This review of Southwest Airlines’ wheelchair accessibility process and policy was written in Fall 2022 (updated Spring 2023).
Overview of Southwest Airlines’ Wheelchair Accessibility Process and Policy
Southwest Airlines’ wheelchair accessibility process and policy is straightforward and streamlined, which is why I try to fly with them whenever possible. The main reason I like Southwest is they do not assign seats in advance. As such, there is no need to call the airlines to assign accessible seats, which often involves long wait times and/or long calls with agents. Cutting out that middle process is a major time saver, and making last-minute changes easy (particularly important when they don’t have change or cancellation fees, so last-minute changes don’t break the bank).
Southwest also seems to keep its accessibility services in-house–their employees are the ones who do the lifting/aisle chair process and moving of my scooter (as opposed to a contracted agency that works all over the airport). This means they are often faster (as they are not servicing all over the airport) and thus have more time to be attentive to individual instructions/needs. I also find that their aisle chairs are newer and more comfortable.
Southwest’s Accessible Travel Assistance page contains helpful information about their policies and procedures.
Booking Wheelchair Accessible Services and Seats
The accessibility process is entirely automated and done through the online booking process. The steps are simple:
- I go to www.southwest.com.
- I choose my flight dates, and select “Continue” to start the purchase process.
- During the purchase process, I am asked to input traveler information. Below the personal information, there is an arrow to click to expand the “Special Assistance” section.
- Once expanded, I choose the options that I need. For me, I choose “Need lift/transfer assistance to/from aircraft seat” as well as that I bring a “powered wheelchair with 2 non-spillable batteries.”
- Then I complete the checkout process. That’s it until I get to the airport.
Tip: Southwest offers an upgrade option for boarding, which mainly permits you to be one of the first people to board the plane (and thus get first selection of seats). But Southwest’s pre-boarding process permits people with disabilities to board and choose their seats first. As such, the upgraded boarding is not as helpful for people with disabilities as it is for the general public.
The same is true for rushing to check-in. A passenger’s boarding order (and thus spot in line to choose a seat) is assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis based on when they check into the flight (which opens 24 hours before departure). This priority does not matter, however, to people with disabilities who use the pre-board process–we are first on the plane. I still check-in as early as I can, but the pressure to check in at exactly 24 hours before departure is lessened.
Other Relevant Information–Boarding and Choosing Seats
Southwest is different from other airlines in that they don’t pre-assign seats. People who use aisle chairs are usually the first people on the plane, and thus I can choose where I want to sit. 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 climbing 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 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.