As somebody who has travelled extensively with a wheelchair user, I know just how stressful and daunting it can be for users to fly. The confined space, length of journey, lack of privacy and storage issues are all deterrents, not to mention getting through the airport. However, I also strongly believe that these deterrents shouldn’t stop wheelchair users from flying and benefitting from travelling the world.
After countless flights with a wheelchair user, these are my best tips which should help make the experience much easier:
1. Plan ahead – It may be obvious, but the best way to reduce stress is to plan ahead so that you know what to expect at each stage. You should call the airline and travel agent well in advance to let them know your situation and what assistance you will require. This will allow them to make the necessary arrangements, plus they will be able to answer any additional questions you might have. In general, holidays for disabled travellers are most successful when planned well in advance (and not only the flying part!), so consider your onwards journey too.
2. Enquiries – Whilst speaking to the airline, ask if you can take your own wheelchair to the airport door. If not, find out when you will have to change chairs. I recommend you also ask whether there will be a standard or accessible bathroom – the latter is usually only available on long haul flights. If there is only a standard bathroom on board, make sure that there is a privacy curtain so that a companion can assist you.
3. Book an aisle seat – An aisle seat will give you a lot more space and will make trips to the toilet much easier (this is particularly important for long flights). It will also make it easier to move into the onboard wheelchair. Some people recommend limiting your fluid intake to reduce the need to use the bathroom, but of course you must also stay sufficiently hydrated.
4. Call the airline again – Call the airline a few days before your flight and get them to confirm your requirements. This will ensure that they are prepared – and give you peace of mind.
5. Practice taking your chair apart, especially if it is a power chair with batteries – There is always a feeling of being rushed at the airport. Practice, or get your carer to practice, dismantling the chair so that it can be done quickly and efficiently on the day.
6. Arrive at the airport at least 2.5 hours early – Arriving early is crucial if you are to have a stress-free experience. By arriving 2.5 hours early, you will have plenty of time to get your chair through security and onto the plane, go to the restroom and get to your gate. Remember, your gate could be a long distance and you may require a wheelchair or buggy.
7. Dress appropriately – Wear clothes that are comfortable and simple (no accessories); this will make the journey more enjoyable and also help you to pass through security quicker. You may also want to wear shoes that can quickly be removed as some airport security officials enforce this.
8. Be assertive and brave when boarding – Boarding the plane will most likely be the most stressful aspect of flying. Do not feel guilty about boarding the plane first and don’t shy away from asking for assistance from the staff (that is what they are there for and they will know how to help).
9. Remind the flight attendant – Shortly before landing, it is worth reminding the flight attendant that you need your equipment at the gate and not at baggage reclaim. They can radio this in and speed up the process. Remember that, upon arrival, you will probably be the last to leave the aircraft.
10. Stay positive and patient – Throughout the experience, it is important to stay positive and remember that it is just a small part of your trip. Flying is often stressful and it is likely that you will encounter a few obstacles. However, with a positive mindset and by not being afraid to ask for help, these can easily be overcome. Employees at the airport and onboard are often experienced in helping disabled travellers and will do everything they can to help.
If you have any questions, concerns or are looking for further help planning holidays for disabled travellers, don’t hesitate to get in touch – I will be happy to help.
Philip Scott is the owner and founder of Can be Done, a fully licensed UK tour operator specialising in worldwide holidays for disabled individuals and groups. With over 31 years’ experience organising long and short breaks for disabled travellers, Philip has built a reputation for helping his clients select hotels and accommodation that offer high standards of accessibility, to ensure that those with special needs can experience truly relaxing and carefree holidays.