5 Useful Tips For Traveling With Wheelchairs on Airplanes

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional

Traveling by air is challenging for just about everyone but it takes on a whole new level for people with mobility problems and wheelchair users. The best advice for people looking to take wheelchairs on airplanes is to "know before you go" and have your plan in place well before you have to travel. This guide will help you do just that.

senior man at airport waiting to take wheelchair on airplane
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Income Disclosure: Product recommendations are based on my personal experience working with seniors. I may earn a commission on items purchased from affiliate links in this guide. Learn More.

Booking and boarding a flight has become more and more difficult over the past twenty years. A lot of that has to do with security. The extra steps involved when boarding a plane may keep us all safer but they don’t make the process any more enjoyable.

Boarding a plane with a wheelchair may seem like a seemingly impossible task at first. However, it’s perfectly acceptable with all airlines and many of them take extra measures to simplify the process.

It might be easier to board a flight with a wheelchair than with a bottle of shampoo. Even so, you need to be prepared for the boarding process and any obstacles you might encounter. Solid preparation will ensure you are able to quickly and easily board your flight when the time is right. A few of the factors that will influence the boarding process include:

Have this information in mind before you begin to book your flight.

Tips For Traveling By Plane With A Wheelchair

I’ve also compiled a list of 5 useful tips for making booking, boarding, and traveling with a wheelchair much easier.

1. Book As Early As Possible

Booking early is a great piece of advice for anyone traveling by plane but it’s even more important if you’re a wheelchair user with seating preferences. Seat selection is an important issue for a lot of people who use wheelchairs. For example, you might require a bulkhead seat behind the divider for the added legroom. Or you may require a seat with a movable armrest to make it easier to move into and out of your seat.

For the most part, the only way to really guarantee you’ll get a seat with the features you want is to book well ahead of the flight. Trying to secure specific seating once you arrive at the airport very rarely works.

Many desk workers will not know which seats have movable armrests or which seats are closest to the bathroom. Ideally, this information will be available on the website you use to book your flight. If not, then you should contact the airline directly to discuss your options.

Booking early has the added bonus of reducing the ticket price in most scenarios. This isn’t specifically beneficial to wheelchair travelers but who doesn’t want to save a few bucks when possible?

woman sitting in a wheelchair at airport gate waiting on a flight

2. Familiarize Yourself With Airlines And Codes

All airlines employ a variety of accessibility services. Some of these services are required by law and others are purely optional. This means that one airline may offer some really useful services that fit your specific needs while another airline does not. However, even if an airline doesn’t advertise a certain service it may still offer it. Before booking your flight you should contact the airline and discuss any accessibility needs you may have.

Airlines have been offering accessibility services for a long time and they’ve developed a very refined system. They use something known as special service request (SSR) code for these specific services. When you let them know you have accessibility needs they can add this SSR code to your ticket to ensure that all airline workers provide you with the indicated services.

Most major airlines rely on the same SSR system though there are some that use unique codes. It’s important that your ticket list the correct code because it’s going to impact the services provided and the overall quality of your flight.

The best way to ensure the code is correct is to familiarize yourself with the specific codes you may require and then verify that those codes are listed on your ticket. Here are just a couple:

  • WCMP – A passenger traveling with a manual wheelchair.
  • WCHC – A wheelchair is required for the passenger and an aisle chair is needed for boarding.
  • WCHR – A passenger requires wheelchair assistance but is capable of walking short distances.

As you can imagine, problems might arise if the airline lists the wrong code on your ticket. For example, if you cannot walk short distances but have the WCMP SSR on your ticket, then there will be some confusion on the plane.

Learn the basic SSR codes and always double-check your ticket before boarding.

3. Know The Boarding Requirements of Taking Wheelchairs on Airplanes

Most wheelchairs will fall into one of three categories. There are:

  • Manual wheelchairs
  • Powered wheelchairs
  • Mobility scooters

Each type of chair is slightly different and will face different requirements when it comes to storage. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the storage procedures for your specific type of chair with the airline you are choosing. These storage procedures are typically very similar for all of the major airlines.

The Air Carrier Access Act outlines several legal requirements that airports and airlines must adhere to regarding wheelchairs and mobility scooters. For example, it provides passengers with the right to take their wheelchair or scooter all of the way to the airport gate as well as the boarding door to the aircraft. The wheelchair or scooter must also be returned to the passenger as promptly as possible at the arrival jetway.

How this equipment is actually stored once you board the plane is going to differ depending on the type of wheelchair you have. The easiest to work with is a standard manual chair that is capable of folding. Some airlines will allow you to roll your chair all of the way to your seat on the plane, though this depends on aisle width and the size of the chair. Most airlines will have storage space on board the plane where the folded wheelchair can be stored.

Most powered chairs and scooters are incapable of folding, which means they cannot be stored in the standard storage space. Instead, they will be gate checked and then stored underneath the plane. Make sure you receive your gate-check claim ticket to make receiving your chair later much easier.

If your wheelchair or mobility scooter is gate-checked, then you will need to be transferred to an aisle seat before being moved to your final seat on the plane. If you have a WCHR SSR then an aisle seat may not be necessary as you can simply walk the short distance to the seat if able.

senior couple sitting at the airport

4. Bring A Friend If Possible

Traveling with a friend makes everything easier. This is true for anyone but has added significance if you are a wheelchair user. There are many ways a friend could help in the airport that could shave an hour or more from your wait time. If you are traveling by air with an elderly parent, that friend is probably you!

One of the many ways they could help is with transporting luggage to the plane. You’ll need to carry all of your luggage through the airport even if you plan to check baggage. Yet many airports are designed with uphill ramps that lead outside. This can make traveling with luggage in a wheelchair more difficult and slower than it needs to be.

Having a friend or family member who can carry luggage can make a tremendous difference.

5. Enjoy Your Flight

Now that you’ve gotten yourself and your wheelchair on the airplane, try to relax and enjoy your flight.

Remember, airlines and airports are required to make accommodations for people with disabilities. If you have any problem you should speak with someone in charge before boarding the flight. In most cases, they should be more than happy to offer assistance.

Final Word

The process of taking wheelchairs on airplanes can seem quite daunting, but hopefully this guide has given you some ideas to make traveling with a wheelchair a bit easier. Once you’ve boarded the plane and are in a comfortable seat near a restroom there should be no other wheelchair-specific obstacles to overcome.

From that point forward, your problems will include stale food, noisy children, and overly-expensive movie options. And unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how to beat those problems just yet!

What other suggestions do you have for traveling with wheelchairs?

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional

Scott Grant has spent more than 20 years serving seniors and the elderly in the home medical equipment industry. He has worked as a manufacturer's rep for the top medical equipment companies and a custom wheelchair specialist at a durable medical equipment (DME) provider in WV. He is father to 4 beautiful daughters and has three terrific grandkids. When not promoting better living for older adults, he enjoys outdoor activities including hiking and kayaking and early morning runs.

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