Traveling tips

Air travel tips for chair users

Advice for safe, comfortable flying with a mobility aid

Flying can be daunting for people who use wheelchairs and scooters, but there are ways to make the trip more comfortable and reduce the risk of damage to a mobility aid.

This advice comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, travel bloggers and interviews with numerous frequent fliers. You’ll find relevant links at the bottom of this page. We will occasionally update this guide with new information. If you have a suggestion or a question, email jfraser@gatehousemedia.com or include it in your response to this ongoing survey of chair travelers.

Planning a trip and buying a ticket

  • Learn the differences between ADA and ACAA. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to airlines. Although parts of the ADA apply to airport facilities, much of the air travel experience is covered by the slightly older Air Carrier Access Act, which sets different accessibility rules and is overseen by the Department of Transportation instead of the Department of Justice. Links to the ACAA and related resources are included at the bottom of this guide.

  • Bigger, newer planes are required to have more accessibility features. The Air Carrier Access Act sets different standards for planes based on size and age, as well as whether they are operated by a domestic or a foreign carrier. Here are a few highlights:

    • General anti-discrimination provisions apply to all U.S. carriers, regardless of size. Foreign carriers must comply on flights that begin or end in the U.S.

    • Some accessibility features, such as movable armrests, are required only on newer planes. For domestic carriers, some rules apply on planes ordered after April 1990 and other rules only apply to those purchased after May 2009. For foreign carriers, the rules apply only for aircraft ordered after May 2009.

    • Accessible bathrooms are required only on planes with more than one aisle. Typically, these are the largest planes used for international travel and long flights between large cities.

    • Upon request, planes with more than 60 seats must provide an on-board wheelchair to bring passengers to inaccessible bathrooms, but attendants are not required to assist further.

    • Newer aircraft with 100 or more seats are required to have a designated storage space for foldable wheelchairs or other medical equipment, such as canes or chair cushions. They must accommodate items that are 13 inches by 36 inches by 42 inches, or smaller. Airlines are required to make this space available to travelers on a first-come, first-served basis. Mobility aids get priority over other items that crews may store in that space. Airlines also may strap devices to seats using seat belt extenders. 
  • Sign up for TSA PreCheck. This federal program offers expedited processing through security for those who pass a background check. The program is recommended by frequent fliers to avoid a pat down everytime they fly since they cannot go through the full-body scanner. Enrollment costs $80 for five years. 

  • Consider a direct flight. The fewer flights, the fewer opportunities for something to go wrong. Direct flights reduce risk but can be more expensive or unavailable in some cases.

  • Watch layover length. In case of a layover, plan plenty of time to get from gate to gate. Remember: Passengers with wheelchairs are the first to board and the last to get off the plane. Many travelers report delays waiting to be escorted off planes or to reclaim their chairs after flights. Also plan enough time to use the bathroom or get food, especially if the airport has a limited number of accessible facilities. 

  • Research airline preferences of other chair travelers. Frequent fliers tend to find an airline they like and stick with it. Some people prefer Delta or Alaska because they say those airlines have handled damaged chairs promptly and competently. Others prefer Southwest because the first-come, first-served seating means some travelers can wheel onto the plane and transfer into a front-row seat, avoiding the need to use an aisle chair. 

  • Check the airline’s report card to see how often they report damaging chairs and scooters. 

  • Search for an airport practice day. Some airports and local nonprofits offer practice days to rehearse moving through an airport and boarding a plane. Check with advocacy organizations and airport officials to see if it’s available in your area. Some programs are designed and run by the airlines themselves. There are also videos online demonstrating the boarding process from the perspective of travelers. 

  • Prepare special services request details before booking. Know which services you will need at the airport and on the plane and how you want your mobility aid handled. Do you need a wheelchair attendant at the curb, or do you plan to wheel yourself to the gate? Will you need an aisle chair to board, or just extra time to walk to your seat? Will you bring medicine, a cane or other medical equipment into the cabin? Will you gate check your chair, or will you fold it for storage in the cabin? Do you need your chair returned to you during your layover, or do you prefer to have a wheelchair attendant pick you up? It also can be helpful to know the dimensions of your aid and the type of battery it uses. Be prepared, however: The amount of information each airline takes and the kinds of questions they ask vary greatly. 

  • Consider calling to make a reservation instead of booking online. Again, be prepared for differences among airlines. Only some allow special services request during online booking, and the amount of information collected varies greatly. Many frequent fliers prefer to make reservations by phone to provide more details about their needs.

Before the flight

  • Make a packing list. Develop a plan for what tools and aids you need, how you will pack them and whether you want to bring them in a carry-on or as regular luggage. Airlines cannot charge fees for extra bags if they contain medical equipment or medications, but don’t be surprised if they check. 

  • Pack spare parts and tools. Some frequent fliers bring extra tubes for their wheels, along with other parts susceptible to breaking.

  • Make a list of repair shops, bike stores and rental companies at your destination. Airlines must provide repairs and rental chairs if they damage a mobility aid, but they each hire different companies to coordinate those services and some have better track records than others. You also can ask the airline to pay for repairs at a location of your choice or seek reimbursement later. Some travelers go bike shops for quick, temporary repairs to their manual chairs, finding staff willing to tinker until something works. Chair manufacturers also might provide upon request a list of durable medical equipment companies that have those specific parts. 

  • Consider renting a power chair or scooter. Some travelers prefer to leave their device at home and rent one upon arrival, although this can be expensive and many companies are booked months in advance. 

  • Consider traveling with an old chair.

  • Consider limiting your intake of food and fluids. Many travelers dehydrate themselves before a flight to avoid using the bathroom, but this can risk infections or other health complications. Talk with your doctors and about what makes sense for you.

  • Research accessible bathrooms and services at the airports. Call airports or visit their websites to learn what facilities are available and where they are. Some offer printable maps. Wheelchair attendants and gate agents can sometimes share shortcuts or point out little-used, accessible bathrooms.

  • Call the airline to confirm special services requests. Technically, you are not required to do this, but many frequent fliers make it a habit.

Preparing your mobility aid

  • Prepare handling instructions for your aid. Airlines recommend travelers attach instructions to their chairs that include information about things like whether and how it folds and how to disconnect batteries. Some airline websites provide their own forms to fill in and print out. Including a phone number on the sheet can get your chair to you sooner should it be lost.  

  • Label delicate parts and cords in bright tape. Identify brake locks, battery compartments or other critical pieces that baggage handlers might try to use or that are particularly vulnerable to damage. Also use tape to leave reminders, such as “Does not fold” or “Fragile.” Scooter users should tape the throttle into the lowest position and label it as “Do not move.” Scooter users also should pack a spare key in a carry-on but attach one with strong string, such as fishing line, so crews can start it if needed.

  • Consider wrapping your chair or delicate parts. Some travelers use bubble wrap or an old towel to protect equipment and report that this has prevented damage, even though it meant they could not use their own chair during a layover.

  • Just before traveling, remove all accessories. Remove things like cushions and navigational controls just before boarding and store them as a carry-on to limit what goes under the plane.

  • Disassemble your chair. Some travelers have learned how to break down their manual chairs or power chairs so they are more modular for easy handling. Power chairs, in particular, often are too large to fit through cargo hold doors without folding or precarious tilting by baggage handlers, who might break components trying to make it fit. Breaking down a chair can mitigate some of those risks.

  • Ask to store folding chairs in the cabin. Planes with at least 100 seats are required to store your device in the cabin, and airlines are required to have a designated storage space for that purpose. Federal rules also allow them to strap chairs to seats. But many travelers report that crew members discourage them, suggest that’s possible only if the cabin isn’t full, or tell them that’s not an option at all. Decide for yourself whether you want to bring a copy of the ACAA and fight for it.

  • Bring a backup aid. Ambulatory chair users recommend bringing a cane or similar aid in case the worst happens to your chair. Some power chair users traveling with a companion might pack a transport chair.

  • Inspect your chair and take pictures. Frequent fliers say they inspect their chair at the gate and take photos before boarding so they have proof of the original condition. Likewise, they do an inspection and take pictures when their chair is returned to them. Not all problems are obvious and you might discover it later, so that documentation can help. 

  • Know the rules about batteries. Federal safety regulations set limits for the size and kind of batteries allowed, as well as directions on how airlines must store them. Airlines must provide free packaging for batteries if removed. Make sure the instructions you attach to your chair include information on connecting the battery and how to start your device to minimize the chance of mishandling. 

  • Scooters and power chairs should be left in “neutral” when possible, so handlers can move it more easily.

At the airport

  • Arrive early. Doing so gives you time to adapt to challenges that might arise.

  • State your needs. Trust that you know what’s best for yourself. Do not be surprised if the airport workers don’t know about your special services request. The information is not always shared in a complete or timely fashion. Wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and other contractors might be provided your name and nothing more. 

  • Be patient, but persistently advocate for your needs. Some companies train employees to ask how they can help, but others encourage one-size-fits-all approaches. Speak up about what you need. 

  • Talk with the agent as soon as you get to the gate. It can be as simple as introducing yourself and telling them you can answer any questions they have about what you need during early boarding. Other travelers feel more comfortable talking in detail with the gate agents about what to expect during boarding.

  • Speak to the baggage handler or ramp agent who gate-checks the chair. Some travelers like to have a face-to-face conversation with the person who will be storing their aid, so they can explain important features. Depending on the agent or how busy it is, you might not find staff willing to take this extra step.

  • Attach the tag provided by the gate agent in a prominent spot. Most will provide one, but feel free to request multiples if you are breaking down your chair into several pieces. Not all airlines have separate tags for mobility aids, so you might consider making your own in a bright color with a note that your chair should be brought to the jetbridge, not baggage return. 

  • Talk with the attendants helping you transfer to your seat. It can be helpful for them to know what you can do or if you have a preference about how to be lifted and moved. Training varies by airline, so this could save you some bruises. 

  • Check in with the flight crew. Some travelers say it is helpful to introduce yourself to the cabin staff once you are boarded, in part so you can remind them that you will be waiting for your chair at the gate upon arrival. This also is a good time to ask about the on-board wheelchair if you expect to use the bathroom or to ask any safety-related questions you have.

  • Do not leave the plane until your mobility aid is brought to the jetway. Some travelers have described being abandoned in the aisle chair when they were taken off the plane before their own chair had arrived. If a chair is late, you might still be on the plane while the cleaning crew does their job or when the crew for the next flight arrives. But if you are still on the plane, you still will have people you can ask for updates or aid. If you are waiting for more than 30 minutes, it is technically against federal regulations and could be the basis of a formal complaint.  

  • Try to relax and enjoy the trip knowing you are prepared.

If you experience damage, significant delays or poor treatment:

  • Document everything. Take pictures of damage. Take notes that include times, names and job titles. Get as much information as possible in case you later decide to file a complaint with the airline or federal regulators. 

  • Do not leave the airport until filing a complaint. This often is easiest at baggage handling, but a gate agent should also be able to assist you, at least at first. The sooner you file a complaint, the sooner the airline’s contracted repair company can get in touch with you. If you leave the airport, it can be difficult to get immediate help with a rental chair or other services. Airlines must keep track of all complaints related to disability and report them to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

  • Request a complaint resolution officer. (Sometimes they are called certified accessibility officers.) Every airline is required to have someone specifically trained in disability rights and disability-related complaint procedures available at all hours of operation. Sometimes the person is available only by phone. The officer can expedite things or communicate with other staff members.

  • Follow up. While some airlines proactively correct complaint-related issues, others do not. Frequent fliers say it can take repeated calls and emails to get a satisfactory response. Some report that filing a formal federal complaint (link below) quickens airline response. 

  • Consider sharing your experience on social media. Some travelers take to Twitter or another social platform when they are unsatisfied with a flying experience. Most travelers said it had little practical impact on how an airline ultimately handled the situation, but they felt like it was important to hold airlines accountable and to raise awareness. Some travelers tag organizations and people who are working with airlines to improve accessibility, such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, All Wheels Up, United Spinal and Paralyzed Veterans of America.