Top travelling tips for wheelchair users, from wheelchair users

Read the online fine print and don’t be afraid to write instructions for baggage handlers

Keep in mind that wheelchair users exit the aircraft last. The deplaning process can easily take 25 minutes or more. Photograph: iStock

Keep in mind that wheelchair users exit the aircraft last. The deplaning process can easily take 25 minutes or more. Photograph: iStock


People often say that travelling is all about the journey and not the destination, but for wheelchair users, navigating air travel is often more of an adventure than they would like.

Rolling through large crowded airports, hauling luggage, waiting in long lines, receiving a pat down, being strapped into a tiny aisle chair and then sitting for hours unable to move is exhausting. We’ve learned that the best way to circumvent some of the inevitable issues is to know what to expect, and prepare accordingly.

What to remember before you book

Before clicking the purchase button, even seasoned travellers should review the airline’s policies regarding passengers with disabilities. John Morris, a triple amputee who has flown more than 1.4 million kilometres in the past five years, writes about accessibility for his website WheelchairTravel.

He discovered, after reading AirAsia’s website, that he cannot fly with the airline because his battery-operated wheelchair weighs more than the airline allows.

When choosing a seat, Morris prefers a window to avoid being crawled over by other passengers. Other travellers, particularly those who cannot transfer from a wheelchair to their seat independently, may prefer the aisle seat. The roomier bulkhead seating might be an option for some, just be aware the armrests do not raise.

Also, keep in mind that wheelchair users exit the aircraft last. The deplaning process can easily take 25 minutes or more, so when booking a connecting flight, always allow ample time. Morris recommends a minimum of 90 minutes. Considering that quick layover might be your only opportunity to visit a restroom, those extra few minutes are precious.

After booking your flight, contact the airline at least 48 hours in advance of departure and let them know you will need special assistance. If you must change airlines, which can be common on international flights, be sure to notify them, too.

Avoid wheelchair damage

“The way the airlines treat our equipment causes some wheelchair users to not travel at all, and that breaks my heart,” said Sylvia Longmire, a former US Air Force officer who travels the world solo on her small power wheelchair. Longmire also writes Spin the Globe, an accessible travel website.

You can help prevent wheelchair damage by attaching written instructions explaining how to operate your chair, as well as how it folds and tilts. Before turning a wheelchair over to airport personnel, take off any removable parts such as the seat cushion, removable wheels and footrests. These items may be carried on the plane and do not count as baggage.

For your own baggage, carry as little luggage as possible. The airline’s curbside baggage check can be helpful if available, or consider purchasing a rolling suitcase designed to attach to a wheelchair.

Finally, always carefully inspect your wheelchair for damage when it’s returned to you and immediately notify the airline if there is a problem. Document any damage you find with photos that you can send to the airline, as well to file a compensation claim.

How to navigate bathroom concerns

Many domestic flights are on single-aisle planes which rarely have accessible bathrooms onboard. Even though wide-body planes (those with two aisles) are required to have an accessible lavatory, the tight configuration doesn’t work for many travellers with disabilities.

To avoid embarrassment, always confirm before departure that the plane has an onboard wheelchair. Flight attendants can push you to the bathroom. They do not assist with transferring to a toilet or providing personal care.

Better yet, consider that domestic airports are required to have accessible restrooms in all terminals; you will definitely be better off using the toilet before you depart.

However, some small or older airports may not have them. Staff at the information desk in the airport can guide you to an accessible or family bathroom, or you can review the terminal layout on a nearby map or on your smartphone before you depart to find the closest accessible bathroom.

Although it isn’t healthy, Longmire stops eating and drinking the day before a flight. Other travellers might choose to use a catheter or wear protective undergarments.

What to do if things go wrong

If you encounter an access problem at the airport and the airline is unable to resolve it, ask to speak with the Complaint Resolution Official in the US. Each air carrier is required to have one or more available on site or by phone. This specially trained individual has the authority to problem solve on the spot.

- New York Times