Airline Travel Tips for Kids with Special Needs

1. How can you identify a disability-friendly airline? Are some airlines better with wheelchairs and catering to the needs of people with disabilities than others? What are some of the things parents should look out for when booking flights?

The more disabled-friendly airlines will at least have some information on their site and hopefully a way to indicate special needs, like traveling with a wheelchair, when booking a flight online. It is still always best to call the airline and make sure the message and proper procedure is in place. On the day of, it is a good idea to also remind staff at check-in and the gate as well as on the plane of any needs. Staff training lacks consistency overall, so being politely vocal ensures a smoother ride.

2. Do wheelchairs count as extra luggage? Does it matter how much your wheelchair weighs, for example?

If it is a domestic or international flight with the U.S. being the arriving or departing destination, wheelchairs or any other medical equipment cannot be charged a baggage fee. This is the law covered under the Air Carriers Act. Even power wheelchairs are able to fly. The key, however, is disconnecting the battery properly and securing the wheelchair as much as possible to prevent damage. If the equipment you are traveling with is expensive then consider travel insurance for peace of mind.

 3. Is it best to check in your wheelchair and then use one of the airport ones to get to the gate or take your wheelchair all the way to the gate with you? Why?

Many personal wheelchairs are custom built and are designed to fit the person using it comfortably. A standard wheelchair at an airport or hospital is never as comfortable. When you fly, you can “gate-check” a wheelchair, which means riding in it to the door of the plane. It is then taken below with the rest of the cargo. If a wheelchair can collapse then it can possibly be stored on the plane in the captains closet but airline crew are nearly always reluctant to do this because of space limitations.

 4. How does the airline typically get people in wheelchairs from the gate down the aisle and into their seat? 

The only airline that I have traveled on that is just big enough for me to wheel up to the bulkhead seats in my manual chair is Southwest. It won’t be wide enough for larger manual chairs but many could take advantage of this. Most child-sized wheelchairs will have no trouble. Otherwise, there are two options. One, the child can be carried by a parent or travel companion or an aisle chair can be used if the child cannot walk is too heavy. An aisle chair fits down the narrow passageways on a plane. The ride in the aisle chair begins at the plane’s door. A person is well belted in for safety. Once a person is wheeled down the aisle, if he or she cannot transfer on his or her own then they will receive assistance. Clear communication improves this process, especially if wanting a certain way of being transferred. Some airlines claim to have sliding boards and hoists to help with the transfer, but I have yet to see one.

5. What about other equipment (such as walking canes, crutches etc)? How will the airline store these during the flight? 

Crutches and canes are stored in the overhead bin on the plane. Those with a disability are able to board first so there is no need to worry about space.

 6. Which is the best seat on the plane for people with disabilities? (For instance, aisle or bulkhead?) Why?

On some planes access to all bulkhead seats is possible with the aisle chair, but generally the aisle seat is the easiest to transfer into and then the best position if needing to use the restroom in flight. If a child cannot hold themselves up then request shoulder straps when you book. However, shoulder straps are not required by law so be sure to ask the airline about options. You may want to purchase your own too so you are always prepared.

 7. Do any airlines have special toilets for people with disabilities? 

An airline with two aisles or a 30 passenger aircraft (or bigger) that was made after 1992* or has been refurbished is required to have an accessible toilet onboard. If a person cannot walk to the toilet then an on-board aisle chair must be requested. Some airlines claim to always have this onboard while others are on a request basis. The onboard restrooms are just a hair bigger than the regular ones, just large enough to get the onboard aisle chair in halfway. The aisle chair is removed and door closed after person is on the toilet. Once a person is ready to return to his or her seat, the call button is rang and the procedure is reversed.

*Not 100% it’s 1992 but right around there.

 8.   How is the best way to deal with mealtime on the plane and in a confined and crowded space with a child who might not be able to control his or her body movements? For instance, should you bring your own food or rely on the airlines?

If you are talking about a child who is a quadriplegic for instance then the confined space is imitate enough for easy assistance. Bringing your own food always best so you get what you need. It’s also cheaper obviously but most importantly you can prepare however you need to. Plane flights can be quite dehydrating so salty foods are not the healthiest choice. I do recommend bringing a variety of snacks cause they are easy to pack and will satisfy hunger until a meal can be had.

 9. What if your child has a special need or disability that might not be immediately obvious? (For instance, they are severely autistic.) What is the best way to handle this situation? Should you tell the airline upfront and can/should you expect to get extra assistance or is it best to just play it by ear?

Oh yes! Informing the airline in multiple ways as I mentioned before is a must. You may feel like a broken record but it ensures that everyone passengers and staff get what they need. Training on how to service disabled people is different at every airline which creates inconsistencies. Be honest. Airlines want all their guess to have reasonably enjoyable flight. If you have an autistic child then speak up; ask if it is a full flight and where the best seat would be in case the child gets restless. Communicating opening and preparing will also educate those around you better.

 10. Any other special tips parents should know about?

If an aisle chair is needed to board the plane or while in-flight to use the restroom it is highly recommended that you notify the airline and make sure the procedure is in place the day of because there are a limited number of aisle chairs at any given airport. With this in place, you board first which is more comfortable for all.

Also, take off any and everything that could fall off a wheelchair off and store it with you on the plane. Add directions (sometimes in different languages) about how to store a power wheelchair if that’s what you have. If traveling with a power chair, consider taking a manual chair that fits properly as a backup just in case.

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