- Make arrangements 48 hours ahead.
- Carriers cannot refuse transportation to people because of a disability.
- Book a hotel with a free, wheelchair-accessible airport shuttle.
"The most important tip is to prepare yourself, make the phone calls upfront and explain the equipment that you have."
Braving airport lines and severe weather can be hard enough during holiday travel, but it becomes even more challenging when you or a family member is in a wheelchair.
We've zeroed in on the most common trouble spots in wheelchair air travel, and have some tips that will make the process as hassle-free as possible.
At the Security Line
As you may have heard, new TSA regulations call for passengers to submit to a pat-down that includes potentially invasive physical contact. For wheelchair passengers who frequently fly, this is just business as usual. As Barbara Twardowski, a longtime traveler who uses a wheelchair, put it, "I can't stand and walk through the scanners, so I've always had to go through a pat down." If this makes you uncomfortable, remember you — like any other traveler — can opt for a private screening.
TSA agents are trained to assist you if you need help removing your shoes or placing your items on the X-ray belt, but there's always the possibility that you might run into a newbie.
So before you fly, educate yourself in the security line procedures by visiting the TSA portal for disabled travelers. Remember that a TSA agent should never ask for you to be removed from your wheelchair during the security process.
Boarding the Plane
When you board the plane, you'll be required to stow your wheelchair and be moved to your seat in a special-purpose aisle chair. The airlines are required to have a closet or alternative storage space on board for your wheelchair, but more often than not, be prepared to have your wheelchair gate-checked underneath the plane.
"Any loose parts, like arms, cushions, don't leave them on the chair because they're quite easy to get lost when stored," says Twardowski.
You should also label your wheelchair with personal identifying tags. Since wheelchair passengers are last to disembark, your wheelchair will probably be waiting unattended at the gate exit. You won't want to run into a situation, like Twardowski did, when an elderly traveler mistook Twardowski's wheelchair for an airline courtesy, and left her waiting at the gate for an hour until airline security could locate the missing wheelchair.
Know Your Rights
Unfortunately, airline and airport staff members aren't always well-trained in this area, and when dealing with high volumes of customers, mistakes can happen.
Nick Gutwein, president of the Braun Corporation, which manufactures wheelchair lifts, explains,
"Do your homework upfront. Most airlines will have someone to handle the travel arrangements and help for people with disabilities. The most important tip is to prepare yourself, make the phone calls upfront and explain the equipment that you have."
According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines are required to follow the Air Carrier Access Act, which states that carriers may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability. Although carriers do not require advance notice that a traveler has a disability, they can require up to 48 hours notice to prepare for certain conditions such as wheelchairs, respirators or other medical equipment.