Flying in a wheelchair is never easy, but these 8 tips help me every time


The world has become more accessible since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Destinations are adding smoother sidewalk cuts, wheelchair-friendly attractions, and accessible transportation to better accommodate travelers of all abilities.

However, despite these societal adaptations, wheelchair users face another problem: how to get to these destinations without our wheelchairs being damaged during the flight? Airlines damage an average of 29 wheelchairs a day, and it’s something that worries me every time I fly.

As a wheelchair user and frequent traveler, I’ve learned from experience that there are certain things that make flying easier, when it comes to protecting yourself, protecting your wheelchair, and reducing stress. and discomfort during travel. Below are my top eight tips for flying in a wheelchair.

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1. Call the airline

As soon as you have booked your flight, call the airline directly. Remind them when you are flying, give them your confirmation number and explain that you will be bringing your wheelchair. Let them know your chair details (height, weight, length and width) to minimize problems when you arrive at the airport. If you have an electric wheelchair you will need to let them know if your battery is wet, dry or gel. (If you are unsure of the type of battery you have, call your wheelchair supplier to find out.). Also let the airline know of any personal needs, such as if you need the aisle chair to board the plane or if you will need assistants to help you get into your plane seat .

2. Know your rights

Take the time to read the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) before your flight. This law prohibits airlines from discriminating against any passenger because of a disability. This law is enforced by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and applies to all flights to, from, and within the United States. The ACAA states that airlines must assist passengers with disabilities when boarding, disembarking, connecting and maneuvering between gates. There is also a timetable to help wheelchair users get off the plane, and it indicates that wheelchair users will have extra time to board if needed. By reading the law, you can find out whether the treatment you are receiving is in line with your rights as a passenger.

3. Store all removable parts of the wheelchair

Once at the aircraft door and ready to board, remove any parts of your wheelchair that you do not want the airline or ground staff to damage. I always remove my headrest and kneepads, but some wheelchairs also have a joystick that can unplug and come off (if yours does, I suggest you remove it).

I always bring a tote bag to store these parts, and I carry my cushion with me on the plane and place it in my seat. The aircraft closet is the perfect place to hang your spares, so they’re safe during the trip – flight attendants are always happy to help. Removing parts before boarding allows me to be more comfortable during the flight and less stressed about what might be damaged.

4. Pack a backpack with quick fix supplies

After flying over and over again, there are several items I won’t fly without. I always pack a backpack with several “quick” supplies. Zip ties and tape are useful for a quick repair if your wheelchair is slightly damaged during the flight. I also like to pack bubble wrap, tape and a plastic bag so I can seal my joystick (because mine doesn’t come off easily) by wrapping the bubble wrap around it, putting the plastic bag over it at the in case it rains at the destination upon arrival, then wrap the tape around the bag to hold it in place. Several strips of Velcro of different lengths can also be useful if the aisle chair does not have enough straps to help you feel secure or if additional “harnesses” are needed throughout your trip. I would also suggest packing straws in your hand luggage if drinking without them can be difficult for you, as most airlines no longer have them on board.

5. Get a TSA pre-check

While traveling in a wheelchair can be stressful, the whole process of going through security can be even more uncomfortable. While “able-bodied” people walk safely through the X-ray scanner, we rollers often sit waiting for the dreaded and invasive pat-down. This is where the TSA agent takes the wheelchair user aside to make sure there is nothing hidden on you or in, on, or under your wheelchair. They also most often clean your hands, shoes and wheelchair, checking for drug or explosive residue. If you want to skip that whole pat-down experience, I suggest you do a TSA pre-check. (You can register online for approval typically within 3-5 days; it currently costs $85 for a five-year subscription, though some credit cards will cover the cost.) If you qualify for TSA pre-check , you can bypass the pat-down completely.

6. Buy a sling or lift

If you are unable to help with transfers, you can purchase a sling with handles to place under you. This will allow airport staff to better help you settle into your airplane seat without roughing you up. I have two slings that are both great for easy transfer: one is the ableSling and the other is the Perfect Lift. Both are comfortable under me and have handles that airline staff can use, and they allow me to stay in a seated position when transitioning from wheelchair to aisle chair and then from aisle chair to seat of plane. Everyone’s needs are different, so the most important thing is to choose a transfer sling that is right for you.

7. Plan your toilet needs

As a wheelchair user, being able to access the toilet on an airplane can be more than difficult. Toilets on planes are very small, and if you have to transfer to the toilet, there isn’t much room to maneuver in the space. Worse still, if you are unable to transfer yourself and require full assistance, the space for additional people simply does not exist. Until the day airplanes are fully accessible, there are only a few options for us wheelchair users that can help us.


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