“Traveling With a Wheelchair” on a bright green page banner with a photo of a wheelchair beside the ramp to enter the aircraft.

Traveling With a Wheelchair

A damning report has revealed how the country’s leading airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters since the end of 2018. As we travel from A to B, what steps can we take to safeguard the precious cargo our community relies on?

Traveling by air can be stressful for anyone but handing over a wheelchair to busy airline staff and hoping to find it unscathed and fully-functioning at your destination can feel like a lottery. Sadly, for many traveling with disabilities, vacations and other trips too often go hand-in-hand with the frustrating fallout of damaged equipment.

“As a family with a wheelchair user it is a continual frustration that airlines often take such little care,” says CPRN’s Michele Shusterman. “It seems like airlines would rather pay thousands of dollars to repair or replace broken equipment instead of figuring out a process for not destroying them. Some of the experiences our community members go through are awful.”

As we await much needed change and a commitment to better care from airlines, there are some preemptive measures we can take to lower the risks of equipment being damaged in transit. Here’s our guide to traveling with a wheelchair:

Before you go, carry out maintenance.

Making sure your equipment is in the best shape possible before leaving will help it to be more durable and robust on your travels.

MANUAL WHEELCHAIRS: The newer designs of manual wheelchairs have solid inner tubes to combat against flats. Before you leave, check the tires for any inflation issues, cuts, or wear on the tread (Miller, 2017). Be sure to check the wheel locks, ensuring that they engage and disengage easily without getting caught. Go through and tighten bolts and nuts on any moving parts. This is to avoid any parts being lost during transit.

BATTERY-POWERED WHEELCHAIRS: Run through the same checks for the tires prior to your trip and consider book a service for your equipment. Battery-powered wheelchairs routinely need to be checked by an authorized dealer once or twice a year (Miller, 2017). An expert can check your battery voltage and flag up if it needs to be replaced soon.

Get familiar with the airline codes.

Airlines have a series of codes for people traveling with equipment or disability. These codes are called Special Service Request Codes, or SSR, and are given to you when you get your ticket (wheelchairtravel, 2020). They are used to keep track of special assistance requests and to assign appropriate staff to the person in need.

A few of these codes include:

CODE DESCRIPTION
WCHR Wheelchair assistance required
WCOB On-board wheelchair requested
WCMP Traveling with manual wheelchair
WCBD Traveling with dry cell battery-powered wheelchair. (WCBW for wet cell battery)

You’ll find a more comprehensive list here. Ensure that your flight ticket is marked with the correct one.

Attach instructions to your equipment.
Traveling with a wheelchair tips: A spare manual wheelchair is pictured on the tarmac with a bright pink instructional signTraveling with a wheelchair tips: A wheelchair should include handling instructions and fight details attached to the chair
It seems like a no-brainer that wheelchairs and other expensive and precious equipment should be handled with the utmost care but that can be far from the reality. Sadly, your equipment will likely encounter people who are unfamiliar with how it works and don’t have the time or inclination to find out how to operate it correctly. Attaching laminated instructions and bright reminder signs to your equipment can help to prevent rough mishandling.

Consider taking a spare if you have one.

Sometimes it is better to plan for the worst outcome so that mobility isn’t impaired during the trip. Take a spare wheelchair, often a manual one, if you can do so. This will ensure an easy back up if the airline does damage the wheelchair before you get to your destination. Having a spare wheelchair can also help when accessing certain areas where a power wheelchair may have some difficulties. If you do not have a spare, be mindful of the resources available to you in the area you are traveling. See if renting a wheelchair is an option.

Preparation for flight at the airport
Traveling with a wheelchair tips: A manual chair is bound with cellophane and loose items removed in prep for travel.
If you are using a manual collapsible wheelchair, ask if the aircraft has a closet large enough to accommodate it. This ensures you can take your equipment all the way to the gate. If your equipment is being stored in the cargo hold with baggage, carefully remove anything that you think may come lose during handling. Ask for reassurance that it will be handled with care.

Ask for assistance if you need it – it’s your right.

Airlines must provide assistance and offer preboarding to passengers with disabilities who make their needs known prior to travel or at the gate. Get familiar with the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), a law that guarantees people with disabilities the right to receive fair and nondiscriminatory treatment when traveling on flights operated by airlines in the U.S (wheelchairtravel, 2020).

If an airline damages your equipment, it may be covered.
Plane travel with a wheelchair is challenging: a wheelchair, collapsed on its side, rides up a luggage ramp into an airplane
Airlines are mainly responsible for damaging equipment during their flights. This can be up to the entire cost of the original listing price of the wheelchair. For this process to happen properly, report damages IMMEDIATELY after your flight. This further ensures that it is documented and brought to the right people, a step in the direction of making the airline 100% responsible for damages!

Sources:

Flying With A Wheelchair: Guide To Air Travel For People With Disabilities. Wheelchair Travel. (2020, January 30).

Miller, F., & Bachrach, S. J. (2017). Cerebral palsy: a complete guide for caregiving (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press.