I’m David Smith and I am Paralympic Champion in Boccia. I do a lot of travelling in my Quickie Jive M! Whether you’re planning a city break, a visit to relatives or a beach holiday having the lowdown on travelling by air with a wheelchair can make your journey run much more smoothly, here are my top tips.
All companies offer seats for people with reduced mobility. Although the services and numbers of seats offered and terms or carriage are often specific to the airline and the type of aircraft, so always check the airlines websites prior to making your booking to make sure they can accommodate your needs. As such, check the details on the airline's website prior to booking your flight to confirm that they can accommodate your wheelchair requirements.
If you are going to travel with your wheelchair, make your reservation in plenty of time and call the airline directly to explain all of your requirements with regard to:
- Security checks
- Personal assistance at the airport
- Check in
- Availability of extra services and their associated costs
Assistance service at the departure airport
Since 2008, European airports have had an assistance service for passengers with disabilities or reduced mobility. It is usually free, though there may be exceptions. If you plan to travel in a wheelchair, you should advise the airport 48 hours prior to boarding. If you have already contacted the airline to notify them of this, they will usually advise the airport directly.
The assistance service is usually located inside the airport, where personnel will accompany and assist the passenger through each stage, from check-in, through security, up to the seat on the plane. If you have a family member to accompany and assist you instead, you will also need to notify the airport of this as those without boarding passes will not be able to travel as far as the plane.
Finally, the security procedures for passengers with mobility travelling in wheelchairs are generally the same as those for any other passenger, although sometimes your chair must undergo a special check. If you use crutches, once they have been screened at the security checkpoint, you can them take them onto the plane without any problem.
How and when should I check-in my wheelchair?
If you plan to travel with your wheelchair, you can use it for getting around the airport up to the aircraft doors. From there, the company will provide you with an aisle chair and transferring assistance, unless you can board the plane independently. If you have an electric chair at this point it should be made safe for the plane. When you arrive at your destination, DO NOT leave the plane until your chair is at the door ready for you. Staff may offer you the airports own chair, but it is safer and easier to wait. Chairs are more often damaged on their way to baggage reclaim.
Whether your wheelchair can be taken on board or not depends on certain factors. Each aircraft has certain conditions, weight and size limits for taking wheelchairs aboard and some companies policies differ. Any aircraft that is a Boeing 737 or smaller has a hold door height of around 81cm which means the electric chairs backrest or seating system will need to be removed prior to loading. If the chair cannot fold down, you run the risk of damage to the chair by it being placed on its side into the hold. All Airbus aircraft and larger Boeing aircraft can take most wheelchairs upright. If you own a Sunrise Medical wheelchair you should be able to get a copy of your chair’s instruction manual on the individual product page on the Sunrise Medical website.
Guidelines for some of the major airlines are available here:
Travelling with a wheelchair on Ryanair
Travelling with a wheelchair on Iberia
Travelling with a wheelchair on Vueling
Travelling with a wheelchair on British Airways
Travelling with a wheelchair on Flybe
Travelling with a wheelchair with Thomas Cook
Travelling with a wheelchair with TUI
Travelling with a wheelchair with Virgin
These links are correct at the time of publication of this article, the airlines website should be checked by yourself to ensure the correct information is read ahead of any flight or holiday.
Special assistance service at both airports
There may be different access points at the airport for the assistance service, so call them in advance to find out which one you should go to. The staff will accompany you through each phase of airport procedure up until reaching the plane itself, if you need it. You should check with the airline as to the chaperone facilities available for arriving flights so they may advise you of the options for when you land.
As a general rule, this service is not charged as an additional extra, but again, each company has its own guidelines. What we do recommend in all cases is that you confirm that everything is in order for your journey prior to checking your wheelchair in.
Advice for checking in your wheelchair
Travelling by aeroplane with a manual wheelchair
If you have a manual wheelchair you can take it through the airport and fold it down at the aircraft door, but you must check it in at the counter with your other bags first. In cases where the chair cannot be folded, most can generally be checked in with no problem, but it is advisable to consult the airline at least 48 hours before and ideally at the time of booking.
Travelling by aeroplane with an electric wheelchair
Loose parts such as armrests, headrests and footplates should generally be removed but it is advisable to check the airline’s policy beforehand if travelling with a wheelchair powered by dry cell, lithium or liquid based batteries. Once at the gate, Ambi-lift or aircraft door, it is recommended to remove the power cable and control knob and to carry them with you in your hand luggage. You do not need to remove or disconnect batteries provided the control is disconnected or the fuse is removed. You should show the airport personnel how to swap your power wheelchair between manual and power mode so that can easily move it and secure it inside the aircraft.
Travelling by aeroplane with a scooter
If you are taking a scooter, airport personnel may need to drive it up to the hold of the plane. To avoid problems, we advise that you keep your seat cushion and/or removable basket with you, as these can easily become lost during the journey.
Travelling by aeroplane with a wheelchair: the trip
Although it depends on each company, passengers with reduced mobility are usually the first to board and the last to leave the aeroplane. However, some budget airlines reverse this due to the quick turn-arounds between flights. Especially reserved seating is usually in the first few rows, near to the window and easily accessible to the flight attendant staff. Airports will often use vehicles called Ambi-lifts, specially fitted with platforms that enable easier boarding and disembarking from the aircraft. At the first assistance counter in the airport it is advisable to ask about your planned boarding procedure and if Ambi-lifts are available.
Travelling by aeroplane – get insurance
One last piece of advice if you plan to travel with your wheelchair: when you buy your tickets, check that your travel insurance covers your mobility equipment, since you may require additional cover or need to make a specific declaration to claim in the case of suffering the loss of or damage to your equipment. If you get any damage to your mobility equipment during the flight Airlines should accept full responsibility for the damage. Some airlines only offer a maximum of £1500 for damage but perserverance can often pay off with the full amount compensated if a complaint is escalated. To avoid unforeseen mishaps and enjoy your trip to the full, you may wish to consider the option of renting a scooter or electric wheelchair at your destination instead, this will obviously depend on your own personal needs for specialist equipment.
Do you like to travel? If you're planning on taking a trip, or want to find out about the most wheelchair-friendly destinations, take a look through the active life and leisure section of the Sunrise Medical blog to find out how to live without limits and get the most from your travels.
Sunrise Medical’s extensive range of powered and manual wheelchairs are perfect for exploring the world whether home or abroad, check out the full range today and start planning your adventure.