Travel by its very nature requires a good amount of preparation, especially when it includes air travel. Factor a disability into that equation and the complexity increases. With that in mind, here are a few things for wheelchair-users and slow walkers to keep in mind when they plan their next flight.
Before You Go
- Learn the law so you know what to expect. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) — not the Americans with Disabilities Act — is that law that covers access on all US carriers, and foreign carriers on flights to and from the US. You can find the ACAA at www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/disability.
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) also has several helpful brochures on accessible air travel at www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/disability-training.
- If your trip involves domestic flights in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, learn about local access laws. Many domestic carriers in these regions have denied boarding to unaccompanied wheelchair-users. Choose your airline carefully.
- Request a seat with a flip-up armrest when you make your reservation, as it makes transfers easier. Some airlines routinely block bulkhead seats for wheelchair-users, however this is not required under the ACAA. If bulkhead seating is important to you, make sure you travel on an airline that reserves these seats for disabled passengers.
- If you need a non-ticketed escort to accompany you to the gate, advise the airline of this when you make your reservation. Your escort will be asked for photo identification and given a security checkpoint pass.
- Even if you don’t routinely use a wheelchair at home, consider requesting an airport wheelchair when you book your reservation if you are a slow walker. Some airports are quite large, and the whole boarding process can involve a lot of walking and standing.
- Under the ACAA, airlines are required to carry wheelchairs, other mobility aids and assistive devices free of charge. This can include everything from oxygen concentrators and ventilators, to shower chairs and even catheter supplies. That said, remember to pack medical supplies in a clearly labeled box, and do not mix them with your personal items.
- If you are traveling with oxygen or a ventilator, contact the airline for their specific rules and procedures.
- If you have any questions regarding security screening procedures, call the TSA Cares hotline at (855) 787-2227 at least 72 hours prior to your flight. They will be able to supply you with airport specific information regarding your inquiry.
- If you have any questions about the ACAA, or are having problems getting the accommodations you need, contact the DOT Hotline at (800) 778-4838.
At the Airport
- Most wheelchair-users can stay in their own wheelchairs until they get to the gate. At that time they will be transferred to an aisle chair and boarded, and their wheelchair will be gate checked. Passengers who have scooters or wheelchairs with spillable (not gel cell) batteries must instead transfer to an airport wheelchair at check-in, and surrender their mobility device at that time.
- If you use an airport wheelchair, don’t give it up once you get to the gate, because if there is a gate change you won’t have any way to get to the new gate — which can sometimes be a very long walk away.
- Always allow extra time to get through security. Carry your wheelchair repair tools in your checked bag. If you encounter any problems at the security checkpoint ask for the Passenger Support Specialist, as these employees have additional training in access issues.
- Remember, you are not required to perform any tasks at the security checkpoint that you are physically unable to do. If an TSA employee asks you to stand, walk, or even take off your shoes, just let them know that you are unable to do that. For more information on TSA procedures regarding wheelchair-users and slow walkers, visit www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures.
- Once you get to the gate let the gate agent know that you need to preboard the aircraft. This will give you extra time to transfer and stow your gear in a more private setting.
Protect Your Wheelchair
- Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your wheelchair or scooter.
- Remove any loose or protruding parts from your wheelchair or scooter. Protect your joystick with some type of hard covering such as a plastic cup secured with packing tape.
- Let a little bit of air out of your wheelchair tires. Carry on all gel cushions. Baggage compartments are not pressurized.
- Snap a digital photo of your wheelchair before you board. It’s a good way to document the condition of your assistive device in case of damage.
- Make sure you have adequate insurance, as US airlines are only liable for the purchase price (not the replacement cost) of assistive devices on domestic flights, and a flat $1685 on international flights.
On the Airplane
- On aircraft with more than 100 seats, there’s priority storage space aboard for one manual wheelchair. This space is available on a first-come basis, so it pays to get to the boarding area early, to get the first crack at the space.
- Make sure an on-board wheelchair is aboard the aircraft before takeoff. If you cannot walk, this is how you will be transported to the lavatory. On-board wheelchairs are required on all aircraft with accessible lavatories, but sometimes they are accidentally offloaded, so it always pays to check.
- Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Accessible airline lavatories have to be large enough to accommodate the on-board wheelchair, but in most cases there is not enough room for an attendant. Check out the aircraft diagrams at www.seatguru.com to find planes that have larger accessible restrooms.
If Things Go Wrong
- If you encounter any problems, contact the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO); an airline employee trained about the ACAA. All US airlines are required to have a CRO on duty during airport operating hours. Foreign carriers are also required to have a CRO available at airports that serve flights that begin or end in the US.
- If your equipment is damaged or you experience a access related service failure, report it to the airline and request compensation. If your assistive device is not usable, be sure to request an appropriate loaner.
- You can also file a ACAA complaint for access related service failures at airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm. This complaint will not result in compensation but it does help to make air travel more accessible in the long run.