.
“This patented design offers new possibilities for customers with disabilities to enjoy a travel experience they truly deserve,” Rick Salanitri, president of Delta Flight Products, said in a statement.
Requiring more accessible bathrooms
In July, the DOT announced an amendment to the ACAA requiring new single-aisle planes to have an accessible bathroom beginning in 2033. Bathrooms must be designed to include grab bars, accessible locks and call buttons, and sinks that are within reach for disabled travelers. (Twin-aisle, wide-body planes for longer-haul flights are already required to have accessible lavatories.)
“We are proud to announce this rule that will make airplane bathrooms larger and more accessible, ensuring travelers in wheelchairs are afforded the same access and dignity as the rest of the traveling public,” Buttigieg said in a statement announcing the amendment.
Travelers will have to wait until 2033 to see the rule apply to newly built planes. Existing planes, however, will only have to comply with this new law if the aircraft is going through an interior renovation.
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