How do you travel using your power chair? It’s one of the most commonly asked questions I get from people. There was a time in my life where I was on the road 280 days out of the year, basically living out of hotel rooms. I had more than one flight every single month.
In traveling with my power wheelchair, it’s pretty simple. I travel the same way that everybody else does, except that the preparation for my trip is slightly different. In my life, there are three key parts to planning a trip or traveling when you have a disability. Preparation, execution and completion. The main focus is on preparation. You must adapt and have a plan B when plan A does not go accordingly.
Flying Direct with a Power Wheelchair
In 2012, I flew from JFK airport in New York to Los Angeles, California, for an industry show. I booked the flight two months before the show. I always recommend flying direct when you have a power wheelchair, no matter the destination. You do not want the airline to continuously touch your wheelchair, loading and unloading it off the airplane. The more the airline touches your power chair, the higher the chance that something will go wrong. I know it might cost more to fly direct but unfortunately, I would rather pay an extra $100 – $200 for a flight then be stuck in an airport waiting for service on my wheelchair because somebody didn’t know how to work it while they were loading and unloading it off an aircraft. Trust me, I have been in the situation of waiting hours at an airport and it is not fun.
Booking Your Flight
When you were booking your flight, make sure that you try and book a seat in the first ten rows of the airplane. This is because you will have to transfer to an aisle chair. An aisle chair is a very skinny manual wheelchair that the airport staff will transfer you on if you cannot walk on the plane yourself. The aisle chair is designed specifically to fit down the narrow rows of an aircraft. Almost every flight I have been on I usually get on with the pilots and stewardesses. So, most of the time, you will be the first one on and the last one off. By picking a seat within the first ten rows, it’s easier for you and the staff when they try to transfer you this way. They don’t have to wheel you all the way to the back of the airplane.
Communicating with Airline Staff
If you are unable to book seats in the front of the plane, ask the stewardess if you can move up or swap seats with somebody when you arrive at your departure gate. There have been plenty of times where I was in row 18 or row 20 because a plane was full. I asked the gate agent if I could be moved up and they had no problem swapping my seat out. In some cases, I’ve been moved to first class just by asking. If they have dealt with an individual in a wheelchair before, most gate agents completely understand why you are asking to be moved up if you need an aisle chair.
If you are flying with a power chair and book your flight directly with the airline, every major airline has a box that you check online for flying with a power wheelchair. This tells the airline gate agent you have a wheelchair. When the gate agent arrives at his or her computer, he or she will be notified that you have a power wheelchair. They will automatically contact the special service team at the airport and request an aisle chair for you. Once you arrive at your gate, I recommend going up to the gate agent and tell them that you have a power wheelchair just in case.
Know the Weight and Battery Type of Your Wheelchair
Some airlines require you to fill out a tag for your wheelchair. This tag lets the cargo team know the weight of your wheelchair and what type of batteries you have. The airline pilots and cargo team need to know how much your wheelchair weighs for balancing the aircraft when loading. Our batteries are FAA approved but the airline still would like to know the type of batteries in your wheelchair for safety reasons.
Ask to Speak to the Ramp Agent
When flying, I ask the gate agent if I can speak to the ramp lead or ramp agent. This is the person in charge of the cargo team that loads and unloads the aircraft. Over 90% of the time, the ramp lead comes up and has a conversation with me. I like to speak with the ramp agent so that they understand how important my motorized wheelchair is to me. I also explain how to operate my wheelchair, so they can instruct their team in loading the motorized wheelchair correctly and not damage anything.
Label Your Motorized Wheelchair
I attach a sign to the back of my wheelchair using zip ties. The sign has my telephone number, as well as instructions on the location of the free wheel levers. The sign also says in bold letters that if you have any questions, please come onto the flight and ask me. Do not force chair. I have noticed that the sign has been a huge help when flying, especially once I land and there’s a new cargo team that off loads my motorized wheelchair. That sign is one of the first things they see.
About Josh McDermott: Josh is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab®. He is a public speaker and has served as a goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Josh lives in New York and loves to travel. Click here to learn more about Josh.
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