Quick Guide to Air Travel with a Wheelchair

Traveling by air is a real blessing of the modern world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. Flying somewhere requires extensive planning and preparation – especially if you’re dealing with a disability and a wheelchair.

We’ll cover each aspect from flying – from arriving at the airport to arraigning for ground transportation at your destination in order to take some of the stress out of the process. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way toward making your next trip as smooth as possible.

Arrival at the Airport

Most airlines recommend passengers arrive at 1.5-2 hours before their departure time. But when you’re dealing with the additional challenge of a wheelchair, it is always a good idea to give yourself plenty of time. And if you’re using a battery-powered wheelchair, you may be required to arrive earlier.

Either way, we recommend arriving at your airport 2.5-3 hours before your departure time. This will give you plenty of time to check in, make any special requests, get through security, and to your gate without feeling rushed.

Security

Security lines are often a place of frustration (and a big part of the reason we recommend arriving early), but there are a few things you should know about navigating security in a wheelchair. If you can’t walk through the metal detector, a Transportation Security Administration agent will give you a manual pat-down.

It is important to inform the agent of any tender or painful places on your body so they can exercise the proper caution during the pat down. It is also important to remember that you are always entitled to a moving the pat-down to a private location.

Getting to Your Gate

Many airports are massive – with shuttles, moving sidewalks, and escalators to move people along. If you’ll have difficulty with any of these (or just don’t feel like fighting the crowds), you can ask an airport official for motorized transport.

This assistance is provided on a first-come-first-served basis, so this is another good reason for arriving early. Just make sure you are clearly communicating your needs to airport personnel every step of the way.

Boarding Your Plane

If you brought your own wheelchair, you are entitled to use it all the way to the boarding gate. But once you’ve arrived at this point, you’ll have to give it up. Airline personnel will gate-check your chair at this point. Once your chair is stowed, it is the airline’s responsibility to get you to your seat and assist with any mobility issues.

During the Flight

Airlines are required to have accessible bathrooms, but that doesn’t mean they are comfortable to us. If you need to use the facilities you will need to have an airline employee help you to the bathroom, so if possible it is worth avoiding the on-flight bathroom.

Beyond the bathroom, spend some time thinking about anything you’ll need during the flight (music, books, electronics, etc.) and try to have them easily accessible. Being well prepared and entertained is the best way to make the flight time fly by.

Disembarking

Just like you were the first one on the plane, you’ll probably be the last one off. People love to race for the exits as soon as wheel touch down, so spend this time to relax or review the next steps in your plane. Once the aisle has cleared, an airline employee will return you to the gate where you can pick up your stowed wheelchair.

Leaving the Airport

You’re almost home free! Navigating the airport crowds, pick up any checked baggage, and head for the exit. If you’re traveling by taxi, it is recommended that you call ahead to ensure the availability of accessible vehicles. If you’re getting picked up, just sit back and relax while you wait.

Flying Isn’t All Bad

Flying really is a great thing. Being able to ride a metal tube around the world isn’t something to scoff at, but it still isn’t always easy. But with a little preparation, planning, and a good attitude flying can be a whole lot easier!