The Guide to Flying With a Wheelchair

There are new accessibility measures from airports and airlines for passengers traveling with a wheelchair.
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Written by Carissa Rawson

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Traveling on a plane can be a stressful endeavor, whether you’re bringing a checked bag, a whole family or extra equipment to get around. But for those who make use of a wheelchair, air travel is becoming more accessible than ever before.

Because of updated U.S. Department of Transportation policies, as well as innovations from certain airlines, flying with a wheelchair is becoming easier.

Let’s take a look at how the process works, what bringing a wheelchair on a plane entails and what changes are helping to make air travel for wheelchair users a better experience.

How to fly with a wheelchair

Air travel is meant to be accessible to everyone. Whether a traveler uses a wheelchair full time or requires one only to navigate through the airport, accessibility services are available to them.

Requesting a wheelchair at the airport

Airlines are required to provide prompt aid to passengers needing additional assistance. This includes those who need a wheelchair to get around, and you are allowed to request one for use in the airport. If this is the case for you, you’ll want to advise the airline as early as possible.

Once you arrive at the airport, you’ll need to let the airline know that you require a wheelchair.

Bringing your own wheelchair

There are a couple of extra conditions to be aware of if you’re traveling with your own wheelchair. You can fly with a power wheelchair, but the DOT’s guidance page notes that you’ll need to arrive an hour before standard check-in time.

You can stay in your own wheelchair until you get to the gate. At this point, if your chair will not fit in the cabin, it will be taken and checked.

If necessary, the airline will then provide an aisle chair to help you get to your seat. Once landed, your wheelchair will be waiting for you at the gate.

Can you check a wheelchair on an airplane?

Yes, you can check a wheelchair on a plane. This is the case for both manual wheelchairs and powered wheelchairs. Checking your medical equipment is free of charge.

However, note that some aircraft may have limitations when it comes to accepting powered wheelchairs due to their size. For example, United Airlines has recognized this and created new policies to address it (more on that below).

How to pack a wheelchair for flight

There are no special requirements necessary if you’re bringing your wheelchair on your flight. Eligible manual wheelchairs can be stowed in the cabin of the aircraft, whether that’s in the storage bin above you, under the seat in front of you or in the designated wheelchair storage area onboard the plane.

If your wheelchair doesn’t fit or uses a battery, it’ll be taken and checked into the cargo area for free.

In this case, we recommend labeling your wheelchair with your name and contact information and attaching any relevant handling or disassembly instructions.

Accessible policies for those traveling with a wheelchair, broken down by airline

Traveling with a wheelchair can be more complicated than you’d expect, which is why the government and certain airlines are adopting new strategies to help ensure dignity and respect for everyone.

U.S. DOT accessibility policies

The DOT has published its Bill of Rights for passengers with disbilities, which includes the right to be treated with dignity and respect, the right to accessible facilities and the right to travel with an assistive device, among other rights.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Generally speaking, it's free to check your wheelchair or mobility device in addition to your checked bags. This includes wheelchairs (manual or electric) as well as scooters, walkers, canes and crutches.

Note that devices must meet airline battery and safety requirements.

The DOT has also enacted a rule that will require single-aisle aircraft to provide an accessible lavatory.

American Airlines wheelchair assistance

American Airlines asks passengers to submit assistance requests in advance because after you’ve done so, a coordinator will contact you directly to ensure everything is ready for your trip.

The airline will also work with you to book the right seat if you need extra space or have specific mobility needs.

How to get a wheelchair at the airport for American Airlines

To request wheelchair assistance, select the “Add special assistance” option during booking or in “Manage Trips” from the airline’s home page after logging in to your account. You can also request assistance by calling 800-237-7976.

Delta wheelchair assistance

Delta Air Lines has debuted a prototype airline seat that allows powered wheelchair users to remain in their own seat during the flight. This is still some way off from being implemented in aircraft, but it’s nice to see that the airline is making strides to become more accessible.

How to get a wheelchair at the airport on Delta

You can request wheelchair service in your Delta SkyMiles account after booking your flight, under “My Trips.” You can also call the airline at 404-209-3434.

Southwest Airlines wheelchair assistance

You do not need to notify Southwest before arriving at the airport to receive disability-related assistance. The airline offers an online Accessible Travel Assistance hub to streamline planning, and while it prefers your wheelchair is stowed on board as a carry-on, it is possible to gate check your device for cargo.

How to request wheelchair at airport for Southwest

Simply ask any Southwest employee and they will guide you through the necessary steps. There are steps to do this in advance if you prefer, including calling 800-I-FLY-SWA (800-435-9792).

United Airlines wheelchair assistance

For its part, United Airlines has announced a change to its search system that’ll greatly simplify the process for those who use powered wheelchairs.

While the new system isn’t live yet, the updated search feature will include the ability to input the dimensions of your wheelchair. Doing so allows you to weed out aircraft with cargo doors that won’t accommodate the size of your wheelchair.

Even better, if your preferred flight cannot accommodate your wheelchair, you can book a different flight on the same day — and if it’s more expensive, United will refund you the difference.

How do I request a wheelchair on United Airlines?

You can request a wheelchair for your flight or airport experience in the traveler information section at booking or in your MileagePlus account under “My Trips” after you’ve purchased your ticket.

If you’re bringing a wheelchair on a plane

Airports and airlines are becoming better suited to passengers with disabilities who are traveling, including those who use a wheelchair. Whether you need one to navigate the airport or are bringing one from home, new regulations and policies have been established to ensure that your travel experience is as seamless as possible.

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