The world has become more accessible since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Destinations are adding smoother curb cuts, wheelchair-friendly attractions, and accessible transportation to better welcome travelers of all abilities.
However, despite these societal adaptations, wheelchair users are presented with another problem: How do we get to these destinations without our wheelchairs getting damaged during flight? Airlines damage an average of 29 wheelchairs per day, and it’s something I worry about every time I fly.
As a wheelchair user and frequent traveler, I have learned from experience that there are some things that make flying easier though—when it comes to protecting yourself, your chair, and reducing stress and discomfort during the journey. Below, my top eight tips for flying as a wheelchair user.
All products featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
1. Call the airline
As soon as you’ve booked your flight, call the airline directly. Remind them of when you are flying, giving them your confirmation number, and explain that you will be bringing your wheelchair. Let them know details of your chair—height, weight, length, and width—to minimize issues when you arrive at the airport. If you have a powered wheelchair, you will need to let them know if your battery is either wet, dry, or gel cell. (If you’re not sure what type of battery you have, call your wheelchair supplier to find out.). Tell the airline about any personal needs as well, like if you need the aisle chair to board the plane, or if you will need assistants to help transfer you into your plane seat.
2. Know your rights
Take some time to read the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) before your flight. This law makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against any passenger due to 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 help passengers with disabilities in boarding, deplaning, making connections, and maneuvering between gates. There is also a timeline for helping wheelchair users off the plane, and it states that wheelchair users will be given more time to board if needed. By reading the law, you can educate yourself and know if the treatment you are receiving is aligned with your rights as a passenger.
3. Store any removable wheelchair parts
Once you are at the plane door and ready to board, remove any parts of your wheelchair that you do not want the airline or ground crew to damage. I always remove my headrest and knee supports, but some wheelchairs also have a joystick that can unplug and detach (if yours does, I’d suggest removing it).
I always bring a tote bag to store these parts in, and I carry my cushion with me onto the plane and place it in my seat. The closet on the plane is the perfect spot to hang your spare parts, so they are safe during the journey—flight attendants are always happy to assist with this. Removing parts before boarding allows me to be most comfortable during the flight and less stressed about what might get damaged.
4. Pack a backpack with quick-fix supplies
After flying time and time again, there are several items I will no longer fly without. I always pack a backpack with several “quick fix” supplies. Zip ties and duct tape are useful for a quick repair if your wheelchair gets slightly damaged during flight. I also like to pack bubble wrap, masking tape, and a plastic bag so that I can seal my joystick (since mine does not easily remove) by wrapping the bubble wrap around it, putting the plastic bag over that in case it is raining at the destination upon arrival, and then wrapping the masking tape around the bag to hold it in place. Several strips of Velcro in different lengths can also come in handy if the aisle chair does not have enough straps to help you to feel safe or if extra “harnesses” are needed throughout your journey. I would also suggest packing straws in your carry-on bag if drinking without them can be difficult for you, as most airlines no longer have them onboard.
5. Get TSA pre-check
While flying as a wheelchair user can be stressful, the whole process of going through security can be even more uncomfortable. As the “able-bodied” people pass through the x-ray scanner in security, us wheelers often get left sitting while waiting for the dreaded and invasive pat down. This is where the TSA officer takes the wheelchair user aside to make sure there is nothing hidden on your person or in, on, or underneath your wheelchair. They also most often swab your hands, shoes, and wheelchair, checking for any drug or explosive residue. If you want to avoid this whole pat-down experience, I’d suggest getting TSA Pre-Check. (You can sign up online for approval usually within 3-5 days; it currently costs $85 for a five-year membership, though some credit cards will cover the cost.) If you qualify for TSA Pre-Check, you can bypass the pat-down completely.
6. Purchase a sling or lift
If you are unable to assist with transfers, you may want to purchase a sling with handles to place underneath you. This will allow airport staff to best help you into your airplane seat without uncomfortably manhandling. I have two slings that are both perfect for an easy transfer: One is the ableSling and the other is The Perfect Lift. Both are comfortable when underneath me and have handles that the airline staff can use, and they allow me to stay in a seated position while transitioning from the wheelchair to the aisle chair and then the aisle chair to the plane seat. Everyone’s needs are different, so the most important thing is choosing a transfer sling that works best for you.
7. Plan for your restroom needs
As a wheelchair user, being able to access the restroom while flying can be more than challenging. Restrooms on planes are very small, and if you need to transfer onto the toilet there’s not a lot of room to maneuver within the space. Even worse than that, if you are not able to transfer yourself and need total assistance, the space for the extra people just doesn’t exist. Until the day comes when airplanes are fully accessible, there are only a few options for us wheelchair users that can help.