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How to Navigate the Airport When You Have Accessibility Needs

Expert tips for passengers who use a wheelchair or require special assistance

Airport female officer helping for female passenger in a wheelchair

YakobchukOlena/Getty Images

En español

Tarita Davenock suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, which makes it tricky to navigate airports, where the distances between gates can be measured in football fields. Airports can be challenging for many other travelers as well. A quarter of U.S. adults have a disability, and 14 percent have trouble walking or climbing stairs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The one thing we all have in common is that we want to be accommodated [at airports],” says Davenock, whose MS hasn’t kept her from flying. As the owner of Travel for All, a company that specializes in accessible travel, she has caught many flights at scores of airports.

If you have mobility or other issues (such as dementia or vision loss) that make navigating airports difficult, Davenock and other accessible-travel experts offer some tips.

1. Request assistance in advance

Many accommodations are federally mandated by laws such as the Air Carrier Access Act, which requires that airlines offer assistance to those with mobility issues, visual or hearing impairments, or other disabilities. You can (and should) request such assistance when making your reservation online (or by calling the airline’s special assistance phone line).

As you make your way through the booking process on the American Airlines website, for example, you’ll eventually see a link to “add special assistance.” Click on that link and you’ll find various options, such as “mobility” and “traveling with a service animal.” After checking one of the boxes, you’ll be prompted to be more specific, so the airline understands your particular need. If you check “mobility,” you’ll be asked to specify how much assistance you’ll need by checking another box, with options such as “can walk — need help only if there are stairs.”

Before your departure date, an airline representative may contact you for additional information. But even if you do hear from a representative, accessibility specialists recommend calling your airline a day or two before your flight to confirm that it has your request and understands your needs, and that ticket agents will be able to see the info. There shouldn’t be a problem, because your request is automatically linked to your reservation when you buy your ticket. Still, it’s always best to double-check, says Debra Kerper, owner of Easy Access Travel, who has visited more than 30 countries and taken more than 90 cruises despite facing health-related mobility challenges, including often using a wheelchair. “Everything’s easier when it’s done in advance,” she notes. “At each step, learn to be proactive.”

2. Give yourself plenty of time at the airport

“Even if travelers aren’t checking luggage, arriving in advance of the departure time is very helpful for those with mobility issues,” says Alvaro Silberstein, founder of Wheel the World, who’s paralyzed from the waist down. He and the airlines offer similar advice. “I recommend arriving two to three hours in advance of an international flight and one and a half hours ahead of a domestic flight,” he says, “just to give ample time for moving around the airport and making sure that requested accessibility assistance is in place.”

Specialists say the labor shortage created by the pandemic means that in some cases, there will be fewer wheelchair attendants, which means you might have to wait for one.

“The process itself is fairly simple and straightforward, but the level of quality is all over the place,” says Laurent Roffé, general manager of Tapooz Travel. He salutes airports in Las Vegas, Miami and Orlando as “big tourist destinations that are eager to accommodate elderly travelers with mobility limitations.” On the flip side, New York’s LaGuardia Airport has historically been harder for his clients to navigate.

3. Be vocal at check-in

When you get to the airport, promptly identify yourself to a skycap or the ticket counter agent as someone who requested help when you bought your ticket. Wheelchair assistance will then be summoned if that’s what you need, or perhaps a guide if you’re visually impaired.

By law, an attendant must tote your carry-on luggage for you if you can’t. Also, the attendant must have your permission to leave you unattended for more than 30 minutes before boarding begins for your flight, even if you’re traveling with a companion.

If anything goes wrong — if, for example, an airline employee tries to charge you a baggage fee for a case filled with and marked “medical supplies,” which should be free — ask to speak to the airline’s complaint resolution officer (CRO), a position mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to promptly address disability-related air travel issues. If there’s no CRO on-site, you’ll be connected to one by phone.


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4. Speak up at the security checkpoint

“Don’t let it be a guessing game,” says Kerper, who advises travelers to quickly identify their mobility issue to TSA agents so they can figure out the best way to help. “I’ll say, ‘I’m a double amputee and can’t walk into the screening device,’ and they’ll say, ‘Fine,’ and take me around it.”

If you have questions about the checkpoint process, don’t wait until you get to security to ask them. Seventy-two hours prior to your flight, you can get your questions answered in advance through TSA Cares (855-787-2227), a helpline for those with disabilities, medical conditions or other special circumstances.

You can also request that a passenger support specialist, a specially trained TSA agent devoted to those with special needs, personally accompany you through security. At least 72 hours before your flight, simply fill out an online form or make your request via the TSA Cares line. A specialist will contact you to arrange a time and place to meet at the airport.

Calling the Cares line and providing the TSA with sensitive information in advance — for example, identifying areas where an agent’s touch may be painful — can save you from having to explain your circumstances on-site. “TSA’s program allows you to tell them about your disability, so you don’t have to go through all the rigmarole [at the security checkpoint],” Davenock says. “They’ll pat you down, but you won’t be embarrassed and manhandled if you’ve preplanned.”

5. Request a ride to your gate, if needed

If you’re not using a wheelchair but would like help making the long trek to your gate, airlines operate courtesy carts in some airports (though not all, since they’re not required to do so by law). For example, American provides the service in cities including Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and Philadelphia; Delta Air Lines has them in Atlanta and Los Angeles, among others. You can call an airline’s special assistance line for information about where they’re available. You probably won’t be able to schedule a time to be picked up outside security, but carts typically roam concourses continuously during the busiest times of day, so it’s just a matter of waiting for one.

Your attendant will remain with you until boarding for your flight begins and will assist you onto the plane during pre-boarding.

6. Arrange for help at your destination

If you’re mobility impaired, you can ask the airline to have an attendant waiting for you when you land. The attendant will provide a wheelchair (if you need one) and help you deplane after the other passengers have exited, assist you at baggage claim, and then stay with you as needed to the terminal exit or vehicle pickup location.

If you don’t need a wheelchair to deplane but do need help making a connection at another gate or getting to baggage claim, try asking the gate agent to call a cart for you. Just remember, cart availability varies by airport.

7. Remember to tip

Tipping wheelchair assistants and guides — who are usually contractors, not airline employees — is discretionary, but most accessibility experts say it’s commonly done, and recommend doing so. “If it’s not super far, I’ll tip $5, but if they’ve taken me to baggage claim and waited, I’ve given as much as $20,” Kerper says. “If you can afford to travel, you should be nice to the people who help you.”

Traveling with other disabilities

Dementia patients: Airlines will allow an adult in the early stages of dementia to fly, though if a mental disability is so severe that the passenger can’t respond to safety-related instructions, that person must travel with a companion.

Davenock suggests placing a copy of the traveler’s itinerary — as well as flight details, a copy of the person’s passport photo page, emergency contact phone numbers and a note that says “I have dementia” — in the person’s pocket or carry-on bag, even if he or she is traveling with a companion, in case the person gets lost or confused. “Make sure everyone is aware of your traveling, including family members back home, and have your itinerary in her bag in case mom wanders off,” she says.

Hearing or vision impairment: Travelers with vision challenges can ask a TSA officer for step-by-step instructions on the security checkpoint process, such as where to put items emptied from their pockets and guidance for getting through the body scanner. Aids such as canes and Braille note takers must be surrendered for inspection, but users should notify the officer if they must be reunited with the devices immediately after inspection.

“It’s all about self-identifying,” says Kerper, who once flew with a visually impaired passenger sitting a few rows ahead of her. In that case, a flight attendant stooped down to speak privately to the flier, explaining the layout of the seat features and controls, including the location of the flight attendant call button.

Visually impaired passengers traveling with a trained service animal must complete the Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation form and submit it to their airline (typically at least 48 hours in advance of a flight).

The hearing impaired aren’t required to remove hearing aids or cochlear implants during airport screening, though an additional security measure, such as a pat-down, may be required if the devices set off the metal detector.

Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times.

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