7 air travel tips for wheelchair users

Mar 13, 2021

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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:

  • 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 photo by Carlo Prearo/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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