Airport Arrival: Drop-Off & Parking
While traveling and flying a wheelchair, first, it is most convenient to be dropped off at an airport by someone or an airport shuttle service such as Super Shuttle (equipped with lifts) but this is not always possible. If so, then the next best option may be to take some form of public transportation like the bus or train, although this requires you to be responsible for transporting your own luggage.
Lastly, there may be cases where you have to drive yourself. Long-term parking is costly and is often further away than short-term parking, but some airports allow people with a disabled placard or plates to park in the short-term lot which is a lower fare. Both lots should have accessible parking per the Americans with Disabilities Act. To the best of my knowledge, there is no service that will provide you with an airport attendant at your vehicle to assist with your luggage to the airport, so here again, you are responsible for transporting your own luggage.
Cleaver packing and luggage carriers enable you to maximize carrying space and keep your hands free and lap free if using a wheelchair. Some people will even bungee a suitcase with wheels to the chair itself. Specially designed bags and water bottle holders are available for wheelchairs. You can also utilize the space underneath the chair with a pouch, shelf, undercarriage net, or a combination of these. I routinely use a backpack as my carry-on, which is on the back of the chair, and then place my main bag on my lap and personal bag around my shoulders.
The soonest you can receive assistance with your luggage is at the curbside check-in; simply just ask for it at the desk and someone will assist you or find the appropriate airport personnel who can. This personnel is authorized to assist you from the curb to the gate and can carry your bags or push you, but later if you want to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat then you will need to manage your carry-on items. While not the most expeditious option, to minimize dealing with your carry-ons check them as luggage—many airlines do not charge a baggage fee for medical equipment.
Some airports have wide security check-point lines accessible to people in wheelchairs otherwise look for the designated line if not being escorted. Within reason, your traveling companions are also able to go through this line with you. Often designated lines are a shortcut through security check-points and a perk of being a wheelchair rider.
The screening process by TSA is a simple routine that should take no more than a few minutes. I leave my shoes on and place the rest of my belonging in the basket as instructed then I look for a TSA agent to inform them that I need a “female assist” for my screening. Then I wait to be escorted to the screening area. I am usually asked if there is anyone else with me to watch my belongings. If not, then she or he if you are using a “male assist” will grab your things once on the other side of the metal detector and place them near you—but do not touch them. If you have difficulty taking off your shoes then don’t because it’s your right.
In the USA you should always be asked if you would like a private screening. Other countries also have this option though communication can sometimes be a barrier. I have never opted in for this and instead get straight to business. I spread my arms as straight out as I can, like an airplane, while the TSA agent gently pats my body with her hand in search of restricted items, namely weapons. Before the pat-down begins, notify the TSA agent of any sensitive areas if he or she does not ask first. Afterward, my chair and I will be scanned for a destructive chemical residue which consists of the agent grazing a cotton-like swab lightly on my hands, clothing, shoes, and chair. Once this swab clears* then I am free to go. The security screening is over.
*Some people who use a manual chair have been stopped at this point because their hands organically picked up something off their wheels that came from an unknown source.
Boarding the Plane: Flying with a Wheelchair
Most every airport has an ample amount of carpet, sometimes uphill, which slows down manual chairs if not being assisted with a push. Occasionally in airports, you will find people movers that you can take advantage of, and if no one else is in front of you, you can pick up good speed. Once you reach your departure gate it is imperative that you check in at the desk and get your chair tagged. The brightly colored tag is attached to the wheelchair and identifies the owner and notifies the ground crew that upon landing the chair needs to be brought up from the plane’s carriage for a passenger immediately.
Some jetways to the airplane are very steep and the crew will often ask if you need assistance, but speak up otherwise. With smaller planes, there may be no jetway, in which you will be manually lifted up the stairs or some airports have adapted hoists or lifts to accomplish this. Southwest is the only airline I have experienced that has enough space in the front bulkhead seats for my manual wheelchair to get close enough to the seats to transfer. This means an aisle chair is not needed—a step I’d prefer to miss. For all other airlines, an aisle chair is needed to board the plane. To arrange this, you need to tell the airline what assistance you will need when making the reservation, but more importantly, you need to bring this up again when you check in for your flight. There are a limited number of aisle chairs in any given airport and hunting one down on the spot can delay the flight and require you to board last instead of first.
If needing assistance with transferring to an aisle chair and your seat and know the best way to accomplish this then speak up, but do so kindly and explain simply with hand gestures if helpful. Once seated on the aisle chair, you will be secured with seatbelts. Sometimes the ground crew is right there with you to take your chair in which I remind them that nothing should be placed on top of a wheelchair as it causes damage. If the ground crew isn’t there then I tell whoever takes the chair to please relay the message. You can also attach any directions (sometimes in different languages) to the top of the seat. Waterproofing the directions isn’t a bad idea either. I am usually assured that nothing is ever placed on wheelchairs, which I do not entirely believe, so just in case I always bring the Allen Wrenches needed for adjustments in my carry-on. Some people will even bring a spare manual wheelchair, especially if using a power wheelchair, or get travel insurance.
Typically manual wheelchairs are stored in the cargo compartment with suitcases but if your chair can collapse enough to fit in the priority stowage spaces in the plane, then you have this right under the Air Carriers Act—flight attendants are not eager to comply with this. Whether you can transfer onto an aisle chair or not, rely on the flight attendants to assist you with your carry-on items. These items should not be limited to just bags but anything else that could fall off of your chair, like your water bottle holder, seat cushion, and side-guards. Be sure to also carry on your necessary medical supplies and medications. And for optimal protection against skin breakdowns, sit on your seat cushion for the plane ride. If using an air cushion, monitor the air pressure during flight, deflating a little if needed, and be sure your pump is packed with your carry-on in case more air is needed once landed.
At your seat, a flight attendant should be able to assist you in adjusting the armrest for a clear transfer. However, not all attendants have this knowledge and not every seat has an adjustable armrest. Only some airlines have some airplanes with adjustable armrests. If available, a seat with this feature can be arranged ahead of time. The Air Carriers Act now requires that half the seats have to have adjustable armrests but only when all the seats have been replaced for a thirty or more passenger plane. This also applies to smaller planes as long as it complies with all other safety regulations in regards to weight, balance, and so forth.
During flight, it may be possible to use an onboard aisle chair to use an “accessible restroom” with grab bars, a call button, and a lever faucet. The Air Carriers Act states that planes with more than one aisle are required to have an onboard aisle chair and an accessible restroom. And planes with sixty or more seats with an accessible restroom are also required to have an onboard aisle chair.* If you can stand or walk a little to get inside of a standard airplane restroom during the flight you can also request an onboard aisle chair to get you there. This is another reason to contact the airline ahead of time to find out about availability so you can plan accordingly.
*Airplanes created before 1992 must update access per the Air Carriers Act when the interior of the plane is refurbished.
Furthermore, there is no standard design for the onboard aisle chair. Some are more comfortable than others and some may or may not have a footrest. When you are in need of it you simply notify a flight attendant. The attendant cannot assist you in the transfer to the onboard aisle chair, so you need to do this independently or with the help of your travel companion if available. An attendant or your companion then pushes you into the restroom where you have to be able to make a frontal transfer using a small handrail or the countertop. Once seated the flight attendant closes the door then you lock it, remove clothing, and conduct business. When done use the call button to notify the attendant and repeat the steps back to your seat. Other people have been known to use a leg bag just for the flight or catheterize themselves under a blanket at their seats. Some airlines outside of the US share similar standards in regards to making the restroom accessible, so check directly with the airline to confirm options.
Just before landing remind the crew that you have a wheelchair that has been gate checked and whether you’ll need an aisle chair. When the flight is over you will be the last one to disembark, which is good to keep in mind for transportation plans. When leaving the aircraft you can ask the attendants for assistance through the airport and they will call for airport personnel.
In the case that a problem does occur, contact the airline’s Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) who has been specially trained in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) disability regulations. You can also get travel insurance specifically for your wheelchair or bring a spare for extra added security.
Most importantly, if you need help ask for it and know your rights.