Tips for flying in a wheelchair

Between trying to find a cheap flight, getting to the airport, and going through security, by the time you get to your assigned seat you usually let out a sigh of relief. Flying can be stressful, especially as a wheelchair user. So, here are some tips from regular traveler and wheelchair user Shannon to make getting to your destination a little more manageable.

Booking flights

This is the obvious first step in any adventure where you’ll need to fly, and there are several important things to take note of when booking flights as a disabled passenger. Firstly, I prefer to arrive at my destination during the day. Typically, there is much more staff working during the day shift rather than at night, so if any issues arise, it is easier to get them resolved during business hours.

Most airlines also ask a ‘special assistance’ question during the booking process. This is an opportunity for you to let them know what kind of assistance you need and what equipment you will be bringing on the plane. Once you have requested special assistance, the airline will be alerted of your needs.

To confirm special assistance requests, some airlines have started calling the passenger. I find it reassuring, as it’s a good way of knowing that someone is taking my needs seriously.  I hope more airlines follow suit in the future.

I also always let them know I will need an aisle chair (more on that later) and will be bringing my manual wheelchair.

Lastly, booking cheap air tickets via Cleartrip is a good idea. There will be a greater selection of seats available, and you should be able to choose an aisle seat near the front, which will make boarding the plane easier. Buying tickets early on usually means you can find cheap flights too, which is always a good thing in my book.

Checking in as a wheelchair user

Most airlines allow you to check-in for your flight and print your boarding pass or download it onto your phone 24 hours in advance. This means that if you are not checking in a bag, you can go straight to security.

Regardless of this, I normally go to the check-in desk to make sure my request for assistance has been processed and that it will be ready for me at the gate.

You can also request a wheelchair and an escort to help you get through the security process and to your gate. Sometimes the attendants will also move my seat closer to the front if it isn’t a full flight, so it’s always worth checking.


Going through security is one of my least favourite parts of flying, and I know I’m not alone. I normally fly by myself, so I try to pack as light as possible so that I can manage my luggage easily.

After taking off my shoes and laptop out of my bag, I get the attention of one of the staff members to let them know I need a pat-down since I use a wheelchair and am unable to walk through the x-ray machines/metal detectors.

This is a procedure they use to make sure that you are not carrying any prohibited items on you. There are a lot of rules that go into it, so it’s worth checking the security procedure for disabled passengers at the airport beforehand.

Most importantly though, remember to speak up for yourself if anything is sensitive or uncomfortable. They will pat-down your entire body, so if that will cause you any pain, be sure to let them know before they begin. If you are flying alone, also make sure that the staff grabs your belongings so that they are not left unattended during the procedure.

Boarding the plane

Once I arrive at the gate, I remind the airline staff for the final time that I will be needing assistance, pre-boarding and a tag for my wheelchair. When you have a disability, you are normally the first one to board the plane and the last one to get off upon arrival.

Once the assistance team meets you, they will usher you down the walkway and help you transfer from your wheelchair into the aisle chair. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but it is a thin wheelchair that will transport you through the small aisle of the plane to your seat.

The staff members will be able to help you transfer from your chair into the aisle chair and then to your seat. But again, do let them know the best way to help you or if there is anything they need to avoid doing to prevent injury.

I always make sure to check with a flight attendant if they have an aisle chair on board for me to use during the flight as well, in case I need to access the bathroom during the trip.

Since the plane has limited room on board, they tend to store wheelchairs on the bottom of the plane where the checked luggage goes, which is why I ask for a tag at the gate – to ensure it arrives at my destination. Unfortunately, not all airport personnel are trained to correctly handle mobility devices, so it’s not uncommon for them to come back broken, scratched or missing pieces.

For this reason, I recommend taking any removable parts off the chair and keeping them on the airplane with you. I’ve lost a backrest and side guard before, while flying, and it is not easy to get reimbursed for their loss. To protect the frame of a manual wheelchair, you could purchase impact guards to prevent scratches.

I also take the seat cushion off my chair and place it on my designated airplane seat for the duration of the flight. I have an air cushion to help prevent pressure sores, so it is especially good to use during a long flight.

It’s also important to bring any medication in your carry on bag as well, in case something happens to your checked luggage.

Enjoy your trip!

Once you land, the assistance team at your destination will help you debark the plane and l assist you in finding your luggage or point you towards transportation.

Although flying in a wheelchair can come with its own challenges, it is definitely worth it once you arrive and are able to catch up with an old friend or explore a new part of the world! It’s why I travel as much as possible, aim to continue to do so for many years.

By Shannon Kelly on behalf of Cleartrip

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