Traveling by Plane
Traveling by airplane is very manageable in a wheelchair. As with everything else, doing some research and planning will help the trip go smoothly.
Making the reservation:
- Airlines are required by federal law to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities. You can access information about what airlines must offer here: https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/ABCs_of_Accessible_Travel-Digital_Brochure.pdf
- When making a reservation online, look for information on passengers needing special travel assistance and request wheelchair assistance or make other more specialized requests (such as using oxygen on board.) The airlines handle this differently. Some require you to call or email with your request, while others have an online form to fill out when you make your reservation.
- It is very important to make a seat reservation near the front of the plane. Even if you are still able to walk down the aisle, it can be challenging to walk a long way down the aisle, especially if people start boarding behind you. If there are no seats available near the front, call the airline and request one for a disabled passenger and companion. They usually can accommodate you if you do this far enough in advance as they typically reserve some seats near the front for disabled passengers.
Arriving at the terminal and going through security:
- When you arrive at the terminal, alert the ticketing agents (where you check your luggage and get your boarding passes) that you requested wheelchair assistance (even if you haven’t previously requested it, they will still provide it if you ask.) You will then be asked to wait for a transport agent to bring an airport wheelchair to you. If possible, it is easier to transfer to the airport wheelchair and check your wheelchair with your luggage (there is no charge for this.) The transport agent will help you navigate the most accessible route to TSA security. Your party will be allowed to go with you to the front of the TSA line with the transport agent.
- At security, you will be asked if you can stand to walk through the metal detector. Just say no and they will push you through and allow the TSA Agents to use a handheld wand to do the security check. It is helpful for the care partner to try to stay close to the patient as they go through security because they sometimes need to advocate or speak for a loved one who may have speech issues.
- Once through security, the transport agent will take you to the gate (ask to stop at the restroom before you get there and use a family restroom if you need assistance from your care partner) and they will usually leave you there and come back to assist when the pre-boarding starts.
- There is, of course, no charge for this service, but many people do give a small tip to the transport agent, especially if they go above and beyond, as many do.
Boarding and during flight:
- Make sure the gate agents are aware that you need to pre-board; don’t rely on the transport agent to make that happen; have your care partner remind them.
- The transport staff or gate agent will wheel you down the ramp to the plane, but your travel companions will have to assist you once you reach the door of the airplane. Your entire party should go with you so they can help you get seated and with any carry-on bags.
- Decide ahead of time if you are able to walk from the wheelchair to your seat. This will depend on how well you can take a few steps and how close your seat is to the front of the plane. If you are concerned and want additional assistance, tell the gate agent you will need an aisle chair. The airline staff will transfer you to a little rolling chair that fits in the aisle.
- Once you are settled in your seat, ask the flight attendant if you can use the First Class restroom. It will usually be the closest restroom to you, assuming you are sitting near the front of the plane. They will often allow you to do so (and just ignore the occasional grumblings from other passengers.)
- Once in flight, the flight attendants will usually offer extra assistance with things like getting your carry-on bag down from the overhead bin.
- Bring your own food (either from home or buy in the terminal.) Flights do not provide a good variety of healthy food these days and what they do provide, such as nuts and chips, may be difficult for someone with swallowing issues.
- After the flight lands, stay in your seat until everyone deplanes. The staff at the arrival gate will be there with a wheelchair to help you once you get to the door of the plane (or, again, you can request the aisle chair.)
In the arrival terminal:
- The transport personnel can assist you to stop in the restroom before you get to baggage claim so be sure to ask.
- If you are renting a car, it is easiest to have one of your travel companions board the shuttle bus to rent the car while you wait (hopefully with someone) for them to circle back to get you in front of the terminal.
- If you are taking a taxi, ask at the taxi stand if there are minivans available as they will be easier to get in and out of and will accommodate your wheelchair more easily.
Contributed by Patricia Libby Thvedt, former care partner to an MSA patient and member of the MSA Board of Directors.