I understand the thought of air travel in a wheelchair can be somewhat daunting, especially if you don’t know what to expect! I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel by air quite a bit in my life., I hope by sharing not only the process you can expect at the airport, but also some tips I’ve learned along the way, I can help make your travel easier and more exciting. I hope my insight and tips will give you the confidence and reassurance to expand your horizons and enjoy more of the world you can access through air travel!
As we dive into the tips, we’ll talk about the process of navigating the airport and airplane as a wheelchair user.
1. Airline Check-In
There are some airports and airlines with curbside check in or assistance waiting from the airline to help you with your bags and to guide you to the check-in counter. This is usually an assistance option you have to choose when you purchase your ticket.
I usually don’t do curbside check in or request airline assistance because most of the time when I travel, I don’t check a bag and instead use only a carry-on. If I do check a bag, I’m usually able to roll it all the way to the ticket counter on my own. However, it’s nice to know these assistance options are available if you need them.
Once you are at the ticket counter, you can request gate check tags for any wheelchairs or equipment you would like to gate check. Additionally, if you don’t have a seat assignment yet, ask the ticket counter agent if they are able to get you a seat assignment best suited to your needs. For me, I always prefer an aisle seat as close to the front of the airplane as possible, as it requires less time spent with the agents having to push me in the aisle chair.
If you’re checking in at the ticket counter, be sure to tell the agents which equipment you are going to be gate checking. Occasionally, some ticket counter agents can be a little insistent about checking your wheelchair and using an airline wheelchair to get to the gate. However, this is not a requirement. It has been my experience that equipment checked at the ticket counter tends to be handled more carelessly than when checked at the gate. The longer the airline has your equipment or wheelchair in their possession, the more time they have to break it.
2. Airport Security
As a wheelchair user, you will usually be directed to the first class or crew line at the security checkpoint. Anyone traveling with you is also allowed to use this line. If you are unable to walk through the security scanner, like me, a TSA officer will need to pat you down. I know this can be frustrating, but be patient with the TSA officer and make sure to communicate your abilities and concerns clearly. The TSA officer is required to explain how he or she is going to perform the pat down, so you will hear this every time you go through security. Make sure to remove any bags on your wheelchair or on your person and send them through the x-ray machine before the pat down process.
3. Gate counter check-in
If you did not check in at the ticket counter, you will need to check in with an agent at the gate counter to get your gate check tags for your wheelchair and any other equipment. If you need an aisle chair to get to your seat inside the plane, be sure to confirm this with the gate agent.
4. Boarding the plane
Anyone using an aisle chair or who needs further assistance will board the plane first. In my case, I’m able to push myself all the way to the end of the jet bridge and transfer into the aisle chair there. However, if you feel uncomfortable pushing yourself through the jet bridge, or need help with your luggage, communicate this need with the agents and they will assist you.
The next step will be transferring to the aisle chair so you can board the plane. Keep in mind, the employees assisting you with the aisle chair help a variety of people with varying levels of disability. Make sure to communicate clearly to them your abilities and if they are providing too much or not enough assistance, kindly let them know. The airline is required to fully harness you into the aisle chair for legal purposes, so be patient. Let them know how many bags you have with you so that nothing gets left behind in the transfer process.
Once you’ve transferred into the aisle chair, the agent will navigate the chair down the aisle of the plane to your seat. They will assist you as needed with getting into your seat, which for me means holding the aisle chair while I self-transfer into the airplane seat. At this point, I always remind the employees to please put my wheelchair onboard, as I have had them forget it in the past. Most major airlines have an aisle chair stored on board so that you may use the restroom during the flight if needed.
5. Getting off the plane
When you arrive at your destination, the process of deplaning is basically the reverse of the boarding process. You will deplane last, after all of the other passengers have gotten off the plane. Again, be sure to communicate the level of assistance you need transferring into the aisle chair, carrying your luggage, and pushing up the jet bridge. Once you are off the plane, there is usually assistance available to get you to baggage claim or ground transportation if needed.
- If you are having trouble fitting necessary medical equipment in a carry-on or a checked bag, pack them in their own bag and check it. Airlines are not allowed to charge for bags that contain medical supplies. Be sure to label that bag as “medical supplies” and communicate this to the agent at the ticket counter.
- If you are a manual wheelchair user, it's a good idea to travel with a small supply kit with tools. Mine contains an extra tube, tire changers, an allen wrench set, and extra axles. I have never had an issue getting any of these items through security, however, TSA will want to look through the kit.
I hope these tips help make your future airline travels as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Shoot me a message and let me know if you have any questions or further suggestions. I’d be happy to give you more insight into the process of air travel as a wheelchair user and would love to hear more about your experiences.