Traveling with a Wheelchair

“How do you travel with a disability?” I get asked this question all the time. Anyone can travel with a Quantum® power wheelchair. You just need to learn the process. I love to answer these questions and sharing my knowledge and experiences. I am very fortunate to have learned how to travel from Mark Smith. Mark taught me the ins and outs of traveling, especially flying with a disability.

At one point in my life, I was flying 2-3 times a month and was on the road 270 days out of the year, living out of different hotels. When you travel as much as I did you learn what hotel chains have the most accessible layouts and which airlines have the best procedures when it comes to handling mobility products. When I go on any trip no matter how small or big I have three rules I always follow. The plan, the execution and the “oh crap what if” backup. When you travel with a mobility product, you are bound to experience some type of issue at some point of your trip. If your plans go smoothly, that’s amazing. I would recommend not getting used to it.

During a recent trip, I flew from New York to Florida to volunteer at a charity event. I booked my round-trip flight about a month and a half in advance. The airline had a sale on fairs and I jumped on the price discount. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the airline I prefer to travel with. If you want to email me, I am happy to share that information with you. Sometimes I book through the website and sometimes I call and speak to a representative. The benefit of calling the airline directly is the employee should be familiar with that specific airline’s policy when it comes to traveling with a power wheelchair. If you choose to book online and you fill out all your personal information, there should be a box to check or a tab to select that says traveling with a disability or medical device. Then, usually you have to fill out some general information about the type of device and any assistance needed. In my case, I select a power wheelchair and note that I am non-ambulatory. I can still transfer myself out of my wheelchair, but I want to let the airline know that I am in a power wheelchair because I cannot move too well.

Once I fill out all the fields regarding my disability, I pay and book a trip. The information you fill out while booking your ticket is just for the ticket/gate agent to know that you have a motorized wheelchair. It also alerts the TSA that you have a mobility product. About a week before my trip, I call and confirm all my travel plans with the agent. I also let them know that I need an aisle chair. I usually explain to the airline employee that I use an aisle chair and if you could move me up toward the front of the airplane, it would make it easier for me and the disability service team to get me on and off the plane. This way they don’t have to roll me all the way back to row 25. About 90% of the time, the airline will move you up. They understand how big of a pain it is and how much time it takes to wheel someone all the way to the back of the plane. They want to depart on time.

To help protect my Edge 3 Power Wheelchair with 4.5 mph iLevel®, I attach a brightly colored sign to the chair that shows where the freewheel levers are on the chair and how to put the motorized wheelchair in freewheel mode and back in lock mode to reengage the drive system. The sign also states to not use force on the chair and if the person has any questions or something is not working, come on the plane and ask for me. I make a point to state that this chair is my legs and cannot be damaged. I always zip tie the sign on the back of my chair and another sign on the joystick. This way there are no excuses because someone who is handling my chair has to see it. I have learned that airline “Rampies” and baggage crew cannot hear when loading your luggage or mobility product, but they are always looking around and are very visual. So, when a baggage crew member sees a bright orange or yellow sign they are more than likely going to go look to see if the airline put special instructions on the item.

On the day of my flight, I always recommend leaving an additional 30 minutes earlier than you normally would for a domestic flight. Getting through TSA can take longer with a power wheelchair. Once you get to the airport, you have to do all the usual things, like print your boarding pass or check your bags. I have learned over the years that it is better to print your pass at home or use the airline app to avoid check-in wait times. I also only travel with carry-on bags or ship my bag to the hotel ahead of time. It’s not worth the headache if something goes wrong with your baggage. If you have a medical device that has to go with you, however, that’s a different story.

When you get to the TSA line, most airports now have a special line for people with disabilities. Smaller airports do not have these lines. When you get to the front, the TSA agent will ask you if you can stand and walk through the detector or if you need a male or female assist. If you can stand up and walk through that’s fine, otherwise you need to be assisted. Every TSA location has a special male and female agent who is specifically trained to search someone in a wheelchair. The special TSA agent takes you to the side and does the search and swabs your chair for explosive materials. The TSA agent also runs your luggage through the scanner. After you get searched, you head to your gate and I recommend going up to the gate agent and telling them you have a power wheelchair. If you need assistance transferring to an aisle chair, the employee at the gate needs to be alerted so they can call the special wheelchair assistance team who are trained to lift people with disabilities out of their wheelchairs and into the aisle chair.

Some other things you need to do before you board the plane. You need to know the overall weight of your power chair and the type of batteries in the chair (this information is for the pilots). A tag is placed on your chair and you receive a gate tag to keep, which helps you claim your wheelchair after you land at your destination. When it’s time to board, you are the first person on the flight. The wheelchair team comes and escorts you down the ramp, transfers you to the aisle chair and straps you to the chair. Then the assistance team brings you onto the airplane and transfers you into your seat. While other passengers are boarding, the baggage crew are driving your product to the elevator and loading your chair onto the plane. When you land, you are the last person off the plane. The flight attendant calls for the disability service team to come to your plane and assist you. The disability service team arrives, and they transfer you back into the aisle chair and then back into your power wheelchair. Be sure to double check your motorized wheelchair and make sure nothing is damaged and all your chair functions work. If everything works, you are free to go!

About Josh McDermott: Josh is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab®. He is a public speaker and has served as a goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Josh lives in New York and loves to travel. Click here to learn more about Josh.