Traveling with a Wheelchair in Airports

Just this past week my sister and I flew out to Michigan to get our father out of the hospital and fly him back to Denver. He’s wheelchair and power scooter bound, so we knew it would be a challenge getting him to and from the airport. What we didn’t know was what to do once we got to the airport. We had read some things on the airline’s website, but this should offer you a glimpse into some of the other challenges that we faced as we went through the airport on four wheels.

Airport Arrival

Depending on the size of the airport, I’d say that the recommended 2 hour window is perfect. We arrived at the airport in what my dad affectionately called his “Handi-Cab” and as soon as we unloaded, an airport skycap came over to help us with our luggage. Sophia was going to be the same person that helped us all the way from curbside to planeside, so we got to know her pretty well.

SkyCap Grand Rapids Airport

Sophia, our awesome SkyCap and Assistant

Checking In

Because we wanted to give our dad the most comfort possible on his first plane ride in 15 years, we booked him into a first class seat. When I asked the woman at the United counter, she said that anyone requiring special assistance could bypass the regular line and use the premium line for ease. This is a huge benefit as being disabled and/or in a wheelchair can make waiting in very long lines difficult.

TSA and Security

I was fully convinced that this was going to be the most arduous and painful process of the entire day. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a small town airport, or perhaps it was just our lucky day, but Mike, the TSA officer who screened my father could not have been more polite.

Being that a metal detector obviously wouldn’t work, they did a pat down and thorough search of the electric scooter. We were all present and my dad even quipped that this was “the most positive attention he’s had in a long time!”

TSA Screenings for Wheelchair

Disabled passengers are not allowed to use the PreCheck line unless they have it on their boarding pass, but they will be able to use the Premium Passenger line if there is one, or just bypass the line altogether and go to the front. Your lovely SkyCap should know the way.

Much Needed Distractions

It’s obvious that we fly a lot throughout the year, but for someone who maybe doesn’t know airports, how they function, what there is to do, or just have no concept of airline deadlines, having distractions is key.

If the airport is large enough, go for a long stroll through the airport and take a look at what exhibits or displays are there. In Detroit I love the underground walkway with the moving sidewalks and musical light show. In Atlanta you’ll find art and history exhibits when you opt to walk instead of take the train between terminals. Seattle and Portland have daily live music, so take in a show and enjoy your local artists.

Some quality time with dad!

Bathrooms (on the ground)

This part isn’t that difficult, so long as the large accessible stall is available. In our case the bathroom was, but the corners were pretty sharp and it made turning a bit difficult. Many airports will have family bathrooms as well that are independent of the normal men’s/women’s rooms, so feel free to use those.

Just remember next time you go into the restroom, those stalls are meant for people who need them, so if you’re going to use one, that’s ok, but BE QUICK!

Boarding Early… VERY early

Make sure that your representative has talked to the gate agent and that you’re first in line for boarding. In our case, it took about 15 minutes to get our dad down the jet bridge, transferred onto a chair, in the plane, and then finally into his seat. The people assisting with pushing the wheelchairs are also authorized to help you get into and out of your seat, so don’t be afraid to ask. I didn’t think the second person that came to help us was going to have the strength to help but boy, he sure showed me. He helped dad get down the jet bridge and onto the aircraft with ease.

Aisle Wheelchairs

Aisle wheelchairs are very narrow and specially designed to fit in the skinny aisles of an aircraft. You can take your own personal wheelchair all the way down the jet
bridge where an aisle chair will be waiting for you to transfer. There will be a ground handling rep there to make sure that when you’re done, your own chair is tagged and brought back up the jet bridge and to the tarmac. Note: Depending on the size of your own wheelchair, it may or may not require some disassembly. Contact your airline and ask about maximum sizes for each aircraft.

Very skinny aisles E190 United

Very skinny aisles E175 United

Power Scooters

Little did I know that you can use the power scooter all the way to the door of the plane! I was under the (wrong) assumption that you had to be pushed in the manual chair once to checked your bag. We were able to comfortably bring him all the way down the jet bridge and THEN transfer to the aisle wheelchair

Bathrooms (on the plane)

This one is a little bit tricky. Since we were flying on an E175 the bathrooms are not ADA compliant nor handicapped accessible. On a 737 and larger, the bathrooms are SUPPOSEDLY large enough to accommodate customers with disabilities, but if I can barely fit in there at 6’3” and a little overweight, I don’t see how that could be considered accessible.

Grand Rapids Ground Worker TarMac

Bye Bye Michigan!

Deplaning

The only way to make this happen with any sort of ease is just to remain seated and let everyone off the plane first. Trust me, this was a huge change for me, as I try to GTFO as quickly as possible.

It was rather interesting however to see how the airline “cleaners” came through and “cleaned” the cabin. One guy rolled up the aisle with a rolling vacuum cleaner at about 50 MPH looking left and right for trash and then rolled back up. The flight attendants themselves looked after all the seats and made sure that the larger items of trash were gone.

Once everyone deplaned, the aisle wheelchair was rolled onto the plane and we made the transfer.

Luggage

By the time we made it out of the plane and down to baggage claim, our bags were one of the last few on the carousel. We signaled for skycap with a cart to come help us, and he perked to life, expecting a tip (which we did, of course). I’ve noticed that a standard rule of thumb is $1-2 per bag.

Humming through DEN airport

Super Shuttle Handicapped Accessible

The last and final leg of this journey was the trip home. Here we are in a completely new city and we have no idea how to call for a cab/uber/etc that would have handicapped access. Super Shuttle to the rescue! It turns out that there’s a small checkbox on the SuperShuttle reservation page for “Chair Lift needed.” No extra charge, of course, but I honestly can say that I never thought those blue vans were wheelchair ready.

Well, turns out they aren’t. SuperShuttle subcontracts the work out to local yellow cab company. They were waiting for us with our name and in just a few minutes, with wheelchair strapped into the back, we were on our way!

A little planning helps everything 🙂

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Author: Jon Nickel-D'Andrea

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2 Comments

  1. Great article with lots of useful information. Thanks.

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  2. I have not seen much good staff in airports, though some of them treat you real well and even understand the issues, I have had many experiences in the past and I can say that not everyone treats people with disabilities the same.

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