Life with MS

Wheelchairs in Flight

By Melissa Male and Cheryl Price

If you’ve only dreamed of far-off vacation destinations because you believe that flying with your wheelchair is too much of an endeavor, it’s time to make that dream come true! The key is in good planning: know what to ask, what to expect, and how to prepare.

Start with the booking

When you book a flight, immediately make the airline aware of your disability and your needs. Often you can reserve a seat close to the front of the plane, or even in the first row (bulkhead), which is easiest for both you and the staff who may help you onboard. As you select flights requiring plane changes, pay close attention to the times for layovers and make certain that you have enough time for a bathroom break as well as getting to your next gate. A direct flight is always best if possible, so that you have less chance of missing the next one or losing your luggage.

You may be asked how much your chair weighs without you in it. Figure this out before heading to the airport. They ask so they can determine if they can carry it from the jetway down a flight of stairs to cargo, which saves them time, but, it can be risky. If there isn't an automatic lift to lower the chair from the jetway, say “it's very heavy” or tell them not to take it down the stairs. They have other options, which take more time, but will give you more peace of mind.

When you are traveling with a power wheelchair, there are several additional elements that you need to address when booking and getting on your flight. First and foremost, make sure you know what type of batteries you have. “Wet” batteries must be removed from the chair and boxed up in special containers because of the risk of acid spillage. Check with your carrier to find out if you need to box up the batteries beforehand or if they will do that for you.

“Dry” or gel batteries don't need to be removed from the chair. When you check in (which you must do at the gate even if you already did at the ticket counter), you will be asked what type of batteries you have so that your crew is notified in advance. Sometimes, although the batteries are not removed, they are unplugged during the flight. So, when you get your chair once you've arrived at your destination and the power doesn't work, check to see if the batteries are unplugged before having a panic attack!

And in case of a real breakdown, make sure to pack your repair tools (these will not be allowed in your carry-on so put them in your checked baggage) and a pneumatic tire repair kit. If you’re traveling domestically and have access to a computer, you may want to print out and pack a list of any wheelchair or bike shops that may be near your travel destination. To be most proactive, you can even service your wheelchair before you go on your trip!

What to expect on flight day

If you want, you can get immediate assistance when you arrive at the airport. They will escort you to your gate, often allowing you to bypass long lines at security. However, you will need to get physically patted down by a security agent since you can’t go through the metal detector. You can request a private area and a same-sex agent if you prefer.

If you have a manual wheelchair that is collapsible or folds, you may be able to take it onboard and store it in the closet. If not, it will go below the plane. Make certain that every loose part is tightened and securely fastened. It is even helpful to tape over any parts that may come loose or need protection, for example the side guards.

You can at least remove your cushion and sit on it during the flight. If you have an air cushion, keep checking it during the flight because the cabin pressure can cause it to over-inflate! For chairs with power rims, remove the power rims and battery and bring those on board with you. Make certain that they tag your wheelchair and give you the receipt in case anything is lost. You can also write your name and address somewhere on the frame of your wheelchair or use a return address label with tape on it, in case the tag gets ripped or lost.

Before your power chair leaves your sight and is taken away, double and triple check that your chair has a correct destination tag on it and a gate check tag; this means that they will bring your chair back up to the entrance of the plane when you've landed, so you don't have to pick it up at baggage claim.

Also, make sure you've removed items from your chair you wouldn't want to have lost or damaged – your backpack, your seat cushion, and anything else. You may want to remove the little rubber knob that easily comes off of the chair’s joystick, as they aren't cheap to replace if they fall off. Just remember: the crew treats your chair like a piece of luggage, not always as gingerly as you would like!

Take your battery charger on the plane with you and stow it under your seat or in overhead. Just in case luggage should be lost, you do not want to get stuck for a few days without your charger. Most new chargers are fairly light and small – not like the old ones that weighed as much as you!

Whether you are using a manual or power chair, when you get to your gate, make sure the gate attendants know you will be boarding the flight and if you need assistance. You are always entitled to preboard the plane to give you space and comfort to get to your seat and to allow the airline time to bring your chair down to cargo. Don’t be afraid to clearly tell those helping you what your needs are and the best way to assist you. Do not assume that they will understand balance issues or if you can’t move your legs, for example.

After you land

Wheelchair-users always deplane last. It usually takes them a while to get your chair up to the jetway – and, it's easier to maneuver around without hoards of anxious travelers and their luggage. You may get lucky and only wait a few minutes, or you may have to wait for 15 minutes or more. But once you do get in your chair, thoroughly check for damage. You might be in a hurry, but you need to take the time to make sure there aren't any new scrapes, nicks, gashes, dents, bent axles, broken spokes, missing pieces, or popped tires.

If you find damage, however big or small, you need to go to customer service in baggage claim and fill out a damage claim form. Airlines are accommodating when it comes to paying for damage done to wheelchairs, but you need to take care of this right away if this happens to you. You may choose to photograph the damage while at the airport, as well.

At this point the airline is available to help you in any way that you need to navigate through the airport and get to your baggage. Once again, it can be beneficial to use their assistance because they know where elevators are and can get you through customs quickly, if necessary. There are also porters to help you take your bags outside.

Once you are outside, keep in mind that if you are traveling by taxi, your chair will be folded and stuffed in a vehicle. You may have to guide either the taxi driver or whomever is with you so that everything is stowed away properly and safely. Depending on your travel destination, you may be able to request a minivan or SUV taxi in order to optimize space, or even a wheelchair accessible van with a lift and tie-downs so that you can stay in your chair. 

Melissa Male is a district representative for California State Senator Loni Hancock, working primarily on disability issues and constituent matters. She has been a resident of Berkeley, Calif., for 15 years and enjoys traveling and exploring the Bay Area in her free time.

Cheryl Price is Editor of, an online magazine for women who use wheelchairs. Cheryl is thrilled to be home to raise her 3-year-old son, adapting and learning on a daily basis as a “mom on wheels.”

(Last reviewed 7/2011)