In the United States alone, roughly 3.6 million people over the age of 15 use a wheelchair. If you happen to be one of them, you know that traveling or having an active lifestyle can be a considerable challenge. Even if you own an electric performance wheelchair, some places just aren’t accessible to wheelchair users. When that place is the flight you’re supposed to get on, things can get complicated quickly.
Air travel can be stressful to anybody, but for wheelchair users it can be especially daunting. Fortunately, inclusive travel is more common than ever before, and it’s completely possible to enjoy a trip as a wheelchair user. The key is to know ahead of time what to expect, and to prepare accordingly.
Things to Remember Before Booking
Before you buy plain tickets for a specific flight, you should review the airline’s policies concerning passengers with disabilities. Different airlines have different rules and protocols when it comes to passengers with disabilities, and it pays to know ahead of time what these are. For example, some airlines have weight limits on how heavy wheelchairs are allowed to be. You don’t want to end up at the airport only to find that your heavy performance wheelchair exceeds the limit.
Another thing you should remember when booking your flight is that wheelchair users are the last to leave the aircraft. The process can take up to 25 minutes, so it’s something you’ll want to keep in mind if there are layovers on your flight. A layover might be your only chance to use the restroom, so you might want to choose a flight that allows significant time during layovers, such as 90 minutes or more.
After you book your flight, contact the airline at least 48 hours before takeoff to let them know you’ll need special assistance. If you’re going to change airlines on the way to your destination, which is common for international flights, you should notify the other airlines as well.
Ways to Avoid Wheelchair Damage
As anyone who’s ever traveled with a musical instrument can tell you, airlines aren’t known for being careful with passengers’ possessions. And while having a treasured instrument damaged can be devastating, having that happen to the tool you need just to get around can be even worse.
Besides being the last to leave the aircraft, individuals with wheelchairs are also the first to board in a process called preboarding. Before you can board, you will have to turn over your wheelchair to airport personnel, who will place it with the rest of the baggage for you at the end of your flight. You will want to take any removable cushions or other loose parts with you — they can be carried onto the plane, so they don’t need to count as luggage.
To minimize the chances of having your performance wheelchair damaged by personnel, you should attach a written note to your chair with clear instructions for how to operate it, including how it folds or tilts.
As soon as you get off your flight, the first thing you should do is to carefully inspect your wheelchair and make sure it isn’t damaged. If it sustained any damage at all, you should photograph it and write a detailed description of the damage. Later you can file a compensation claim with the airline, but you’ll need evidence of the damage first.
Finding places with good accessibility can be difficult, but by planning ahead you can at least make sure your flight goes well.