Skip navigation.

Air Travel Tips for Wheelers

Travel by its very nature is an adventure. Factor a disability into that equation and things can sometimes get pretty scary. But a little planning and preparation can give you the confidence and knowledge to effectively deal with problems when they arise. Here are some tips to help you along the way:

Before You Fly

Inform yourself about the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). Get the free publication, “Accessible Air Travel” from United Spinal Organization at (800) 444-0120.

Although in theory the ACAA applies to all airlines with flights to or from the US, in practice it’s hard to enforce outside of the US. For best access travel on a US carrier whenever possible.

If you must travel on a foreign carrier, learn the access laws of that country too.

If you travel on a non-U.S. airline ask if it permits wheelchair-users to travel independently. Some non-U.S. airlines routinely deny boarding to wheelchair-users unless they are accompanied by a companion. Find this out before you make your reservations.

Ask a lot of questions before you book your flight. The ACAA rules require airlines to provide prospective passengers with basic information about the accessibility of their facilities, services, and aircraft. Such information can include facts like the location of seats with movable aisle armrests, the locations and dimensions of storage facilities for mobility aids, and the availability of an onboard accessible lavatory.

Inform the reservations clerk if you need boarding assistance or the use of an aisle chair (a narrow high-backed chair used to board non-ambulatory passengers).

Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Lavatories on aircraft are quite small, and generally speaking you need to be able to transfer independently in order to use them. Airline staff will not assist you in the lavatory. If you use a catheter, devise a system for emptying leg bag while en route.

Consider switching to gel cell batteries. Gel cell batteries are merely disconnected for air transport, while other batteries are removed and packaged separately. If you already have gel cell batteries, make sure they are clearly marked for they won’t be mistakenly removed.

Reconfirm all arrangements directly with the airline at least 48 hours in advance and make sure they have all your access needs noted.

At the Airport

In times of heightened security, curbside check-in may be discontinued. Check with your airline and airport to determine if this service is available. If curbside check-in has been discontinued, inform your airline that you need curbside assistance.

Advise the customer service agent at the check- in counter if you need to have a non-ticketed escort accompany you to the gate. Your escort will be asked for photo identification and then given a security checkpoint pass. Only one escort per passenger is allowed.

Allow plenty of extra time to get through security. All sharp objects or anything that could be used as a weapon will be confiscated at the security checkpoint, so carry your wheelchair repair tools in your checked baggage.

Advise the gate agent that you would like to preboard the aircraft. Your assistive device will only get priority space in the onboard closet if you preboard.

Stay in your own wheelchair until you transfer to the airline aisle chair. Airline personnel may try to get you to transfer to an airline wheelchair at check-in or at curbside, but you are not required to do this unless you have batteries that need to be removed and packaged separately (spillable batteries). Gate-check your wheelchair, and have it brought directly to you at your arrival gate.

Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your wheelchair or scooter.

Remove any loose or protruding parts from your wheelchair or scooter. Protect your joystick with some type of hard covering. A plastic cup and packing tape works well.

Let a little of air out of your wheelchair tires. Carry on all gel cushions (baggage compartments are not pressurized).

During the Flight

Let the attendant know if you need to use the onboard wheelchair.

Remind the flight attendant 30 minutes before landing that your wheelchair needs to be delivered to you at the gate.

If Problems Arise

Ask to speak to the Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO) if you’re traveling on a U.S. airline. The CRO is trained and educated on travelers’ rights and airline responsibilities under the ACAA. All U.S. airlines are required to have a CRO on duty 24 hours a day. The Department of Transportation also operates a consumer information hotline (866-266-1368) for travelers who have questions about the ACAA.