The wheelchair accessible flight process (booking, security, boarding, deplaning) can appear complicated and daunting. But don’t be deterred–this detailed, step-by-step analysis of the whole experience hopefully dissipates any anxiety and sets your mind at ease. Plus, when/if the going gets tough, I remind myself that the plane ride is only a few hours, and the memories from travel last a lifetime–it is worth it.
- Booking the Tickets and Reserving Accessible Service/Seats
- At the Airport
- Process at the Gate
- Getting on the Plane
- On the Plane
- Getting off the Plane
Booking Tickets and Reserving Wheelchair Accessible Services/Seats
Each airline has its own own process for purchasing tickets, assigning accessible seats, and reserving accessible services to get on/off the plane:
- Southwest Airlines
- American Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
Tip: Airlines typically charge upgrade costs to the general public for the seats that also double as wheelchair accessible seats–they are closer to the front of the plane, may have more legroom, offer free drinks, etc. Airlines may also charge to have seats assigned in advance and/or next to each other. You can typically avoid paying those fees by calling the airline’s accessible service’s team and explaining why you need those seats based on your physical impairments (e.g., need aisle chair, can’t walk far, can’t bend your leg, need a companion to sit next to you, etc.)
Wheelchair Accessible Process at the Airport
Wheelchair Accessible Services to Get to the Gate
American airports (among others) are required to provide assistance to people with visual impairments and/or people who require wheelchair assistance from the airport curbside drop-off area, through security, and to the gate. This assistance typically involves a staff member guiding (or pushing in an airport-owned wheelchair) a person through the airport, helping with security, and guiding/pushing the person to the gate.
This requirement also applies to assisting people catching connecting flights, or going from a landed plane to baggage claim or pick-up areas.
Each airport has its own process for requesting this service, as well as procedures for where to meet the assisting person. I suggest checking with the take-off and landing airports, as well as the airline, to schedule this assistance.
Security Process for People Using Wheelchairs
Basic Security Protocol
The basic security process requires a person in a wheelchair to lift all of their items onto a conveyor belt and place each item in an individual bin, including taking out all electronics and the requisite 3-1-1 bag of liquids from suitcases/backpacks. It also typically requires taking shoes off as well. TSA agents may help lift the items, but it can be hard to get their attention and/or they may be unwilling to leave their posts and so a person with a disability may need to wait for a floating agent to come help.
Once all physical items are on the conveyor belt, a person in a wheelchair must inform the agent working the metal detector/scanner that they cannot walk and then request for an agent to perform a pat-down. It can take several minutes for an agent of the matching gender to show up–waiting 10-20 minutes was not rare. The agent will then help gather the person’s items as they come out of the conveyor belt (if they aren’t already just sitting out), and escort the person in a wheelchair to a screening area to perform a pat-down and inspection of the chair. They will offer to perform the pat-down in a private room, and also ask about any sensitive areas or medical devices on the person’s body. They will then perform a thorough pat-down of the person in a wheelchair by running their hands over the person’s arms, torso, butt, groin, front, waist, thighs, calves, feet, etc. They will also then visually inspect the chair as well as swab it for chemical residue.
After all that, they will give the clear for you to gather your items and start the trek through the airport to your gate. The security screening can take anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour. I would roughly estimate it to typically last 30-50 minutes.
Tip: Even if you are not PreCheck, I suggest checking with the TSA agent at the beginning of the TSA Precheck divider. There is likely (but not always) a separate ADA line that will help you avoid long lines of general security. You will still have to go through the basic security screening, but may be able to avoid waiting in line for long periods of time to get to the security screening area.
In advance of traveling, you need to complete an online application, pay a fee (~$78), and appear for a short interview and fingerprinting. Once approved, you will be given a Known Traveler Number that you need to enter when you buy your airline ticket. Your boarding pass will then show a PreCheck symbol, which you show to the TSA agent at the PreCheck line at the airport.
Note: The Pre-Check line is separate from other lines (e.g., general, CLEAR). Don’t want in line to get to the PreCheck divider–go straight up to the TSA agent working the PreCheck divider. The agent will direct you to where the line is. The line is typically further up, and the line you are seeing is for general security that is backed up beyond the PreCheck divider.
PreCheck does not require electronics or liquids to be taken out of bags, and shoes can be worn through the screening. Instead of a pat-down, the male assist or female assist agent will wipe a person in a wheelchair’s hands with a cloth that is then tested for chemicals. The agent then wipes down portions of the wheelchair and tests that cloth for chemicals. The agent will then pat down the chair by pressing into the pads/cushions. That’s it.
Note: If the chemical test comes back positive, then the TSA agent will likely perform the basic security search–a full body pat-down and chemical test of your items. I have had this happen a few times–the TSA agents said that certain lotions, soaps, or cleaning chemicals from hotels can trip up the chemical test. Nothing to do but remain calm and follow instructions by letting the agent perform the basic security.
PreCheck is considerably easier, faster, and more consistent in length of time. It costs around $78 and lasts for 5 years, and can be easily renewed. Click here for more information on PreCheck. TSA has an overview of PreCheck for people with disabilities here.
I have not tried CLEAR because I can’t justify the yearly cost for a service only available at 40+ airports. It also does not change the way I would proceed through security, so I would still need PreCheck to avoid the pat-down. PreCheck works for me for now, but I will revisit CLEAR as/if the program grows.
Wheelchair Accessible Process at the Gate
Airlines typically start the pre-boarding process about 40-45 minutes before the departure time, and there is generally a gate agent available an hour before the flight departs. As such, I try to be at the gate an hour before departure so I can be towards the front of the line when the gate agent arrives. Once there, I make three requests:
1) Gate check the scooter/wheelchair
I ask that the gate agent gate check my scooter. The agent will typically do a visual inspection of the scooter to note any damage. They will then put the visual inspection tag and a paper luggage tag around a sturdy portion of the scooter–typically the armrest or brackets supporting the seatback. They will then give you the corresponding claim ticket, usually a small sticker with a barcode on it.
Tip: Take a picture of the claim ticket in case you lose it. This barcode is important for helping the airlines track it down if the scooter is ever lost (YIKES!). It also helps prove that you properly gate-checked the scooter in case it goes to baggage claim instead of coming to the gate. The claim ticket may also be digital, and just show up under your boarding process in the airline’s app.
They will also put a tag that says “claim at gate” or something similar at the same location as the luggage tag. The colors of the “claim at gate” tickets can vary between the airlines–e.g., Southwest’s tags are yellow/green paper, Delta’s tags are reusable pink plastic.
Tip: I ask for the “claim at gate” tag to be put on my handlebars or, if they insist on putting it somewhere else, I ask for a second one that I put on my handle bars. The handle bars are always accessed by the unloading crew, making it that much more likely they will see the “claim at gate” tag and bring it up (rather than send to baggage). There is risk that the tag could fall off the handle bars, so redundancy is a good thing if the agent is willing to do it.
2) Ask for the aisle chair and the required number of people to safely perform the lift
I inform the agent that I need the aisle chair and three people to lift me into the aisle chair and then into the seat. The assist teams typically consist of two people, so it can take longer to get a third person. Giving advance notice of the need for a third person helps minimize the chances of having to wait for the assist team to gather the third person. This tends to be less of a problem with Southwest because they typically handle the assist themselves and/or their teams are always closer, but its always a good idea to give as much notice as possible regardless of the airline.
3) Ask the timing of the wheelchair pre-board process
I then ask when the pre-board process will start, and inform the agent of where I will be sitting until then. This helps them locate me in case there are additional questions or they want to start the pre-board process early.
Between checking-in with the gate agent and the pre-board, I position the soft stretcher underneath me. I also go to the bathroom one last time before the flight.
Tip: The timing is tight for this routine–there is usually only 20-30 minutes between when the gate agent arrives and when the pre-boarding starts. This is why its important to be at the gate as close as possible to when the gate agent arrives–that plane is leaving, and other delays can cut into that small window (e.g., other people asking questions to the gate agent, lines at the bathroom).
Wheelchair Accessible Process of Getting on the Plane
Aisle Chair and Boarding Process
I drive my scooter down the jetway, and park it at the very end of the jetway (right before the plane). I cannot walk at all, and so I require an aisle chair to get me onto the plane. An aisle chair is exactly what its name says — it is a very narrow chair on wheels that is designed solely for going down the aisle of an airplane. It cannot be self-propelled, has a foot platform (of sorts), and has straps that go over the chest/shoulders, knees, and calves of a person riding in it. There are also handles at the top and bottom that permit staff to lift the aisle chair as necessary (e.g., if there is a gap or step from the jetway to the plane).
I position the aisle chair as close as possible to my scooter seat. I then instruct the 3 people lifting on how to lift using the soft stretcher on which I am sitting–one person grabs the front right strap, one person grabs the front left strap, and one person grabs the back two straps. The middle straps are not used–they tend to make the stretcher rigid rather than a nice cradle. I instruct the people to move slowly (e.g., not jerky movements) and to watch to make sure I do not start falling forward or to the sides. They then count down and slowly lift me into the aisle chair. They then strap me in using the chest, knee, and foot restraints.
Tip: Be sure you are comfortable with the straps before you permit them to move you on the aisle chair. Some crews are better than others, and there can be a perceived time crunch to not put all of the straps on. You are your best resource to ensure you stay safe during this process.
Once I am strapped in, the team will wheel me on the aisle chair the short distance to the plane. They then lift the aisle chair a little bit to bridge the gap between the jetway and the plane. Once on the plane, they back me down the aisle until I am next to my seat. They then unstrap me, count down again, and then slowly lift me into the seat.
Tip: Move the airplane seat’s seatbelt off the seat so you are not lifted on top of the belt. Otherwise, you (or someone else) has to reach under your legs/butt to try to pull the belt out so you can be belted for the flight.
Once in the seat, I direct the team on how to pull/lift the handles of the stretcher to make me comfortable for the flight. This often involves pulling a side handle to square my hips and pulling a top or bottom handle so I am sitting at a comfortable upright degree.
Wheelchair Seat Selection
The seat selection typically occurs when you call the airline and ask for accessible seats (except for Southwest Airlines, which has an open seat system that moots that step). I opt for the aisle seat of the first row where the armrests fold up. In some aircraft, this is the first row–which is fantastic because I get extra leg room and people in the middle/window seats have more room to go around me (as opposed to stepping over me to get in/out of their seats). In most cases, however, the first row has fixed armrests, and thus I end up in the second row.
Tip: I used to sit in the first row regardless of whether the armrests flipped up so as to avoid the people stepping over me to get to the middle/window seats. This is still an option, but is a harder lift–I have to be lifted much higher to get over the armrests, which increases the chances of me tipping or being jostled during the lift. I’ve had some bad experiences with that, and so I shy away from it if possible.
When I sit in the second row, I inform the gate agent and/or flight attendants that people will have to step over me to get in/out of their seats and respectfully request that, if it is not a full flight, to help keep the window seat next to me open (my companion is in the middle seat next to me, so the window is the only open seat anyway). If that’s not a possibility, then I just politely inform people who want to sit in the open seat that they will have to step over me to get in/out. This way they can self-select if they want and are physically able to do it.
Wheelchair Accessibility on the Plane
Airplanes typically have very narrow and small wheelchairs that people can use to go from their seats to the lavatory. But I have never used these wheelchairs nor have I ever seen one used. My barrier to access is that I need to be lifted for the transfer, and found it much more miss than hit as to whether flight attendants would help with the lift (most say they are prohibited from lifting by union rules). In fact, Delta’s website expressly says flight attendants do not need to assist with this lift.
Note: International flight crews are more willing/able to assist with the lift. I found this especially true on Emirates–on one such flight, the flight attendants repeatedly volunteered to help lift me into the aisle chair so I could use the bathroom during the 16+ hour flight to Dubai. They also ended up carrying me off the plane using my soft stretcher because the aisle chair could not go down the 12″ step from the plane to the jetway in Dubai.
Instead of relying on using bathrooms on planes, I dehydrate before the flight and severely limit my intake of water on the plane–I will typically sip on a cup of sparkling water and a coffee for an entire flight. I will then rehydrate on the last hour or so of the flight, which helps my ears equalize with the pressure changes during the landing–if I don’t rehydrate, I get excruciating (but temporary) headaches as my body tries to equalize the pressure changes. It’s a delicate dance.
For other needs (e.g., food, lights, grabbing a bag), I typically have to wave down the flight attendants when necessary because I can’t reach the flight attendant call button (which is above the seat, by the air vents). Most flight attendants understand, and will also check in periodically to see if I need anything. Again, it’s a crew-by-crew experience, but always comes down to respectfully advocating for my needs on the flight.
Wheelchair Accessible Process of Deplaning
When the flight attendants prepare the cabin for landing (e.g., last trash collection, ask for tray tables to go up and computers stowed), I ask that they remind the gate agent that I need the aisle chair and three people for the lift. This helps expedite the process so the agent can radio for the 3-person assistance team when we land rather than waiting until to do so until after the other passengers disembark.
Once landed, I (patiently) wait for everyone to leave the plane. This admittedly can be frustrating, especially if I need to use the bathroom and people are in no rush or are unprepared to exit (even when they’ve watch 200 people go before them). Typically this also includes the cleaning crews coming onto the plane and working around me. I then also wait for the 3-person lift crew, the aisle chair, and my scooter to be in the jetway. Once everything is ready, the crew lifts me into the aisle chair, straps me into the aisle chair, wheels me out of the plane, unstraps the aisle chair, and then lifts me into my waiting scooter. I can then cruise out of the jetway, and I’m on my way (usually to the nearest bathroom in the airport).
Tip: Crews sometimes want to put me in the aisle chair before my scooter arrives, and then make me wait at the top of the jetway in the aisle chair. They do this so so they can start loading people into the plane for the next flight or so the flight crew can go home. But aisle chairs are uncomfortable, tippy, and are dangerous to be pushed up jetways. So, I exercise my right to remain in my seat on the plane until my scooter arrives at the jetway. Most crews are ok with that, but I have had to “sit” my ground a few times with fairly hostile crews who want me off the plane prematurely.