12 Tips for Taking to the Skies in a Wheelchair

Wheelchair Airline Travel Tips


Traveling with a wheelchair requires work up front, but the adventures awaiting you are worth the effort. So get ready to put your phone in airplane mode, stow your tray tables and prepare for take-off!

1. Be an early bird: If possible, book your flights ahead of time rather than at the last minute. On the days you’re traveling, get to the airport early — most airlines recommend being at your gate an hour before departure. When you’re figuring out when to leave home, factor in extra time to check in and go through security.

2. Repeat yourself: When you’re booking your ticket, tell the agent if you will need airlines/airports to provide a wheelchair for you, or if you’ll be bringing your own. If you book online and there’s no opportunity to include this information, contact the airline so an agent can add this note to your customer file. When checking in, tell that agent about your mobility situation as well. If you’ll bring a service animal with you, let the airlines know that, too.

3. Get a wheelchair check-up: Before you travel, make sure your wheelchair (and batteries, if applicable) are in tip-top shape. Schedule a check-up with your wheelchair provider or repair technician.

4. Know your batteries: While your wheelchair is getting checked over, ask the technician about your batteries. Airlines have different safety policies for how batteries are handled/stored based on type (wet, dry or lithium). If your batteries need to be removed and/or specially packaged prior to flight, you might need to arrive at the airport earlier. Check with your airline to ask when to arrive.

5. Know how your wheelchair folds or disassembles: This is especially true if you have a wheelchair that will travel in the cargo hold rather than in the aircraft cabin. Know which parts — e.g., wheels, seat cushion — come off the wheelchair. Many travel experts recommend that you carry these parts with you into the cabin if your chair must travel in the cargo area.

6. Identify your property: Put your name — and contact information, if you feel comfortable providing it — on your wheelchair and each removable part. Some airlines also recommend or require you to provide information on how to fold/disassemble the chair, plus other identifying information, such as the chair’s serial number.

7. Give workers a hand: If you provide additional information about your wheelchair, include a photo or diagram of how to lift it, i.e., where airline workers should place their hands on the chair when holding and lifting. One major airline recommends laminating the instructions and attaching them to your chair to reduce the likelihood of instructions being lost or damaged beyond readability.

8. Study up: Airlines have their own preferences for policies such as how far in advance they’d like to know you’ll be bringing a wheelchair or service animal with you. Ask what your particular airlines prefer.

9. Know your rights before you go: There are some regulations that all airlines (and passengers) need to follow. For instance, aircraft with at least 100 passenger seats must have a space to store at least one folding wheelchair, and aircraft with more than 60 passenger seats and an accessible bathroom must provide an on-board wheelchair for passengers to use. Read your rights: airconsumer.dot.gov/rules/382short.pdf.

10. Make transfers easier: When you book your ticket, ask for a seat with an armrest that flips up out of your way if that would make transfers easier, and/or a seat in a bulkhead row (the row behind airplane walls), which typically offers a little more room than other rows.

11. Don’t forget Spot’s information: Look up your airports’ service animal relief areas before you leave home: petfriendlytravel.com/airports. Most relief areas are outside of secure areas, meaning that if you visit one, you will have to go through security again to get back to your gate. So plan accordingly.

12. Speak up: If you have trouble with accessibility at an airport or during your flight, ask to speak to a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). During operating hours, each airport must have a CRO available to speak with you in person or by phone.