Able to Travel’s Mary Peterson shares how wheelchair users can take control of their air travel experience. For more, go to www.abletotravel.org or call 888/211-3635. Also, be sure to catch her workshop at the Abilities Expos.
1. Communication is key. When you make your airline reservation, give the airline all the necessary information regarding your disability and mobility device. This information will be stored in your flight record. When you arrive at the gate, make yourself known to the gate agent and give them your boarding-pass. The agent should then look at and read your flight record. To be on the safe side, make sure you let them know you will require assistance transferring and how many personnel you will require for a safe transfer.
2. Keep your wheelchair until you’re on the jetway. The airline may want you to transfer to a boarding chair at check-in, but it is usually best to keep your mobility device until you are on the jetway and ready to board the aircraft.
3. Personalize your wheelchair. Let the baggage personnel know, “This wheelchair is my mode of transportation and it is an extension of me, so please be very careful when stowing it because if my wheelchair does not work, neither do I.” Let the handlers see the human side.
4. Don’t let anyone lift you unless it is the way you want to be lifted. You know what your limitations are, how you want to be transferred, so prior to being transferred, tell them what works best. A good way to be lifted is to have one person in front grab you underneath the knees while a person in back lifts from under your armpits. Your arms will be crossed over your chest.
5. Put a luggage tag on your wheelchair that includes your name, email and address. Also, in the event something happens in transit, it is helpful to have the following: a small manual specific to your mobility device, its serial and model number handy, and knowledge on how to engage/disengage the battery. Even though most power wheelchairs use gel cell batteries, the handlers might take the battery off the wheelchair, so all pertinent information will be helpful when you reach your final destination.
6. Put power wheelchairs in neutral. Make sure you know how to disengage your power wheelchair — otherwise they’ll push it in drive and ruin the whole system. If it does get damaged, carriers are responsible for fixing your wheelchair. It is important to make a claim with your airline before you leave the gate area. Foreign carriers have a limit on what they will reimburse you, while American carriers must reimburse the cost to repair the mobility device.
7. Know bathroom breaks are almost impossible. I have clients who will dehydrate themselves on long flights. If you are able, the airline personnel will assist you to the lavatory using an on-board wheelchair but will not assist you in the lavatory. An aircraft with two aisles must have an accessible bathroom. Unfortunately, the size of an aircraft cannot always be guaranteed. For example, if the flight is not full, they may switch to a smaller aircraft — which will not have an accessible bathroom.
8. Kill them with kindness. You may get an agent that is very pleasant or someone who has already had a bad day and has a bit of an attitude. So be kind, be sweet! If you do run into a problem with airline personnel and you don’t think the issue will be resolved, ask for a complaint resolution officer — every airline has one.