Traveling on an Airplane with a Wheelchair

Most people aren’t fans of air travel. Whether it be long TSA lines, frequent delays or cramped seating, the experience can sometimes qualify as a necessary evil. Unfortunately, wheelchair users in particular know the downsides of air travel all too well.

As limited mobility travel expert Karin Willison recently told us, airplane travel often means inadequate seating and risking damage to her wheelchair. Unfortunately, implementing regulations on airlines meant to ensure that wheelchairs are properly handled have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

To help you plan for your next trip, we’re going to discuss the common issues with airlines, what steps you can take to minimize the risk of damages to your wheelchair and what you should do if your chair is damaged.

What can go wrong?

Most accidents to wheelchairs occur during the boarding process. As a wheelchair user is transferred from their chair and helped to a seat on the plane, their wheelchair is typically hoisted onto a conveyor belt and loaded into the cargo hold — none of this is as easy as it sounds.

For one, most powered wheelchairs weigh over 200 lbs., making them difficult to load.

Added difficulties arise because many wheelchair users require their chairs to be personalized for greater comfort. This becomes an issue when it’s time to load a wheelchair into cargo, as airline handlers may be required to disassemble your wheelchair and are more than likely unfamiliar with your unique configuration. This issue only doubles in complexity as, upon arrival, a whole new team of handlers will be responsible for reassembling your chair. All-in-all, it’s a very stressful and concerning process for everyone involved.

 

What can I do to protect my wheelchair?

If you’re wondering why stricter handling rules aren’t enforced, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has worked with wheelchair users to enact more accountable systems, but has recently put requests for cabin wheelchair restraint systems on hold citing the variance of models and inability to ensure they’ve stayed up-to-code through use.

The good news is, thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), airlines are responsible for 100% of the damages which occur through their services. This isn’t a perfect solution, however, as the process of getting a new chair is slow and each day spent in a temporary wheelchair means discomfort.

If you do have to deal with damages from traveling on an airplane with a wheelchair, then wheelchair travel blogger John Morris has a list of helpful actions you can take, including:

  • Document any damage immediately and report it to the airline’s baggage office. It’s essential you do this quickly, as the longer you wait to report damage, the longer it may take to get your chair fixed. And it doesn’t hurt to take a “before” picture of your wheelchair prior to departure so you can prove damage was the airline’s fault.
  • Attach detailed handling instructions to your chair with specific instructions for how to secure the device for airline employees.
  • Let the airline know ahead of time that you’re traveling with a wheelchair. This way they can ensure a capable team is ready to handle your chair.

 

What should you do if your wheelchair has been damaged by an airline?

In the event your wheelchair was damaged on an airplane, don’t panic. Keeping a level head will make the experience easier.

The first thing to do is report the incident immediately to the airline’s Complaints Resolution Official or CRO. Every airline is required to have a CRO on duty (or available by phone) who is familiar with the ACAA inside and out. But be sure to find the right person for your airline as procedures for handling damage may vary from airline to airline. Ask an airline employee for the CRO and file a report with this official immediately — the sooner the better.

Be sure to document evidence of any damage. Take a photo on your phone so you can show the CRO your “before” and “after” photos to provide evidence that the damage occurred while traveling on their airline. And don’t be afraid to take your issue to the next level and file a formal complaint — do so immediately. If your issue isn’t resolved, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

Unfortunately, it can take time to correct these sorts of problems, but stay calm and know that if you follow the steps above, things will be taken care of and you’ll be able to get back to enjoying your trip soon enough. As always, we encourage travelers with limited mobility to consider investing in a travel wheelchair to add convenience, comfort and flexibility to your travels.