Air Travel for Wheelchair Users

The following article is reproduced with kind permission from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. For further articles refer to www.casa.gov.au

When making reservations

Some things to consider when making airline reservations:

  • Make your reservation as far in advance as possible.
  • Tell the reservations person that you will be travelling with a wheelchair or scooter.
  • Inform them if you need assistance with boarding (an aisle chair to get to your seat).
  • If it is a long flight and you are able to use a standard restroom but are unable to walk to the restroom, ask that they make the aisle chair available to you during the flight.
  • Always confirm that the airline has a record of your requests 48 hours prior to departure.
  • Some of the newer aeroplanes have lift up armrests on some aisle seats. You can request to be seated in one of these if available to make it easier to transfer from the aisle chair.

It's a good idea to prepare yourself with all the information you need before heading off. This includes the best way for you to be transferred between chairs, how to disassemble and reassemble your chair for transport, and how to do minor repairs (it might help to carry a couple of essential tools with you). It might also help to phone around your destination and locate a reliable wheelchair repair business just in case it's needed.

At the airport

Be sure to arrive early and make certain you get a gate check tag during check in. This tag attached to your chair, lets the ground crew know to bring your chair to the gate when your plane arrives, rather than to the baggage claim area. Airline personnel, gate and flight attendants have a lot of power and a lot of leeway, so it helps if you can get them on your side.

You will generally be the first to board the plane and the last to disembark although flight personnel may ask if you wish to disembark before or after the other passengers.

If you use a fold up manual wheelchair you can request that it be stowed in the on board coat closet, if the plane has one, but this is purely at the discretion of the flight crew and space may not always be available.

Transport of wheelchairs

As a general rule airline operators will require all types of wheelchairs to be checked luggage. In particular, electric wheelchairs have their own special requirements for air transport. All electric chairs must be stowed as checked luggage so it is important to minimise the possibility of damage during transit. Remove seat cushions and any other parts that could easily become separated from the chair. It is a good idea to disconnect and remove any battery wires that may be visible to the ground crew. Electrical connections may make them nervous and they have been known to remove them before they load the chair into the cargo hold. For transporting ease airlines much prefer gel or dry cell batteries to traditional acid filled ones.

Some disassembly may be required for transport so it may be a good idea to attach some "how-to" instructions to your chair. Remember it also has to be reassembled at the other end by a different ground crew who may not be experienced in such procedures. For this reason it's probably a good idea to travel with some basic maintenance tools for your wheelchair.

The aisle chair

If you are unable to walk from your wheelchair to your seat in the aircraft, you'll transfer to a carry-on or aisle chair for the trip down the aisle. You can't ride your chair onto the plane - it simply won't fit.

An aisle chair is a tall, skinny, high-backed chair designed to fit down the narrow aisle of an aircraft. It has retaining straps to hold you in and is quite stable. Even so it might be a good idea to take your own leg strap just in case you need to strap your legs into the chair.

Most planes are fitted with some aisle seating that has a movable or lift up armrest. This enables an easier transfer from the aisle chair. If you require assistance transferring to the plane seat, take responsibility for yourself and tell the staff how to help you. The staff are often helpful and well trained but you are always safer not assuming anything.

If an an aisle seat was requested but not allocated, ask the cabin crew to swap your seat for another. Being stuck sitting in a middle seat could make it very difficult to get to a restroom during a long flight.

During the flight

Certain types of aircraft have a privacy curtain that includes the aisle to allow a companion to assist you. Bear in mind that aeroplane toilets are small and not all aircraft have disabled facilities in their restrooms. Ask the reservations person for as much information about the facilities on the type of plane you will be flying on.

Some newer, wide body jets have one accessible restroom. On the 747-400 the restroom has outward swinging doors and handrails, it is large enough to fit the aisle chair inside so making it possible to transfer to the toilet. Doors on the 767-300 can be swung and clipped into position to double the available space and the 747-300/767-200s all have outward swinging doors. These planes generally carry an aisle chair on board but it is a good idea to confirm this when making your reservation.