By: accessibleGo Staff
There can be a lot of logistics to figure out when planning your trip — what to bring, how many bags to check, how to get from place to place.
One aspect you don’t need to worry as much about is navigating through the airport.
Airport Wheelchair Service
In the U.S., under the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), airlines operating in the country are required to provide free assistance to people with disabilities of any type who request it. Other countries have similar regulations as well.
From entering the terminal to getting on the plane, and from deplaning to when you exit the terminal at your destination, you are entitled to assistance which is commonly referred to as wheelchair service.
If you prefer to only have assistance getting on the plane and deplaning, you may also request just that. Here is what to expect:
How It Works
Before Arriving at the Airport
We strongly recommend you call and inform the airline at least 48 hours ahead of time (the more notice the better) that you will be requesting wheelchair service in the airport. Also tell the airline about any other needs you have. This helps ensure as smooth an experience as possible.
All flights departing from or arriving in the U.S., regardless of airline, are required to provide the free wheelchair service and have procedures in place to handle requests related to accessibility.
If you have a last-minute change of plans and are unable to inform the airline in advance, you are still entitled to assistance upon arrival at the airport, but there may be delays and complications. That is why you should always be sure to leave ample time before your flight.
Arriving and Getting to Your Gate
When you arrive at the airport, notify the nearest airline representative curbside or inside the terminal that you need wheelchair service. You may have to wait for the next available assistant, so budget time for such delays.
You have the right to stay in your own wheelchair or power scooter and have it gate-checked free of charge. The assistant will help you go through security and take you to your gate.
Before security, it is important to tell the person assisting you about your mobility (whether you are able to stand, etc). If you need to use the restroom, they will bring you to proper facilities. They are not, however, required to take you to a food stand or restaurant, so plan ahead.
Once you reach your gate, the assistant may leave and then return when boarding begins.
If you are traveling with your own wheelchair to the gate, let someone at your boarding gate know to give you a baggage claim tag for your wheelchair so that they know to put it on the plane after you’ve been assisted onto your seat.
If you are only having assistance boarding the plane and deplaning, it is important to check in with the gate staff and make sure they are aware and have arranged for an aisle chair.
Once you’ve reached the end of the jet bridge, you will need to transfer from your wheelchair to the aisle chair provided by the airline that is designed to fit down the aisle of the aircraft.
Depending on the size and weight of your wheelchair, it will be stowed in the cargo hold, or less commonly, in a closet on the plane. Staff will then assist you to your seat, and the aisle chair will stay onboard.
You are entitled to the same assistance making connecting flights as during other parts of your journey discussed above. You also have the right to reclaim your wheelchair from the jet bridge and use it until you are boarding the next plane. If you continue with the wheelchair assistance during your connection, you can have them stop at the restrooms on the way to your next gate.
At Your Destination
When your flight lands, there should be assistance ready for you.
Often, you have to wait for most passengers to deplane before exiting the aircraft via an aisle chair. Your wheelchair should be waiting for you in the jet bridge, and staff will help you transfer.
If you continue with the wheelchair assistance upon arrival, they will take you to baggage claim and stay with you until you exit the terminal, and you can tell them if you’d like to stop and use a restroom at any point.
In Case of Problems
Unfortunately, the law is not always followed the way it should be. In some cases, it may be necessary to advocate for your rights, like reclaiming your wheelchair from cargo between flights.
Excessive wait times are also a violation of the ACAA, and you should report it if your wheelchair is not returned to you within 30 minutes of arrival.
Each airline is required to have one or more Complaint Resolution Officials on duty at the airport. The CRO’s job is to resolve issues that have escalated beyond your initial interaction with airline personnel.
In addition, you should also file a complaint with The Department of Transportation (DOT). They have a hotline that handles disability-related air travel service problems, questions, and complaints: 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY).