When it comes to travelling with a wheelchair, the rules can be complicated and not as user-friendly as the air carrier which attends to your needs on the day. It is therefore extremely important to know what your rights are when it comes to aviation so that if you encounter any problems, you will be able to respond appropriately and confidently. Whether you’re a full time user of a wheelchair or simply require it to get around from time to time, you should never feel out of your depth when it comes to aviation…
It is best to view any air travel as a partnership between yourself and the airline; they should do everything in their power to help you, but equally you must take responsibility for yourself and your belongings to ensure that everything arrives safely with you. Each airline will have individual codes of conduct and practice in regard to passengers who require assistance, so it’s worth checking in advance to ensure that your expectations match their policies.
Preparation is essential
Confirm with the airline at the time of booking that you do require assistance and that you will be using/bringing a wheelchair with you on board the aircraft. This allows time for the airline to organise and provide you with the assistance you require.
It will also ensure that they reserve an accessible seat for you, or wheelchair space. Some airlines will not be able to accommodate the width of a standard wheelchair along an aisle, such as for moving to and from the restrooms, and will therefore be obliged to supply you with an aisle chair specifically designed for accessibility in the aircraft.
When it comes to checking in, the staff should be prepared for your arrival – but it wouldn’t hurt to call 48 hours in advance of checking in just to be sure they are expecting to facilitate your needs. Due to the size of many airports, there are often provisions and ‘fast tracks’ for passengers with disabilities; however this is not a legal requirement, whereas ramps and lifts for access are.
On board advice
Many airlines are aligned with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); this means they must allow passengers travelling on their airline assistance with devices such as wheelchairs. Wheelchairs do not come under hand luggage and do not have any contribution to the overall weight of any luggage a passenger is allowed to carry. Staff should receive specialist training and guidance to deal with wheelchairs, however if there is any confusion, as long as you have notified the airline prior to travel, you are well within your rights to reiterate to the staff that you have gone to the trouble to warn them in advance and as such, they should try to accommodate your needs. If needs be you can instruct them how to do so (all be it in a polite manner!).
Should space be at a premium on board any aircraft or airline, your wheelchair will take priority as it is an integral part of your transport. If you have notified the staff at the time of booking that you will need space for your wheelchair, ask for confirmation of this. If it ever comes under dispute, you can simply produce a written confirmation letter for your peace of mind. Disputes are never pleasant, but as long as you follow our advice you can at least act confidently within your rights.
Although it may seem obvious that you are using a wheelchair or require assistance, airlines may ask you to provide some form of proof to ensure that passengers who are genuinely in need take priority. This could be a letter signed by your doctor (which may cost a small fee), your Blue Badge for parking, or some other form of clarification as set by the airline themselves.
For insurance purposes, if the airline is at all concerned that your health could be affected by flying, you could be required to produce a doctor’s note declaring you fit for travel. Many airlines have their own forms so be sure to have these filled out before you fly, otherwise you could be refused entry, which is a terrible consequence after all the prior planning and excitement of your trip.
All of this paper work will be in addition to the usual travel documents such as your passport, any visas, and your tickets.
For more information about travelling with a wheelchair, you can take to the internet and research the individual airline, read the plethora of articles available, or research codes of practice as defined in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Don’t let your wheelchair hold you back from travelling the world; know where you sit with aviation rights!