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This Education in Motion resource is also available as a printable PDF.
Preparation is essential for a pleasant journey for any traveller. If you use a powered wheelchair, planning from the very beginning is even more crucial. It not only makes the trip better, but makes it possible. Fortunately, many adventurers have gone before to clear a path for successful airplane travel. Here are 10 top tips for you and your ride to arrive safely.
- At the very earliest stage of shopping around, check information from potential airlines before booking a ticket. Although there are national and international regulations, individual countries and airlines vary significantly regarding what is allowed on board. Airlines often provide useful information on how to prepare to make the journey, and to confirm you can fly on your intended journey with your powered wheelchair. Even with the best of intentions, size limitations mean that all commercial aircraft cannot accommodate powered wheelchairs. Airlines also have the last word on whether any passenger has enough medical fitness to fly and may require you to prepare extra forms or have a health review ahead of time.
- Read your mobility equipment manufacturer’s information on travel. Even if you are an experienced flyer, different models of equipment may have very different guidelines for safe transit. Guidelines for Sunrise Medical powerchairs are on the product pages of our website. Scroll down to the bottom for a downloadable owner’s manual if you don’t have this information to hand.
- Prepare for your trip by reading up on guides from trusted organisations. The Civil Aviation Authority , the International Air Transport Authority (IATA), the Queen Elizabeth Foundation provide guides for UK travellers. Further UK-specific guidance is available from the Department for Transport. If you are travelling to the United States, you will also want to review information from the Federal Aviation Authority and the use veteran’s group PVA, which has several resources in this article. Discussing your trip with others who have flown with their wheelchairs, or reading a first-hand blog can provide insights as well. In looking through advice, make sure to consider your individual situation and how it is similar or different.
- Once you book your ticket, consider taking out additional insurance on your wheelchair before you fly. Although airlines are responsible for damage in transit, reimbursement limitations mean that the amount may not always cover the full cost of your chair. This may be available through add-ons to travel or current home contents insurance, or as a bespoke insurance policy.
- Prepare your chair at home for travel. If you take an empty duffle bag to store removable items, such as head supports, armrests and legrests, this can often be taken for no extra charge into the cabin during the flight. It’s definitely a question to ask before handing your money over to a given airline! Consider what you can do to prepare your wheelchair for the journey by padding scratchable frame components, taking a small tool kit (check airline carry-on guidance for restrictions) and otherwise protect your chair. Keep it mind it may be exposed to weather whilst being loaded and unloaded.
- Request special assistance and provide all the information to the airline as soon as you book your ticket. For many airlines this is in the same area where you provide other information, such as your passport details.
- Go to the airport early – British Airways recommends 3 hours for long-haul flights and 2 hours for short-haul ones. Arrive at the gate as soon as you can as well – this allows you to be ready, discuss your needs and introduce yourself to the airline crew. Some airlines recommend presenting yourself at the gate as much as an hour early for long-haul flights.
- Make contact with airport assistance services as soon as you get there to discuss your needs, timing and what happens next. In most cases you can stay in your chair until boarding. Use this time at the airport to take photos of your chair in the airport to record the condition right as you were about to travel.
- Have information about your wheelchair and batteries available when you travel, and make it easy for the crew to access. For all of our Sunrise Medical wheelchairs, an owner’s manual with battery information is available on the dedicated website for each model as well as our dedicated powerchair air travel page. High visibility stickers may be helpful in preventing damage by instruct crew to lift your chair by the frame, not the armrests or wheels. Consider putting a durable tag on your wheelchair with relevant information. If you don’t have one, we’ve prepared a downloadable, printable tag you can laminate and attach to your wheelchair here. Some travellers even attach a second tag using the destination language or use smart tracking tags (check airline restrictions).
- When you arrive, review the condition of your wheelchair right away. If there is damage, record/photograph and make a claim immediately.
Thousands of people who use wheelchairs travel every year without incident. Even if the chair is in good condition, it has been on a journey too. So, check for everyday maintenance items as soon as you can to tighten, inflate, lubricate and generally attend to for the best travel experience possible. If you have any concerns, get in touch with one of Sunrise Medical support team. Bon voyage!
About the Author
Faith Brown - Sunrise Medical UK & EIRE
Clinical Specialist Occupational Therapist (OT), Clinical Educator - United Kingdom and Eire
Faith has 19 years of international experience in the field of seating and mobility including an extensive career in the British National Health Service, as well as the private and not-for-profit sectors.
She believes in tailoring clinical training programmes so that participants leave feeling energised with new practical applications to their work. She enjoys integrating field experience and evidence-based information along with emerging concepts from facilitation and design. Workshop participants have fed back ‘she knows her stuff’ and (perhaps Faith’s favourite) ‘you have a good sense of humour on you.’
Faith is an HCPC registered Occupational Therapist with a postgraduate certificate in Postural Management for People with Complex Disabilities from Oxford Brookes University. She is a member of PMG (Posture and Mobility Group).