People often say that travelling is all about the journey and not the destination, but for wheelchair users, navigating air travel is often more of an adventure than they would like.
Rolling through large crowded airports, hauling luggage, waiting in long lines, receiving a pat down, being strapped into a tiny aisle chair and then sitting for hours unable to move is exhausting. We’ve learned that the best way to circumvent some of the inevitable issues is to know what to expect and prepare accordingly.
What to remember before you book
Before clicking the purchase button, even seasoned travellers should review the airline’s policies regarding passengers with disabilities. John Morris, a triple amputee who has flown more than 1.3 million kilometres in the past five years, writes about accessibility for his website WheelchairTravel. He discovered, after reading AirAsia’s website, that he cannot fly with the airline because his battery-operated wheelchair weighs more than the airline allows.
When choosing a seat, Morris prefers a window to avoid being crawled over by other passengers.
Also, keep in mind that wheelchair users exit the aircraft last. The de-planing process can easily take 25 minutes or more, so when booking a connecting flight, always allow ample time. Morris recommends a minimum of 90 minutes.
After booking your flight, contact the airline at least 48 hours prior to departure and let them know you will need special assistance.
Avoid wheelchair damage
You can help prevent wheelchair damage by attaching written instructions explaining how to operate your chair, as well as how it folds and tilts. Before turning a wheelchair over to airport personnel, take off any removable parts such as the seat cushion, removable wheels and footrests. For your own baggage, carry as little luggage as possible. The airline’s curbside baggage check can be helpful if available, or consider purchasing a rolling suitcase designed to attach to a wheelchair.
Finally, always carefully inspect your wheelchair for damage when it’s returned to you and immediately notify the airline if there is a problem.
How to navigate bathroom concerns
Many domestic flights are on single-aisle planes which rarely have accessible bathrooms on-board.
To avoid embarrassment, always confirm before departure that the plane has an on-board wheelchair. Flight attendants can push you to the bathroom.
Better yet, consider that domestic airports are required to have accessible restrooms in all terminals; you will definitely be better off using the toilet before you depart.
What to do if things go wrong
If you encounter an access problem at the airport and the airline is unable to resolve it, ask to speak with the Complaint Resolution Official. Each air carrier is required to have one or more available on site or by phone. This individual has the authority to problem solve on the spot. The New York Times