Flying as a wheelchair user
Is flying as a wheelchair user really the horror that people say?
We’ve all heard the bad stories about flying when you use a wheelchair, however is it really that bad? Can the horror of flying be avoided and how do you do your best to make sure you, and your wheelchair, arrive in one piece at your destination?
Preparation is the key and starts before you book your flight – make sure you know the following:
- Dimensions of your wheelchair – height, width (and the same if it folds)
- Weight of your wheelchair
- If you use a power chair the type of batteries and how to disconnect them
Why do you need to know this before you fly – simply – if your wheelchair doesn’t fit in the luggage hold or allocated space in the cargo hold of the type of aircraft on that route, your chair cannot travel. Be aware though that sometimes aircraft do get changed but the airline will be responsible here as that is out of your control. The airline website should tell you the aircraft type generally used for that route and you can use websites such as FlightAware to check this too for all airlines.
Booking the flight is the easy part – simply book your flight online or with travel agent as anyone else would.
Some airlines ask during the booking process if you require Special Assistance and complete the details during your booking, others will prompt you to call a dedicated number to book assistance and it’s advisable to do this as soon as you book. They will ask for the information about your chair that you have prepared and what type of assistance you need.
This is based on how much you can walk and ability to transfer. All airlines use the same three codes and it’s worth knowing these and which you fit in to, if you are not sure, ask the airline. There are also many other codes for other types of disability assistance.
WCHR – Passengers who can ascend and descend steps and move in the aircraft cabin but who require a wheelchair for distance to/from the aircraft.
WCHS – Passengers who cannot ascend and descend steps, where the wheelchair is required to/from the aircraft and the passenger must be carried up/down the steps but is able to make their own way to/from cabin seat.
WCHC – Passengers who are completely immobile and require a wheelchair to/from the aircraft and must be carried up/down the steps and to/from their cabin seat.
When you book assistance, this is also the time to tell the airline if you are taking an additional piece of mobility equipment, which you are entitled to in the EU, free of charge. Again you will need to give them the dimensions and weight of the equipment to make sure if fits in the hold.
What if you need to take bulky medical equipment, feeds or lots of medication?
Advise the airline – they may ask for a letter from your GP or consultant. They will need to know what you are taking, its dimensions, weight and how it needs to be transported (in the cabin or hold) and should give you a free baggage allowance to transport this.
If you are travelling for a longer period of time, speak to your supplier as they may be able to deliver direct to your destination but give them plenty of notice.
Top Tip: Always keep enough medication your hand luggage to cover you for at least a couple of days with a copy of your prescription just in case luggage goes missing. Always keep medication in its original packaging.
Prepping your wheelchair for its journey
- Top Tip: Photograph your chair – take a few snaps from different angles so that you can compare if the worst happens and your chair gets damaged. This includes taking photos of it in its “packaged” state.
- Insure your chair – make sure your wheelchair is fully covered for flying and for worldwide travel. Specialist insurer Fish Insurance who sponsor all our insurances can help with this.
- Pack it up – there are many travel bags out there that will hold your chair and wheels together and pad it, but otherwise simple things like pipe lagging taped onto frame to give some padding is just as effective.
- Bits and bobs – make sure anything that comes off, comes off or is secured. Don’t risk the chance of losing a bit of your chair if it’s loose/removable – it could come off in the hold never to be seen again. Top Tip: Take your cushion into the cabin too so it doesn’t get lost.
- Some long haul flights on larger aircraft will accommodate your wheelchair in the cabin.
A week before your flight, give the airline assistance a call to confirm they have your correct assistance booked and ask for confirmation by email if possible (or note the exact date/time of the call as the airlines normally record calls). Why? We’ve had a few times when assistance has been booked but on arrival at the airport there has been no record of it. It will also help to speed up check in.
At the Airport
Check the airport website about assistance from the car park to check in – some airports offer this or have an assistance button at the drop off area.
At the airport head to check in as usual. Confirm the assistance booked and always ask the airline for your wheelchair to be “Delivered to Aircraft” and if they have a tag for that to attach it to your wheelchair as well as the usual baggage tag. This means your wheelchair should be waiting for you at the door of the aircraft when you arrive to transfer back in to.
Remember, you still have the same security checks and liquid rules to deal with. Top Tip: Pack all your medication in a separate bag and have plenty of clear bags to put any liquid medication in to be scanned. Don’t forget to check those under chair pouches for any random things you carry around that they aren’t left in there.
You will likely be “patted down” where possible as you can’t be x-rayed in your wheelchair! Don’t be alarmed if they also take swabs around your wheelchair or even from around a leg bag just to check there is nothing untoward in there.
You should be boarded first so be at the gate in plenty of time, if assistance are taking you there they will make sure you are on time. You may be boarded using an Ambulift if the aircraft is not at an actual air bridge at the gate – simply a big lift that can drive around the airport and take you to the airplane. You will have to transfer to an aisle chair – a narrow wheelchair with strapping that fits down the aisle of an airplane. When you are in our seat, keep an eye out down below as you may be able to see you chair being loaded in to the hold. This will reassure you that your wheelchair is on the plane and will be with you at the other end. Always a good feeling.
On arrival hopefully your chair will arrive at the plane door undamaged and you will be able to remove the packaging and get on and enjoy your holiday.
If the worst happens and your chair arrives looking like a clown car with wonky wheels inform the airline immediately – take photos of the damage too. It will be reported through the baggage handlers. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time but rarely is a chair damaged that badly that it cannot be used on a temporary basis. If the worst happens try and hire a chair, or for minor damage often a local bike shop can help! Try not to panic. I once survived ten days, having broken my frame on the first day of the holiday by bumping down a curb, by the use of two spanners as splints and lots of duct tape!
The airline should cover any damage through its insurers and would usually pay the repair company/manufacturer direct. If the worst happens and your chair is beyond repair, the airline should replace it like for like. There is a loophole with a cap on compensation, however, you should fight against this as it’s not just a piece of baggage, it is your means of mobility. I’ve never had an issue in getting expensive custom chairs replaced.
Remember, problems can happen but deal with them calmly, there is no point getting angry and the more you travel the more routine it will become. Hopefully, these simple tips will help you be prepared and most of all – Enjoy your trip!
Posted on: 11th Aug 2016, by : Paula Moulton