Dos and Don’ts of When You Need Special Mobility Assistance at the Airport

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Due to travel restrictions, I had not seen my daughter for two years. We zoomed in, but the headshots hid what was going on in our lives.

As Australian restrictions eased, my daughter wanted me to visit her in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had to blurt out what I managed to hide.

“My knee is worse. I haven’t been able to get medical help due to COVID. And the swimming pool, my normal form of exercise, was closed during the Melbourne lockdowns. Expect me to hobble.

My comment was to warn him of my reduced mobility. But his thoughts turned to airports. She had recently accompanied her exhausted 4-year-old to the new SLC airport, the 12th largest airport in the world – something she couldn’t forget.

“Book special assistance,” she warned.

Know your rights

I had always thought of special assistance as a service for people who are unable to walk, not for those who might find airports difficult and miss connections due to reduced mobility.

But it is a growing problem. Passengers with reduced mobility represent one of the fastest growing demographic in aeronautics.

Whether you are a disabled passenger or a person with reduced mobility, you are legally entitled to support called “Special Assistance”. All US airlines and airlines to and from the US must provide such assistance.

Make your needs known

Travel agents can book your flights with special assistance. If you make the reservation, request special assistance at least 48 hours before your flight through your airline.

This move creates a red flag whenever an airport employee looks at your ticket or boarding pass.

Unfortunately, there is a one-size-fits-all approach. The system tells you that you need a wheelchair the whole way, which is not necessarily what you need. You may be able to stand when you go through security. You may also only need assistance to get to the gate and not to walk down the walkway to the plane.

Inform staff of your needs. This way you are more likely to get the individual support you need rather than being treated as a ‘generic disability’.

Main Concourse, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Photo Credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock.com)

Do not judge

Airports have grown in size. The increasing wingspan of aircraft means that gates are further apart and concourses have grown exponentially to create additional gates. It is not uncommon to walk more than a mile in larger airports. Examples include Atlanta Hartsfield, where the international terminal and domestic check-in distance is 1.67 miles. In Philadelphia, the distance is 1.5 miles.

Not everyone can walk that far.

the Air Carrier Access Act 1986 requires airlines to provide free wheelchair service to any traveler who requests it.

I saw a lot of what I considered to be healthy people in need of assistance at the airport. Were they just avoiding a long walk? Then I realized people were probably looking at me the same way. They couldn’t see the bone splinter in my knee.

“Do not judge for fear of being judged.

Many people suffer from less visible illnesses such as heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain or recover from a fall or surgery. These are all valid reasons for using special assistance.

Use airlines with a good track record

Before using Special Assistance, I didn’t realize there was a stark difference between airlines. I had both a bad and a brilliant experience.

On my flight from SLC to LAX, the flight attendant mumbled, “Let me know if you need any help,” as she rushed off.

I didn’t see her again and there was no help on arrival. With 4 hours between flights, I decided to locate my international gate. How far could it be?

An attendant at the information desk of the same airline barked out instructions. She was so gruff that I didn’t ask twice. I approached different people along the way. The main thing was that there was a bus to the international airport, but if I went out, I would have to queue endlessly to check in again. I should go inside the airport to John Bradly International Terminal.

The route was a maze of endless tunnels of a minotaur. Signage was unclear and closed off areas meant there was no way to see outside to spot me. I was probably going around in circles.

When I reached my gate I had limped 2.5 miles. I was in a lot of pain and felt demoralized.

It was a different experience on the return flight from Qantas. The stewardess asked me if I needed help when I reached Melbourne. “Yes please!” I didn’t want to get caught again.

On arrival I was greeted by a slim woman in high heels and a Qantas uniform who pushed me seemingly effortlessly into a chair. She coordinated to meet a male colleague at the baggage carousel to collect my heavy suitcase. Together they escorted me through customs. I expected to be left at that time, but they left me near where I could access an Uber. They asked me repeatedly until the last second if they could help me more.

According to Mobility platform, Qantas is the first airline for passengers with disabilities. Others with a good reputation include American Airlines, Air Canada, Delta Airlines, Jet Blue, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates. Find out which airline you plan to fly with.

Salt Lake City International Airport Terminal.
Salt Lake City International Airport Terminal (Photo Credit: JW_PNW / Shutterstock.com)

Discover the services offered by the airports

Large airports contract with companies to help less mobile passengers navigate their sprawling terminals. Many of us would prefer electric carts, but busy airports worry congestion. Wheelchairs take up less space.

I used the stroller service at SLC and it was a positive experience. There is a designated office where you can wait for the next available attendant to accompany you.

My lovely tour leader guided me for a mile. He mentioned all the documents I would need to take out at checkpoints. He knew where all the elevators were, and as we navigated past a crowd of kids with dangerous-looking rolling suitcases, I was glad he was the one navigating the trip hazards.

There is officially no cost for such a service, although at most US airports I assume attendants are paid on the assumption that they will be tipped. And browsing the internet, I found that tipping is common.

express yourself

Stating your needs and abilities will help your wheelchair attendant provide the best possible service.

It helps to know if you can stand up and walk through security. And if you need help putting your hand luggage on the seat belt.

If you are under 75, you will need to remove your shoes to pass the checkpoint. If they know ahead of time, they can help you juggle your business while you’re doing it.

Ask for stops if necessary

Your wheelchair attendant should offer you a restroom stop on the way to your gate, then wait outside the restroom.

I saw an attendant buy water and snacks from a woman at an airport store in LAX. It occurred to me that some people ask for stops along the way in the US, where tipping is expected for service.

Remember to plan ahead

However, your wheelchair companion is not required to take you to a store or fast food stand. And you may find that your portal is far from restore points. As you may have hours to wait for your plane, plan accordingly and bring food with you.

Special assistance at airport security check.
Bignai / Shutterstock.com

Consider more time

Some people think that those who ask for help at the airport use the system. Having used the service and watched others use it, I don’t think this is often the case.

Sometimes there is a long wait for an escort, so special assistance is not an automatic time saver.

Being pushed into a chair also does not result in line head privileges at checkpoints. In Melbourne, I was the random number chosen to go through the sniffer dog station to check for drugs. It was a unique experience for the busy Qantas team members pushing me. I wanted to joke: I had brought my own pushers. But jokes rarely sit well with airport security.

Yes, you board the plane earlier than other passengers. But this time saving is offset at your destination when the whole plane with hundreds of passengers disembarks before you.

You’re last in line when you finally leave for treatment, even if sometimes you’ve waited so long on the plane that the crowds have dispersed.

Do not hesitate to ask for help

Assistance at the airport is a free service US Department of Transportation requires airlines to provide – so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Airport floors are shiny and generally level, perfect for the wheels of suitcases and wheelchairs. A child could push one of the specialized chairs. While waiting at SLC, my 4 year old grandson thought it would be fun to take me for a ride. I was relieved when the attendant arrived and rescued me for a quieter ride.

Many of us don’t need wheelchairs in our daily lives, such as navigating supermarket aisles or walking through a park.

The problem is the increased walking required at new mega-airports and increased time spent in airline queues due to increased security measures and paperwork.

Some airportssuch as Christchurch, Heathrow, Gatwick, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, and Tampa International Airportbegan testing self-driving vehicles for people with reduced mobility.

But for now, special assistance mostly means being pushed into a chair. Wheelchair services are not quite what we need, but they are the best services offered at the moment. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Although the phrase relates to the movement of our bodies, some of our bodies are worn out. This is often due to travel. The problem with my knee started after using the London Underground a lot, one of the most the least accessible subway systems. It’s great that airports offer special assistance services. They allow us to continue to travel.

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