Tips for Air Travel

Part 1: Checking In

Airlines and airports are moving towards self-service, which can pose problems for persons with hidden mobility disabilities. If you want to manage your pain level, find out ahead of time how far you will be expected to walk from transportation to the airport until you actually receive wheelchair assistance. Keep in mind the difference between what you can comfortably walk and the amount of mandatory walking you will have to do to get to your seat or use a restroom – and try to limit all other walking to just that amount.

In addition to notifying the airline that you will need wheelchair assistance, here is some research you can do ahead of time:

  1. If you are parking your car and taking an airport shuttle, can you ask the shuttle to drop you on the Departures level near your check-in counter instead of down on the Arrivals level?
  2. Will there be a greeter or porter at the airport door who can get you wheelchair assistance while you wait on a bench (instead of having to walk into the Departures Hall)?
  3. Will you be expected to use a stand-up kiosk for check-in or is there a sit-down option?
  4. What can you do to be connected with wheelchair assistance quickly and without much walking?

While the facility where you park can answer #1, you will probably need to talk with someone at the airport, not simply the airline. Try starting by contacting the airport (Special Assistance or Customer Service) to get specific information.

Remember you will need to educate the person you are talking with. Try saying something like, “How can I quickly connect with wheelchair assistance? I can only walk 50 feet.” If you say “I can only walk a short distance,” the person will probably think you mean 250-300 feet.

The key is planning ahead and arriving early!

Part 2: Getting to and on the Plane

Airports usually have long distances to walk & multiple times to stand in line. To help yourself, think of having a limited number of steps that you can “spend” in your trip. Being able to walk 35 feet comfortably means you have about 14 steps to parcel out so that you do not end up in unnecessary pain. Here are suggestions:

  • Ask to be seated while you are getting check-in service.
  • Insist on staying in a wheelchair and getting a manual pat-down at security.
  • Resist being placed on a cart for distance unless they will take you by wheelchair right up to the gate check-in.
  • Get wheelchair assistance right up to the door of the plane.
  • Ask for help with getting your carry-on to your seat & stowed.

The key is not being pressured into walking too far!

 Part 3: Getting On and Off the Plane

Sometimes you are faced with climbing stairs. In this case, be honest with yourself about how many stairs you can climb without beginning to feel additional pain or shortness of breath. If you are likely to have difficulty, let the airline know that you would like to be boarded using a hydraulic lift (sometimes called a ambulift) that moves you from the ground to the opening where the catering cart attaches to the plane.

When it comes to deplaning, keep in mind that the airline’s responsibility for you ends when you step off the plane into the Jet way or onto the tarmac. Make sure that you don’t leave the plane until wheelchair assistance has arrived, even if you get pressured to “just step off” or “just walk up the jet way.” Airline crew legally cannot leave you alone on the plane so they may try a number of methods to “dislodge” you so that they can leave. If you do step out onto the jet way before the wheelchair arrives, you may well find yourself standing and waiting there alone for some time.

In most airports, you have the right to receive wheelchair assistance all the way out to your ground transportation. Be alert to attempts to leave you before that point – for example, at an elevator or escalator to baggage claim, or at the baggage claim carousel. If you get out of the wheelchair (or off the cart), you may find yourself facing a long way to get your baggage and find local transportation.

The key is to keep focused on minimizing walking, climbing, or standing!