Q. My niece is getting married on the opposite side of the country and I use a power wheelchair. Despite flying in the past, I now question my ability to do so safely. We hear reports about flights that were canceled, delayed extensively, or people being removed from departing flights for no apparent reason. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be forcibly removed once I had gone through the arduous process of preparing for the trip and being transferred into a seat on the plane.
Friends have shared incidents of extensive damage and temporary loss of use of their mobility devices due to all kinds of mistakes. I really need my wheelchair to be in operating condition upon arrival and when returning home, as I do not have a spare. My main concern is what needs to happen before and during the flight so my travel experience does not turn into a disaster. I could use some helpful advice.
— Grounded, at least temporarily
A. Many incidents can be prevented with better advance planning and knowledge of the Air Carrier Access Act’s regulations that govern passengers with disabilities. Also, remember that you will be dealing with airline and contracted employees who might have limited knowledge of the rules but feel they have authority to make decisions that may or may not be in compliance. So you need to know the law and be prepared. The Federal Aviation Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, administers and enforces the ACAA. Fortunately, before booking, you can review its free booklet, New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability. Also, United Spinal recently re-released its Accessible Air Travel booklet (see resources).
Travelers using power devices especially need to take extra precautions. Know how your mobility device operates and where the different switches and connections are located. Make sure it is powered by non-spillable or “gel cell” batteries. That will eliminate the need to remove and repackage the batteries before flight and help minimize damage. Obtain a note from the wheelchair vendor, on letterhead, stating that non-spillable batteries are in use. The battery needs to be disconnected from operating controls during travel, which can also prevent damage.
Label everything with your name, especially if removable, and know that whole mobility devices have been lost. If an armrest or leg support can be removed, it is susceptible to loss or damage. Know how to disassemble and reassemble your wheelchair. Insist that you or a trained assistant must be present to supervise both of these processes. Travel with a roll of duct tape or tie-down straps to secure any loose items on the seat base — after stowing your seat cushion in the overhead bin. Remember, baggage compartments are usually full, and any flat surface will be used for stacking; do not leave anything protruding from your chair or it may be broken, removed or lost.
Also, prepare instructions on a sheet of colorful paper detailing how to set and release your wheelchair brakes; attach it where it is very visible. The brakes will have to be released to roll it and load it into the plane, and then locked again as it travels up the baggage belt and into the cargo hold. It also helps to label switches and controls.
Some types of equipment require notification to the airline at least 48 hours in advance. It is also a good idea to advise the carrier that you will be traveling with a mobility device powered by non-spillable batteries. Request a seat with a movable armrest to make it easier to transfer. Arrive at the airport early, as it can take an extra hour if a power wheelchair is involved. Signing up for the TSA Precheck program in advance will minimize delays for security screenings. Do not transfer out of your wheelchair until you arrive at the door of the plane, and pre-board whenever possible.
Remember, things can and do go wrong. Be prepared for weather delays, mechanical malfunctions or crew shortages; carry extra medication and urological supplies. All carriers must have a complaint resolution officer available to take complaints from passengers with disabilities about virtually anything that can go wrong. Point out immediately if equipment is damaged and follow up to resolve the situation. If you are removed from a flight, you must be provided with a written reason for that removal in order to be able to file a complaint.
The recent negative publicity about passengers being removed from aircraft has had one positive side effect: In the event that a flight is overbooked, some airlines have now raised the limit on the amount of money that passengers can be paid for voluntarily giving up their seats to about $10,000.
• Accessible Air Travel booklet, www.unitedspinal.org/accessible-air-travel-2
• Air Carrier Access Act, www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities
• New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability, www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/new-horizons-information-air-traveler-disability