As a lifelong chair user, and an avid traveler, I know the anxiety of flying with a power wheelchair all too well. I rely on my electric wheelchair in order to get around in the new cities that I travel to, so the thought of my wheelchair being broken by airlines never leaves my mind but there are a few things wheelchair users can do to reduce the chances of our chairs being broken by airlines.
Know your chair
Before you fly – and before you even book your tickets – you should know some critical details about your power wheelchair. What kind of batteries does your wheelchair have – dry cell, wet cell, gel, or lithium ion? The airlines will ask you this and you will need to know this information. You will also want to know the size and weight of your wheelchair. Is your chair 22 inches wide, 36 inches long, and 46 inches tall? Does it get smaller if you fold up the footplate or unscrew the headrest? You’ll want to know these details too, especially if you’re traveling on a smaller aircraft which may have a smaller door to the cargo compartment.
If you’re worried your wheelchair won’t fit in cargo, call the airline.
Sometimes if you’re traveling to a smaller city, the airlines will use a smaller plane which have smaller doors to the cargo compartment. Are you seeing a pattern here? Everything is small. If your power wheelchair is rather large, you can always call the airline and ask about the measurements of the cargo door on the aircraft for a particular flight before you book. This way you won’t end up stuck at a layover destination because the airline is telling you that your chair won’t fit in the undercarriage. You’ll know precisely if it will fit because you’ll know the exact measurements of your chair and the door they need to fit your chair through!
Remove pieces that come off easily and anything likely to break.
When I travel, I always take off my cupholder, my cushion, and any other parts that can easily pop off. I take these items with me on the plane because I know that they’ll easily be lost or broken if I leave them on my chair. I have a friend with a very pricey head array (which he uses to drive his chair by moving his head) and he always removes that before flying because it’s a critical component that could easily break in untrained hands. If there are parts to your electric chair that can come off and you can take with you on the plane, I encourage you to do so!
Stay with your chair until you speak to the actual person who will be handling your chair.
I never leave my chair on the jet bridge and get onto the plane before talking with the EXACT person who will be handling my chair. As soon as I arrive at my gate, I tell the gate agent that I would like to speak directly with the crew that will be handling my chair so I can show them how to properly handle it. Sometimes the crew member will come within minutes, but sometimes they don’t come at all. If they don’t come, I will continue to ask and I will even go down the jet bridge to the plane, but I will refuse to get on the plane until I speak with the crew member who will be handling my chair. It is very important to me that I show him exactly how to disengage the breaks to push my chair in a manual mode and how to reengage the breaks once the chair is on the baggage conveyor so that it does not roll off of it. This personal connection also allows the crew member to see the person who will be harmed (me) if my chair is damaged.
Write instructions in big letters and place somewhere obvious.
While I have the opportunity to speak with the crew that is handling my wheelchair at my departure city, I don’t have that same opportunity at my arrival city because the crew simply begins unloading the pane when we land. For this reason, I like to write instructions for how to move my wheelchair, what to do and what not to do, etc. in big letters and attach it in a very obvious spot on my electric wheelchair, such as the back. Some of my instructions include:
- LOOK DOWN & SEE YELLOW TABS ON MOTORS. PUSH YELLOW TABS DOWN TO PUT CHAIR IN MANUAL MODE. PUSH CHAIR TO JET BRIDGE
- THIS BEAST OF A CHAIR IS OVER 350 LBS. – DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LIFT ALONE!
- THE HEADREST DOES NOT FOLD – PLEASE DO NOT TRY!
- PLEASE DO NOT DISCONNECT ANY WIRES; THEY’RE EXACTLY AS THEY NEED TO BE.
- IF YOU MUST LAY ON SIDE, LAY ON LEFT SIDE (NOT RIGHT SIDE OR YOU’LL HURT THE JOYSTICK!)
About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.