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Home for the Holidays
Surviving the Journey

As the holidays approach, it’s time to think about heading over the river and through the woods to spend some quality time with family and friends. According to the AAA, travelers hit the road in record numbers last year, when over 100 million people traveled over 50 miles to celebrate the holidays. During this busy travel season, crowded airports, cranky kids, unexpected delays and family stress are just a given; but factor a wheelchair into that equation, and it’s enough to overwhelm almost any parent.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Granted, you can’t stop Uncle Harold from telling his off color jokes at the dinner table or get your mom to zip her lip as far as your parenting skills, wardrobe or hairstyle are concerned; but with a little preparation you can make the whole travel experience a little easier on everyone. After all, getting there is half the battle.

Flying is by far the fastest way to get to most destinations; however it’s also the most time intensive as far as planning goes. The good news is, a little consumer education goes a long way to smoothing over the bumps in the air travel experience. To that end, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the law that covers access on US (and some foreign) airlines. A good primer on the subject is the free Accessible Air Travel booklet, available for download at Learn the law, so you know what to expect.

Once you arrive at the airport, you can check your luggage at curbside, get a boarding pass and proceed directly to the gate. If your child travels with a manual wheelchair or a power wheelchair with gel cell batteries, they don’t have to transfer to an airport wheelchair. Under the ACAA passengers can stay in their own wheelchairs until the aircraft door. If however your child’s wheelchair has a spillable battery, the wheelchair must be surrendered at check-in, as the battery must be removed and packaged separately. In this case, you cannot use curbside check-in. Best bet is to travel with gel cell batteries whenever possible, as it streamlines the whole process.

The next step is getting through the security checkpoint. Wheelchair-users are usually fast-tracked to the front of the security line, however secondary screening is required since wheelchairs set off the metal detectors. During the security screening, the wheelchair is wanded and sometimes also swabbed.

The most frustrating aspect about airport security is that the rules change frequently. The best resource for updated information is the Transportation Security Administration website at At press time, liquids, gels and aerosols were still banned from carry-on luggage, but prescription medications (in original containers), KY jelly and gel wheelchair cushions were allowed. It’s also advisable to carry wheelchair-repair tools in checked baggage, as they may be confiscated at the security checkpoint. And of course allow plenty of extra time to clear security, especially during the holidays.

At the gate, an aisle chair is used to board passengers who cannot walk. Passengers are transferred to this high-backed chair, then wheeled down the aisle to their seat. Upon arrival, the same procedure is repeated in reverse. The general rule for wheelchair-users is, first-on last-off. To alleviate anxiety, it’s a good idea to familiarize your child with the whole boarding and security process in advance.

Even though the procedure is pretty basic, there are many variables involved with air travel, so here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Reconfirm all access arrangements directly with the airline at least 48 hours in advance.
  • For an easier transfer, request an aisle seat with a moveable armrest. Under the ACAA, planes with 30 or more seats must have moveable armrests on at least half of the aisle seats.
  • Some airlines grant wheelchair-users priority access to bulkhead seats. These seats have more leg room, but do not have moveable armrests. Check with the airline regarding their bulkhead seating policy.
  • Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Accessible airline lavatories are quite small and in most cases you need to be able to walk a few steps to use them. To avoid surprises, find out what type of aircraft you are flying on, then check out the size of the on-board lavatory at
  • Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your child’s wheelchair.
  • Remove any loose or protruding parts from your child’s wheelchair. Protect the joystick with some type of hard covering such as a plastic cup secured with packing tape.

Under the ACAA, planes with more than 100 seats must provide priority space to carry at least one folding wheelchair in the cabin. If that space is occupied or your child’s wheelchair doesn’t fit, then gate-check the wheelchair and have it delivered to your arrival gate.

It’s also important to remember that if your child’s wheelchair is damaged, the airline is responsible for repairing it and providing an appropriate loaner chair. On the other hand, if a wheelchair is lost or damaged beyond repair, the liability limit of the airline is capped at the original purchase price of the wheelchair. Travelers are cautioned to know the purchase price and the replacement cost of their equipment, and to be aware of the difference between these two figures. If the difference is substantial, consider additional insurance to cover this gap.

Finally, if you encounter any problems along the way, contact the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). The CRO is an airline employee who is specially trained about the ACAA. All US airlines are required to have a CRO on duty 24 hours a day.

Flying isn’t for everyone; in fact, if your child needs a lot of neck or trunk support, it may not even be an option. In that case, car travel is the perfect solution, as you can use neck and back support devices prohibited by the airlines. Additionally, you can pack all of your gifts and gear in your vehicle and travel at your own pace.

The biggest obstacle with car travel is finding accessible rest stops. Best bet is to look for newer fast food restaurants as most have good accessible restrooms, and many even have family restrooms. Also, remember to pack prescription medications in the car, rather than the trunk. The trunk heats up faster than the passenger compartment, and this excessive heat may cause some medications to spoil. It’s also a good idea to take along books and games to keep your child occupied during the journey. And don’t forget to take your parking placard with you, as it’s valid throughout the US, except in New York City.

No matter how you travel, remember to always have a backup plan as things may not exactly go off like clockwork. And as travel veteran Julie Bello puts it, “Pack your patience and allow tons of time.” In the end it’s really worth the extra effort. After all your kids are only young once, and holiday memories are worth their weight in gold.


DOT Hotline
For questions about the ACAA
(866) 266-1368

DOT Passenger Rights

TSA Security Guidelines for People With Disabilities

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide For Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Visit her blog at for access news, resources and industry updates.