how to fly in a wheelchair

How to Fly in a Wheelchair – 5 Essential Tips for Wheelchair Users

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When my ex-husband suffered a prolapsed disc days before a flight, we scrambled to find out how to fly in a wheelchair as he was struggling to walk any distance. It wasn’t easy, and we soon found that flying with a wheelchair can be a BIG challenge.

Today, while several friends and family now face mobility issues, their wanderlust is not dimmed! I asked expert accessibility travel blogger Kristin Secor from World on Wheels to share her top tips on exactly how to fly in a wheelchair and what people in wheelchairs need to think about when planning a trip.

Whether you’re a wheelchair user or need to know how to travel with someone in a wheelchair, Kristin’s tips will help you plan your trip. You should also seek medical advice, to check you are fit to fly.

How To Fly in a Wheelchair

Having a disability shouldn’t keep you from travelling! For many people with disabilities, however, flying with a wheelchair can seem overwhelming. This guide on how to fly in a wheelchair answers commonly asked questions and tells you all you need to know for your trip.

wheelchairs at airport

1. Booking Wheelchair Accessible Flights

The first step in flying with your wheelchair is booking your flight. There are a couple of things to consider and do during this step. Here’s what you need to know:

Choosing an Airline

Choosing an airline might seem straightforward; however, air travel for disabled passengers needs careful consideration. In addition to the price and availability of flights, check how good the airline’s customer service is and what their record for damaging equipment looks like. 

If something happens to your wheelchair during the flight, you want to know that the airline will listen, take your needs seriously and work to resolve them in a timely fashion. Knowing the airline you choose handles mobility devices with care is reassuring.

It is also important to know each airline’s policy for disabled travellers. Some will require you to travel with a companion if you cannot evacuate from the plane in the event of an emergency or visit the restroom unaided. 

Think About Your Needs

When choosing a flight, really think about what your needs may be. Is there a limit to how long you can fly before becoming uncomfortable? Do larger planes offer the amenities you may need during a flight? These questions will be important for you to consider.

Direct vs Layovers

Answering the above questions may help you decide whether to choose a direct flight (if possible) or one with layovers.  There are pros and cons to both decisions.

Choosing a flight with layovers can be cheaper than direct flights, but it will also mean a longer day of travel. If it helps you to have a break from sitting on the plane, then this may be a good option. 

Top Tip: Leave plenty of time between flights, at least 2 hours, to allow for possible delays and time to get to your next gate.

Direct flights, while typically more expensive, can make your travel day shorter and help fight fatigue. There is also less chance of losing your luggage or equipment damage as there is only one flight. Depending on the length of the flight, however, it may be more difficult to use an accessible restroom.

Call the Airline Accessibility Line

Once you’ve considered the above factors and booked your flight, call the airline accessibility line. This number is listed on the airline’s website. Alternatively, you can also call the general airline number and ask for the accessibility department.

It is better to call than fill out your accessibility needs online. Speaking with a person helps you confirm that all of your requests are received and addressed. When you call, here’s what you will need:

✔️ Make sure you have the make, model and weight of your wheelchair on hand, as the agent will most likely ask this question. 

✔️ If you don’t already know it, check what type of battery your wheelchair uses and whether or not it is FAA approved

✔️ Notify the agent of any other medical equipment you may be flying with, such as a CPAP machine or an oxygen concentrator.  

Pro Tip: When you talk to the accessibility department, ask them to assign your seats – they should be able to check which seats have the most legroom and possibly offer a complimentary upgrade (if available). Check also whether your airplane has an accessible restroom.

Choosing an Aisle vs Window Seat

Aisle seats are easier to transfer into from a wheelchair; however, anyone sitting in your row would need to climb over you to get in and out of their seat.

Window seats give you something to lean on (which may add more comfort) and avoid having anyone climb over you. The downside is that it may be harder to transfer over to that seat.

Ultimately, where you decide to sit comes down to personal preference and comfort.

2. What to Expect at the Airport

Yea! It’s the day of your flight, and you are ready to start your vacation.  Here is what you can expect at the airport when you are flying with a wheelchair, with some tips to make your journey go smoothly.

Arrive Early

✔️ Arrive at the airport early. This gives you plenty of time to get through security, find your gate and use an accessible restroom before you board. It also gives airline staff plenty of time to arrange assistance and the equipment needed to help you onto the plane.

✔️ Get to the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. 

✔️ Monitor airport conditions, and if travel seems busier than usual, arrive a little earlier than suggested.

✔️ Check in at the counter, as people in wheelchairs cannot check in online.

female wheelchair user waiting at airport security

Going Through Security

People in wheelchairs go through security like everyone else. You’ll need to take off your jacket and shoes and send any belongings through the x-ray machine. Having clothing and shoes that are easily removable is key to a speedy and smooth process.

READ: The TSA Liquids Carry-On Rules

If you can stand and walk a few steps, you should go through the metal detector or body scanner. If this is not possible, TSA staff will take you through a separate gate where someone of your gender will do a pat down. This can be done near everyone else or somewhere more private.  

Before starting the pat down, the agent will ask you about any pain or sensitive areas and then explain the process. It can be very personal as they need to pat down all areas of your body. 

Finally, they will swab your hands and wheelchair to check for any explosive residue. Once you’re cleared, you can collect your belongings and head to your gate.

Make Sure to Gate Check Your Wheelchair

When you check in for your flight, you will have the option to check your wheelchair and then use an airport wheelchair to get around or to gate-check your wheelchair. 

ALWAYS gate-check your wheelchair. This helps to reduce the chance of any damage to your wheelchair and allows you to be more comfortable while you wait for your flight. An airport wheelchair will be very basic!

When you acknowledge that you want to gate-check your wheelchair, you will receive a tag to put on it and a receipt. This can happen at the ticket counter or the gate counter. If you do not receive one, ask for one. 

Do NOT allow your wheelchair to be boarded without one of these tags.

Keep track of the receipt, as you will need if your wheelchair is lost or damaged. It is also a good idea to carry the wheelchair model and serial number with you, so your wheelchair can be identified and returned to you easily.

Use an Accessible Restroom Before Boarding

Some aircraft do not have an accessible restroom, and in those that do, the restroom can be quite small. 

Many people with mobility problems find accessible airplane bathrooms difficult to use.

It is in your best interest and comfort to use a truly accessible bathroom in the airport terminal before you board. Some airports offer separate family and disabled bathrooms larger than the handicapped stalls in the designated men’s or women’s bathrooms.  

Photograph Your Wheelchair

Take pictures of your wheelchair to document its condition before the flight. This makes it easier to claim for any damage caused by the airline or to trace the wheelchair if it is lost. 

Write Instructions for Operating Your Chair

Once you leave your wheelchair at the boarding gate, there is no one to instruct staff on how to handle or operate it. Consider taping written instructions to the back of your wheelchair to prevent damage to your chair. If you are travelling to another country, consider translating the instructions into the language of that country.

Show Staff How to Fold/Use the Chair

In addition to the written instructions, it is also a good idea to show or tell staff how to fold or operate your wheelchair. This way, you know that they have the correct instructions, which can save time, as they don’t have to read the written ones.  

Remove Any Loose Parts From Your Chair

Before boarding, remove any items from your wheelchair that could get lost or broken. This could include your joystick, headrest, removable foot pedals, and seat cushion.  

Top Tip: If any fragile items can’t be removed, wrap them with bubble wrap to help protect these items from damage.

3. Boarding the Plane

Now it’s time to board the plane!  As someone with a disability, you will be one of the first people allowed to board to give you more time.  If you have some mobility and can walk on the plane (or just prefer to do that), then you will be able to.  

If you cannot walk onto the plane, a special small wheelchair called an aisle wheelchair will be used to transport you to your seat. (An aisle chair is designed to fit down the narrow aisles of the plane.

You will get help to transfer from your wheelchair to the aisle wheelchair and from the aisle chair to your seat. Sometimes staff will ask about the best way to help transfer you, and sometimes they won’t. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them exactly what you need and the best way to help, so they don’t inadvertently injure you.  

Alternatively, you could bring a sling for transfers. This helps to keep the staff from grabbing you (which may cause bruising) and could keep you more supported and comfortable. A sling is also helpful in an emergency, as it would allow someone to help evacuate you if necessary.

4. Wheelchair Users’ Considerations During the Flight

You have made it onto the plane and are settling in for your flight. Here are some commonly asked questions about your experience onboard and other useful information.

Accessible Restrooms

Planes with more than 60 seats must have accessible restrooms onboard and an aisle chair to help you get there. While these restrooms are a little bigger than traditional airplane bathrooms, some people with mobility issues still find them difficult or impossible to use

As a result, many wheelchair users end up dehydrating themselves and not eating large meals before their flights.  Hopefully, one day airlines will improve accessibility on planes allowing everyone the right to use the restroom.

Eating Meals

Most airlines serve meals and snacks on international flights. If you have special dietary needs or food allergies, you must notify the airline ahead of time to see how they can accommodate you. 

If you need assistance with eating meals, you will need to travel with someone who can help you with this task, as flight attendants are not allowed to do so.

Can I Stay in My Wheelchair?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could stay in your wheelchair during the flight?  Unfortunately, this is not possible currently as there is no space for your wheelchair onboard the plane. However, an amazing organisation called All Wheels Up is trying to change this.

Their research shows that wheelchair users can safely stay in their chairs during a flight – even during a crash. They are petitioning airlines to have designated secure spaces on planes for people in wheelchairs to remain in their wheelchairs.

The current US Secretary of Transportation has also shown support for this initiative.  It is the hope that one day people in wheelchairs will be able to fly in comfort in their wheelchairs, with fewer chairs damaged by airlines.

Getting Comfortable

Speaking about comfort, how is someone with a disability supposed to get comfortable on a plane?  Let’s face it, airplanes aren’t comfortable for anyone, let alone people with mobility problems.  Here are a few tricks that may help.

Use a Cushion

If you use a special cushion in your wheelchair at home, see if you can use it in your seat on the plane. This is especially helpful for wheelchair users prone to pressure sores, who struggle to shift their weight. 

Top Tip: Some airlines have rules about the size and type of cushions that can be used, so check with the accessibility department for guidelines when you call.

Ask for an extra pillow (or a nicer one)

If you need a little extra back support, having a pillow behind you can help.  On longer flights, airlines often provide pillows, but they can be small and thin. When you board, ask a flight attendant for an extra one or whether a thicker pillow is available (the ones in business and first class are nicer and look like actual pillows).  These may not always be available, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Consider a harness

Some wheelchair users have poor upper body or core strength, making it difficult to hold themselves up straight in a chair. Typically, these individuals have specialised wheelchairs to assist with this issue. 

On a plane, these people can be very uncomfortable. In these cases, a harness that helps hold them against the back of the airline seat may be beneficial.  

Airlines don’t usually have these harnesses, so it is best to bring your own.  If you do not have one, contact All Wheels Up as they have them available for free at different times of the year.

5. After the Flight  

Congratulations!  You survived the flight, but did your wheelchair also survive?  Here’s what you need to know about flying with your wheelchair after the flight.

When Will My Wheelchair Be Returned to Me?

When you disembark the plane, your wheelchair should be waiting for you outside of the airplane door.  You will be the last off the plane, giving the crew plenty of time to unload it and have it waiting for you. 

This will be the case whether this is your final destination or you need to get to a connecting flight.  If you have another flight, staff will assist you in getting to your next gate, where you will again gate-check your wheelchair.

Staff will also assist you if this is your final destination. They will take you through customs (if it applies) and to baggage claim, where they will assist you with your luggage. They will then ensure you either have a ride, take you to the transportation desk or show you where the shuttle is to the car rental companies.

What Do I Do if My Wheelchair is Lost or Damaged?

If you get off the plane and your wheelchair is either lost or damaged, you must file a claim and talk to the airline’s CRO or Complaint Resolution Official. To file a claim, report it to the airline’s baggage office.  Make sure to get information on how the issue will be resolved and what the next steps will be.  Take down the name of the person you spoke to in every case and their job title.  


Wrap Up – How to Fly in a Wheelchair

While airplane travel can seem complicated and overwhelming at times, it’s important to remember the benefits of travel.  With the right planning and preparation, airline travel can be worth it if it allows you to explore more areas of the world.  I hope this guide has given you the essential information you need on how to fly with a wheelchair to make the process easier and less intimidating for you.  

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About the author

Kristin Secor

Kristin Secor was born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, which affects her mobility, strength, endurance and breathing. These physical challenges have not stopped her from pursuing her love of travel. Kristin has travelled to 17 countries (and counting) and across the United States.  She shares her adventures on her wheelchair-accessible travel blog, World on Wheels Blog, in the hopes of inspiring people of all abilities to travel as well as to provide information and resources to make planning accessible travel easier. 

Follow Kristin on Facebook and Instagram for more accessible travel information.

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