Top 10 Tips Flying With a Power Wheelchair

Top 10 Tips Flying With a Power Wheelchair

This article is written in co-authorship with two power-wheelchair users and experienced travelers: Catherine Sokol, WTW blog contributor, travel enthusiast, and budding disability advocate, and Valeria Rocha, one of WTW's talented software engineers.

If you keep up with our Wheel the World blog, you have already read our 16 Essential Tips When Flying as a Manual Wheelchair User. But what about powered wheelchair users? How is it different? What are the particular challenges?

The challenges of traveling as a power wheelchair user

Can you fly with your electric wheelchair? Simply put, yes! Although air travel has come a long way in recent years to be more accessible for travelers with disabilities, it is still a particularly challenging experience for those with mobility issues. Unlike ground transportation, there is currently no way for travelers in wheelchairs to stay in them during the flight. Instead, they are forced to transfer to the airline seats. This is a big issue because most of the time people's wheelchairs are fitted for their own comfort and safety. Being transferred to an airplane seat and forced out of their wheelchair for an extended period can potentially cause serious injuries.

Despite all this, flying should not be viewed as off-limits for individuals who use a power wheelchair. It is the ticket to see the world and help them live life to the fullest.

A little preparation and research can go a long way to make the whole process a much smoother experience. Today, we will share our top tips for flying as someone who uses a powered wheelchair daily.

Before purchasing a ticket

1. Research the airline's power wheelchair policies

Unfortunately, there is little standardization on policies that apply to travelers who use a power wheelchair. It depends not only on your destination's legal regulations but also on the airline's policies.

Research the airline's website and contact them before purchasing your ticket so you can know their particular policies and can guide you to the best option. As an example, some airlines require you to discharge the battery of your wheelchair, and others require a doctor's note about why you need the mobility device.

2. Find airline reviews from other powered wheelchair users

Find accessible travel blog posts, online groups, and other online communities to read about other powered wheelchair users' experiences. This can help you evaluate which one is best for you. Wheel the World has an accessible travel Facebook group you can join, and it is a great place to start as a free resource. Everyone is welcome!

Pre-flight preparations

3. Know the main characteristics of your equipment

Knowing your electric wheelchair is key. The airport and airline staff might ask you about your wheelchair's dimensions, the type of battery it uses, how it should be handled, the weight, and the model. Prepare all the information beforehand on your phone to help you answer correctly and confidently since you will probably be asked about this more than once.

4. Label your wheelchair

American Airlines recommends you label your powered wheelchair with your name, address, phone number, the wheelchair's model, and serial number. This can help in case any airline loses your wheelchair and allows you and the airline staff to have that information available.

5. Write down instructions on how your wheelchair should be handled

Providing these instructions to the airline staff can help them navigate your power wheelchair properly and ensure it arrives at your destination in good condition. Consider including details on how to assemble or disassemble crucial components of your power wheelchair to make loading and unloading easier to prevent damage.

6. Research battery policies

Depending on the airline and type of battery, policies may vary. This is why it's so important for you to thoroughly research the airline before booking a flight. Some airlines require you to uncharge it, others to remove it. For example, lithium-ion batteries are typically required to be removed, protected, and stored in your carry-on luggage. Some battery types are not required to be removed, so knowing the exact airline requirements allows you to prepare yourself.  

7. Protect areas where breakage is highly likely

Such as the joystick! Also, fold pieces in to make it as compact as possible. Remove the parts that can come off the chair and bring them with you into the cabin. These parts include the footrest, headrest, and joystick. Covering the chair with a waterproof cover can help protect it from water damage when being loaded into the plane.

At the airport

8.  Take a picture of your wheelchair before the flight

Taking a picture of your wheelchair as it is when you get to the airport can help in case it gets damaged in transit. Airlines are ultimately responsible for any damage incurred during the flight, so having a picture is proof that the chair was damaged in transit.

9. Be patient!

As we said, air travel has a long way ahead to be fully accessible. In the meantime, powered wheelchair users have to be patient. You'll most likely be asked about your disability and mobility device when purchasing a ticket, checking in, going through security, and boarding the plane. Often, the staff involved in all these steps do not communicate with each other, which means you will most likely repeat yourself. The only tip we have for this is patience.

10. Advocate for yourself

You know what you need best! So don’t be afraid to speak up and tell airline workers what you need. They don’t know how to best help you, so it is up to you to tell them. Be kind but be firm; they are there to help you. Ultimately their goal is for you to have the best flight possible, so it’s ok to ask for help and speak up for what you need.  

Share your own tips

It seems daunting, but flying can be a wonderful experience and a great way to see different parts of the world. Hopefully, one day, wheelchair users will be allowed to stay in their chairs on the flight, but until then, we will do what we need to do, and with a little planning, flying can be a wonderful way to travel.

We can help each other out by sharing tips and tricks that have worked for you! If you have something to share to further this conversation, please comment below and share your tips.

For further advice, check out our 16 Essential Tips When Flying as a Manual Wheelchair User, where you'll find tips about bathroom needs, wheelchair storage, and much more that will also apply to powered wheelchair users.

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