Air travel for people with disabilities and special needs

tour special needs family

Travel by its very nature is an adventure. Factor a disability into that equation and things can get pretty scary. One of the biggest areas of concern for disabled or special needs travelers is air travel. People just don't know what to expect. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, a little consumer education can give you the confidence and knowledge to effectively deal with problems as they arise. With that in mind, here's some tips to help you along the way.

Before You Fly

Educate yourself on the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). Get the free publication, "Accessible Air Travel" from EPVA at 800-444-0120. Travel on a US based airline whenever possible, as the entire ACAA applies only to US carriers. If you must travel on a foreign carrier, learn the access laws of that country too.

Ask a lot of questions before you book your flight. Under the ACAA, US airlines are required to provide prospective passengers with basic information about the accessibility of their facilities, services, and aircraft. Such information can include facts like the location of seats with movable aisle armrests, the locations and dimensions of storage facilities for mobility aids, and the availability of an onboard accessible lavatory.

Inform the reservation clerk if you need boarding assistance, or the use of an aisle chair. The aisle chair is a narrow high backed chair used to board non-ambulatory passengers.

Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Accessible lavatories on aircraft are quite small and generally speaking you need to be able to transfer independently in order to use them. Airline staff will not assist you in the lavatory. If you use a catheter, devise a system for emptying your leg bag while en route.

Consider switching to gel cell batteries. Gel cell batteries are merely disconnected for air transport, while other batteries are removed and packaged separately. If you already have gel cell batteries, make sure they are clearly marked, so they won't be inadvertently removed.

Reconfirm all arrangements directly with the airline at least 48 hours in advance. Make sure they have all your access needs noted.

At The Airport

In times of heightened security, curbside check-in may be discontinued. Check with your airline and airport to determine if this service is available. If curbside check-in has been discontinued, inform your airline that you need curbside assistance.

Advise the customer service agent at the check-in counter if you need to have a non-ticketed escort accompany you to the gate. Your escort will be asked for photo identification and then given a security checkpoint pass.

Allow plenty of extra time to get through security. All sharp objects, or anything that could be used as a weapon will be confiscated at security checkpoints. Carry your wheelchair repair tools in your checked baggage.

Advise the gate agent that you would like to preboard the aircraft. Your assistive device will only get priority space in the onboard closet if you preboard the aircraft.

Stay in your own wheelchair until you transfer to the airline aisle chair. Airline personnel may try to get you to transfer to an airline wheelchair at check-in or at curbside, but you are not required to do this unless you have batteries that need to be removed and packaged separately (spillable batteries). Gate-check your wheelchair, and have it brought directly to you at your arrival gate.

Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your wheelchair or scooter.

Remove any loose or protruding parts from your wheelchair or scooter. Protect your joystick with some type of hard covering. A plastic cup and packing tape works well.

Let a little bit of air out of your wheelchair tires. Carry-on all gel cushions. Baggage compartments are not pressurized.

During The Flight

Let the flight attendant know if you need to use the onboard wheelchair.

Remind the flight attendant 30 minutes before landing that your wheelchair needs to be delivered to you at the gate.

With summer around the corner many families with disabled or special needs children will be travelling by air, whether for holiday, visiting family or attending medical treatment. Some children require extra support in the cabin, without which they are likely to be very uncomfortable and distressed.

MERU ( is a Charity located in the United Kingdom and our mission is to enable disabled children to fly. We know first hand how essential air travel can be and want to do all that we can to help more families fly.

The TravelChair is a brand new seat that provides comfort and support for disabled or special needs children on flight, available now to purchase and hire.

If you have , or know a disabled child who needs support it is essential to know what you can bring on board the aircraft to ensure they will be supported and comfortable. Our sister service, Try b4u fly provides an assessment where you can try out and hire the TravelChair and other seating options available in advance of your air journey helping to reduce stress and anxiety.

The MERU team would be pleased to assist with any queries you may have about supporting your child on flight and make their flight experience more comfortable or indeed possible for the first time by:
- providing useful information pre-flight
- purchasing and hire enquiries
- training support for families

Air travel can be stressful at the best of times, but when you have to factor in a disability, getting from point A to point B can become that much more frustrating. Airlines know this and do their part to make air travel as comfortable and seamless as they can for every passenger. Since each airline is different, they may have differing policies where travelers with disabilities are concerned. We’re sharing some air travel tips and information on what 15 major airlines do for travelers who need extra support when flying.

If Problems Arise

Ask to speak to the Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO). The CRO is trained and educated on travelers’ rights and airline responsibilities under the ACAA. All US airlines are required to have a CRO on duty 24 hours a day.

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons, and the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts And Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers. She can be reached at

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