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7 air travel tips for wheelchair users

March 13, 2021
8 min read
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Let’s be honest: Flying as a wheelchair user is tough. I’ve traveled to 37 countries and all seven continents as a powered wheelchair user and flying is still the part of traveling that I dread the most. I don’t necessarily dread sitting in the plane seat for hours on end and I definitely don’t have a fear of heights, but instead, I dread not being able to access the restrooms on board and the possibility of my wheelchair getting damaged during the flight.

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There are undoubtedly a lot of worries that come with flying as a wheelchair user, but there are some things that you can do to make the process a bit easier. Here are some of the most important air travel tips for wheelchair users, so that you can hopefully have a smoother experience the next time you fly.

While it may be difficult, it is not impossible to fly with a wheelchair. (Photo by kokouu/Getty Images)

Request bulkhead seating

When booking your flight, think about what seating would work best for your needs. Bulkhead seating typically works best for wheelchair users since it’s the first row of seats in economy class. By requesting a bulkhead seat, you can avoid being wheeled farther back in the plane, and the bulkhead seats usually allow more legroom and space to transfer. However, in my experience, most bulkhead seats do not have moveable armrests, so if that’s something you need be sure to let the airline know.

Study the Air Carrier Access Act

Before flying, or doing anything really, it’s incredibly important to know your rights as a person with a disability. The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination in air travel for those of us with disabilities. There are many aspects to it, but it’s worth studying in-depth before taking a flight. You could even print it out so that you can reference specific points if needed. Learn more about the Air Carrier Access Act here.

Protect your wheelchair from damage

When flying, your powered wheelchair will go into the cargo space, so there is a chance that it could get damaged during the flight. To hopefully prevent damage, there are a few things that you can do.

  • Take a spare bag to store any parts of your wheelchair that can easily come off. I usually take my footrests, joystick and headrest in a carry-on bag. The fewer parts of your wheelchair that are in the cargo hold, the less of a chance of damage.
  • Wrap protective cushioning around any parts of your wheelchair that you don’t end up taking in a carry-on bag. You could wrap the armrests, backrest and more.
  • Print out a sign with instructions on how to operate your chair and tape it on your wheelchair. The sign should say how to manually push and lock it, and you could even put your phone number on the sign so that if the person loading your wheelchair has any questions, they can call you. Once you’re separated from the wheelchair, it’s completely in the hands of the airport staff, so a sign to make it easier for them is appreciated.

Related: Why disabled flyers say the airline industry’s stuck in the last century

Use a sling to make transfers easier

Since it isn’t possible to remain in your wheelchair during flight yet (All Wheels Up is working to change that, thankfully!), you do need to transfer from your wheelchair into a narrow “aisle chair” and then into the plane seat. Airport personnel can physically assist with the transfers, but that can be a tricky process. Instead, you could take your own transfer sling to make getting in and out of your plane seat easier. There are quite a few great slings out there and some of my personal favorites are the easyTravelseat, the Adapts portable transfer sling and the Perfect Lift sling. Any of these transfer slings will not only make the process easier but safer as well.

Plan ahead for using the restroom during the flight

Sometimes it might be easier to just use the facilities in the airport but, that might not always be possible. (Photo by Kanok Sulaiman/Getty Images)

After so much talk of transferring and wheelchair damage prevention, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, but what about using the restroom during the flight?! Is he ever going to talk about it?!” It’s by far the most frequently asked question from fellow wheelchair users about flying and to be honest, we still have a long way to go to make using the restroom on a flight easy for wheelchair users. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

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  • You can request to have an onboard chair kept on your flight. The onboard chair is similar to the aisle chair that’s used when getting on the plane. However, the airline crew cannot help you with transferring into the onboard chair or in the restroom. If you’re unable to transfer yourself in and out of the chair, you will need a companion to assist with that. If you are okay with transferring in and out of the onboard chair, you can get to the restroom with it, but keep in mind that the lavatories are quite small on flights, which could make transferring again to the toilet difficult.
  • If the onboard chair won’t work for you, you could use a condom catheter or a TravelJohn or TravelJane disposable urinal. Covering with a blanket and using a disposable urinal from the plane seat is what many wheelchair users do. It’s the sad reality of air travel for wheelchair users.
  • You could also alter your diet before flying to hopefully avoid needing to use the restroom during flight. Try to avoid anything that could possibly upset your stomach for a couple of days before flying. Also, I cut off liquids a few hours before the flight and then drink as much water as possible once I finally arrive at my destination.

Know what to do if your wheelchair is damaged

Sometimes, even after taking all of the proper precautions, a wheelchair can still be damaged during the flight. If this happens to you, it is tremendously important to file a complaint with the airline before you exit the airport. File a damage report or complaint with the airline as soon as you get off the plane. If you do this, they are required to fix your chair, but once you exit the airport, they are no longer liable. In addition to filing a report with the specific airline, you should also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation by filling out this form online.

Related: Data shows US airlines damage about 25 wheelchairs per day

Remind yourself about what’s waiting for you on the other end

As you can probably tell from this article, flying as a wheelchair user comes with many challenges. However, it’s important to remember that traveling is one of the most rewarding experiences that anyone can have. When I’m on a flight and start getting stressed out about the logistics of accessible air travel, I try to close my eyes and remind myself of what all is waiting for me at the other end of that flight: a beautiful destination with wonderful people and foods. When I begin to think about how spectacular it’s going to be once I arrive, all of my worries seem to slip away.

Related: The most wheelchair-accessible beach destinations in the US

Bottom line

As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into air travel for those of us with disabilities. Sure, it can be tricky and even downright stressful at times, but hopefully, these pointers will make the whole process a little easier the next time you fly. By incorporating all of the above tips, you should be able to sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.

Featured image by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

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  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
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  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.