A Manual Wheelchair User’s Guide to Flying
Unless you own the plane, flying is pretty terrible. For manual wheelchair users, flying really sucks. Here’s a guide about what to expect and how to pack, plan, and de‐plane so that your journey sucks less (it’s still gonna suck).
How you pack depends on where you’re going and how long you’re staying. So, I’m not gonna give a ton of advice about what should be in your suitcase. However, if you’re not checking a bag, I suggest that you pack your non‐carry‐on items (stuff you’re not gonna need during the flight) in a bag that has a strap long enough to sling around your neck. But make sure it’s not too long. You want the bag to stay balanced in your lap as you move your chair through the airport.
As for your carry‐on, you want to choose a bag that you can both quickly take on and off and that is easy for you to remove items from, if asked. I recommend a small backpack that you’re comfortable with. Aim for something with fewer pockets: it’ll be easier to find stuff and it’ll take less time for security to go through if they have questions.
If you do need to check a larger bag like a suitcase, you’ll need to come up with a system for pushing the suitcase and your chair. I recommend you choose a suitase that has four wheels that rotate 360 degrees and is small enough that you won’t risk overpacking it. From there, you’re going to need to come up with a system that allows you to push your chair and move the suitcase. If you decide to pull the suitcase behind your chair, you can use a luggage strap to secure your back the back of your chair so you can pull it. However, you will need to make sure that the weight of the suitcase doesn’t cause your chair to tip over more easily. If you think that pushing your suitcase in front of your chair would be easier, I would use something like a bungee cord looped through the handle and attached to either end of your frame to allow you to push the chair while keeping the the suitcase stable and at an angle that it can easily roll. Either way, you’re going to have to do some trial‐and‐error testing before your trip.
Dealing with Security
Most airports have a separate security line for folks in wheelchairs. Listen carefully to where the people who are directing the line tell you to go. Once you arrive at the screening area, someone is going to have you stand aside while someone else shouts “[assumed gender] assist!”. They’re calling for someone who (presumably) has the same genitals you do to come over and do a pat down. Before the pat down begins, they’re going to ask if you’re traveling with anyone and where your stuff is. Assuming it passed through security, they’ll pull the bins from the line to make sure you’re stuff doesn’t get lost.
I’m not going to sugar coat this: you’re going to get a pat down. When they say they’re going to run the back of their hands up the inside of your legs until they “meet resistance” they don’t mean “from you”. It’s security theater, it’s bullshit, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re able, let them know that you’re able to lift yourself off the seat and easily shift your weight from side to side. This will make things go easier. 95% of the time, they won’t ask you to take off your shoes, but you will have to empty your pockets and take off your belt. I recommend emptying your pockets and putting the contents and your belt in the your carry on bag before you head to the airport.
Getting to the Gate
Your ass should be at the gate no less than 90 minutes before the plane starts boarding. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but you’re going to need that time to make sure your seat is confirmed and that all of the arrangements have been made for you to get on the plane easily and safely.
When you arrive at the gate, the first thing you need to do is talk to the gate agent and let them know that you’ll be gate‐checking your wheelchair. The second thing you’re going to want to do is see if they can move your seat up. The closer you are to the front of the plane, the easier and faster it’s going to be to get on and off the plane.
Preparing Your Chair for the Plane
When you leave your wheelchair to get on the plane, make sure you take your seat cushion, side guards, and anything else off the chair that can be removed without tools. This will make sure that no chair parts get lost inside the plane’s cargo hold.
Getting on the Plane
One of the questions that the gate agent is going to ask if whether or not you will need an aisle chair to get on and off the plane. If you’re like me and can walk/hobble if there’s something to hold on to the entire way to your seat, I recommend you forgo the aisle chair and instead opt to board the plane with your chair and then make your way to your seat. Of course, this assumes that your chair fits through the door plane (mine does).
If you can’t walk to your seat, then you’re going to need to use an aisle chair. They’re not great, but they’re the best (and only) way for you to get on the plane. However, if you usually walk onto a plane during a domestic flight, you’re going to want to use an aisle chair on an international flight. international flights use much bigger plans and there are far fewer hand-holds. For your own safety and for the the mental health of the flight crew, please use an aisle chair and do not attempt to walk, crawl, scoot or hobble to your seat.
Dealing with the Bathroom
I’m gonna be straight-up honest here: I have never seen an accessible bathroom on a flight to anywhere. However, it’s not entirely hopeless: if you are able to get to the bathroom, they’re usually so fucking small that your fall risk is fairly narrow due to the amount of stuff you can hold on to. However, if your situation isn’t so straight forward, I found a really clear guide that walks you through your options.
Getting off the Plane
If you boarded using an aisle chair, that’s exactly how you’ll be exiting. However, if you walked onto the plane, you should make your way from your seat (don’t forget anything you removed from your chair!) to the front and sit down in the seat closest to the door. This will both give you a chance to rest and keep you out of the way of folks exiting the plane while the ground crew retrieves your chair from the cargo hold.
Remember to Advocate For Yourself
For most people, flying is a hastle. For manual wheelchair users, flying is a fucking logistical nightmare. So, the sooner and clearer you can communicate your needs, and abilities (e.g., if you can walk onto the plane), the better. Don’t be afraid to ask about the plane’s type, size, and how you will be boarding. For example, I know that I can fit my chair all the way down first class if it’s an Airbus. Knowing these little details will make your trip a lot smoother, remember to speak up and ask questions.