What happens when you fly with a wheelchair?

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One of the questions I get asked the most is how I fly with a wheelchair. I thought I’d summarize the process here and hopefully encourage some hesitant wheelchair users to travel! It makes me sad to hear how some people don’t go anywhere because they worry about their chairs breaking. I understand this, but a wheelchair can always be fixed or replaced.

There’s also some uncertainty about how it all works! Sometimes having the knowledge makes it less unknown and scary. The process for traveling with an electric wheelchair is fairly the same in the countries I’ve visited. This includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, Italy, and S. Africa. Here is how the process usually goes for me.

  • Check in and check your bags. Tell the person you talk to what help you will need and ask them if they can get you the seat you want if you aren’t assigned to the one you want yet. This is the first place to beg for an upgrade, so be nice!
  • They will ask you if your wheelchair is a dry cell (gel cell) or not. If your chair is newer, you are probably a dry/gel cell. If you’re not sure find out. They will also ask what your chair weighs, roughly.
  • You can stay in your own wheelchair all the way up to the gate. There are some exceptions with this on international flights. You can also have your wheelchair during layovers. You could theoretically check your chair at check-in but I prefer to stay with mine as long as possible.
  • Go to security. Look for the Gold or the VIP line. Take that one. Take whatever line will get you through this process the fastest. Have your ID and boarding pass ready to go.
  • Deal with the TSA screening. You will not pass through the metal detectors so you will get patted down and your chair inspected. Deal with it. You will still have to take off your shoes and hats and pop-out your laptop from your carry-on. But you can leave any medical-related straps or devices on your body. I find this part to be much more enjoyable when I think about it as a “free massage!”
  • When at the gate, sit near the counter. You have brought your own chair so plant your butt right next to where the gate agent will stand.
  • When a gate agent arrives (usually an hour before the flight) sometimes they see you and talk to you right away. If they don’t, get in the line that has probably already formed by anxious travelers who have no idea they don’t need to check in here again or can’t stand to sit more than one seat away from their loved one for two hours.
  • When you first talk to the gate agent, say something like, “I promise I will not be a pain in the butt” or “Thank you in advance for your help.” This is the butter-up part.
  • Tell the gate agent to try again to get you the seat you want if you still haven’t gotten it yet. This is your last chance to beg for a first class upgrade. Do it.
  • Ask the gate agent for a “gate check tag” for your wheelchair. Make sure you get and keep the stub.
  • Remind the gate agent that you will need an aisle chair (or “Straightback”) to board the plane. If you will need to be lifted for transfers, tell the agent this too and ask for strong helpers. If the helpers get there and you don’t think they’ll be able to lift you, say something. It’s easier for them to call for new helpers before you’re trying to get on the plane and you suddenly realize that the 75-year-old man they sent to lift you is about to break some vertebrae.
  • Stay by the gate! I mean RIGHT by the door where they’re going to board you. Otherwise you’ll get crowded out by people who have ants in their pants to get on the plane first even though it’s assigned seating. You could get boarded almost immediately after the flight crew arrives. If you need to leave, tell the gate agent.
  • When it comes time for you to board, you will roll down the jetway in your chair to the plane door. The assistance crew will bring down the aisle wheelchair. You will ask yourself, “How in hell is my butt going to fit on that tiny thing?” This is just one of the reasons I wish all U.S. flights used the Eagle Lift that is used in Australia and other places.
  • You will transfer to the aisle chair either on your own or with help from the assistance crew. If they will need to lift you, tell them how to do it. Odds are you’ve been lifted before and know what works for you. If you haven’t, the easiest way for two people to lift me (200+ lbs) is to have one grab my legs under my knees from the front (making sure to lock their fingers) . Then I lock my fingers like I’m praying to God that they’ll be able to lift me and have the one behind you (hopefully the taller, stronger one) reach under your armpits and grab over the top of your wrists. This is hands-down the best, easiest, and safest way I’ve ever been lifted.
  • After you’re on the aisle chair, they will strap you in with an overboard amount of belts for the 20-foot roll in the aisle chair. You can thank lawyers for this. This usually takes the longest out of anything you do to board the plane. For some helpers it’s like the toughest logic puzzle they’ve ever dealt with, so have patience.
  • They will roll you backwards onto the plane, tell you to cross your arms, and pull you slowly down the tiny row of seats to your chair. This is one reason a seat near the door is easiest for you AND the crew. Prepare to bruise an elbow or two. The aisle chair will get stuck at every row, I promise.
  • When you arrive at your row, inevitably the assistance crew and flight crew will struggle with the armrest, if it goes up at all. There’s a secret button somewhere under it that only a magical few crew members knows how to use. This needs to be changed but that’s a whole other article.
  • The assistance crew will then lift you again, or you’ll transfer into the seat. Make sure they’ve unbuckled all the buckles and lifted the “side rests” on the aisle chair before they lift.
  • If you haven’t been wearing suspenders, this is the point where you slide your pants back up while the flight attendants chuckle at having seen your “coin slot” or more. The hint here is: Wear suspenders!
  • You thank the assistance crew immensely and they leave you at the seat.
  • You buckle in and hopefully a flight attendant who has seen this whole spectacle comes over and talks to you. You charm him/her so that they bring you free food during the flight. You ask them to help you stow your bags or help you grab out whatever you need during the flight.
  • You sit and wait while the rest of the travelers take forever to board the plane. Smile at the kids as they pass by and pray to God they’re not sitting right behind you.
  • After the last giant carry-on is stowed and all the people have settled in, the plane takes off. Hopefully you don’t have to use the bathroom during flight. Do everything you can to avoid this. There technically is a portable on-board wheelchair on most large planes. However the flight attendants NEVER use it, if they know where it is at all (usually the cabinet with the wheelchair symbol on it…who knew?). Additionally, the flight crew does not have to help you transfer on it. I think they can push you but they will not lift you. Some might, but they’re not supposed to. Again, thank the lawyers. Also, the bathroom door cannot close when you’re in there sitting on this portable chair so although it’s setup so nobody can really see you, it’s like you’re peeing in front of 46 rows of people. I will post about how I deal with the bathroom issues in another article.

When you arrive at your destination, here’s what happens:

  • You will sit in your seat while everyone and their mother exits the plane. The flight attendants cannot leave the plane until you’re done, so be nice and thankful to them for their help and patience.
  • Just when you think the last person has gotten off, ten more people, usually families with their screaming infants and diaper bags will pass by and hit you in the head with either their soft diaper bag or their child’s foot.
  • Hopefully the flight crew has alerted the gate crew that you will need an aisle chair to get off the plane. This is usually marked in the airline system too.
  • Once everyone is off, the assistance crew will come down the aisle in the aisle chair again.
  • You’ll transfer or be lifted into the aisle chair and then strapped-in again with the spider web of belts.
  • They’ll roll you off the plane and hopefully your chair has already been brought up from cargo, in one piece!
  • The assistance crew will get you back onto your own chair and you’ll motor up the jetway to your destination or to your next gate where everything repeats all over again.

Now this might seem like a ton of steps, but it’s really not that bad. I have done this dozens and dozens of times and I am still alive to blog about it! Do not let this list of steps be intimidating to you. Travel is wonderful and exciting. It’s worth dealing with it all to have an adventure. And keep in mind, I usually fly by myself! The above is tons easier when you have someone flying with you. But if you do have someone flying with you, make sure YOU are the one doing all the talking. (It’s more helpful to them and you can put your best puppy-dog, disabledy face on and maybe get that first class upgrade!) So what are you waiting for, go book a flight!

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2 Responses to What happens when you fly with a wheelchair?

  1. Denise says:

    I am going to Cyprus with my electric chair, first time! Can you get the chair delivered back to you when you exit the plane, ie not when you pick up luggage? If so then this would set my mind at rest about the handling and damage!

  2. Shelly says:

    I love your blog so much, i made my first trip to America in January & i loved everything about America, the flight was similar to your experience but i want to know how i can use the bathroom by myself, i can’t travel alone because of this issue, LAX was the worst airport because they didn’t have family bathrooms & a staff attendent had to block of the womens bathroom just so my husband could help me transfer, very annoying. If you have some good tips for me i would sure love to here them as i will be travelling again at the end of the year & these are long flights 14 hours plus, so know chance of just holding, keep in mind i am female.
    Shelly.

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