Air travel tips for people with disability

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Travelling as a person with disability can come with additional challenges, but that is no reason to stop yourself from new adventures and experiences, especially when you want to travel via a plane.

Key points

  • Advise the airline of your assistance requirements to ensure appropriate supports are available
  • Plan necessary supports for the flight as you may not have access to a wheelchair
  • Travel and luggage insurance provides protection for damaged equipment or baggage

If you are planning a jet setting adventure, whether it is in the same State or overseas, you want to be prepared for the journey.

This is especially important for air travel as there may be specific requirements, from provider to provider, for travelling with a wheelchair or additional disability support equipment.

You should also be aware of your rights in case something does go wrong during your trip and a piece of your equipment is damaged.

This is what you should know as a person with disability travelling by plane.

Mobility assistance and support at the airport

Airlines typically request you provide at least 48 hours notice for an official wheelchair assistance request.

If you book through a travel agent, they should contact and notify the airline regarding any accessibility requirements. But if you do book a flight on your own, it will be up to you to advise the airline of any mobility assistance required at the airport or on the plane.

Understanding the International Air Transport Association (IATA) wheelchair assistance codes is also beneficial. These codes highlight the type of assistance you require, including wheelchair ramp (WCHR), wheelchair step (WCHS) or wheelchair cabin (WCHC).

All levels of assistance will include transfer from check-in to boarding, to the baggage claim area on arrival. Due to limited resources, it is possible that assistance may not be available at your time of departure or arrival.

In case there is no assistance available, make sure to have alternative options in place, such as a carer, family member or friend to help you transport luggage.

There are also limitations to how far airline and airport staff can assist you, for example, staff cannot help someone get in and out of their car. Additionally, if the airport is providing a wheelchair for you to use, those wheelchairs are often not allowed in public carparks and you may need additional assistance.

There is also a need for passengers to assemble or disassemble their own mobility aids. Staff may be able to provide assistance but you will have to direct them in how to do so.

If possible, leave plenty of time for checking in and flight transfers. This reduces the pressure on yourself and staff in case there are unexpected issues surrounding support or movement throughout the airport, such as the unavailability of a wheelchair ramp at an airport leading to a passenger being carried on and off a plane.

If you travel with a service dog, we have more information on your rights and requirements in our article ‘Tips for travelling with disability’.

Air travel with mobility aids

Before travelling, it will help to identify what mobility aids or equipment you have to bring.

Airlines have their own baggage requirements, but at the very least you should be able to take two pieces of mobility equipment per person as free checked baggage – in addition to the existing 23kg checked baggage.

Measuring the dimensions and weight of your equipment and baggage is essential. Depending on the type of aircraft, there are limitations to the size of a mobility aid that can be stored.

If it cannot stand in an upright position and weighs more than 32kg, the airline may not be able to carry it.

This could determine which airline you fly with or which planes are going to accommodate your needs. You can conduct your own research through the airline’s website or through a travel agency.

Meanwhile, if you are travelling with an electric wheelchair or an aid that includes a battery, you will have to fill out the airline’s dangerous goods form during booking.

Certain planes can store your manual wheelchair in the cabin, including the Airbus 380 and Boeing 787. However, there is only space for one wheelchair in total per plane and it is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Otherwise, all mobility aids will have to be stored as checked baggage, meaning you will not have access to it during the flight.

Assistive aids, such as walking sticks, canes, frames and crutches, are allowed as carry-on baggage in the cabin.

It is important to plan how you will move around the cabin as the Boeing 787 is the only plane with a wheelchair accessible toilet. On other flights you will have to access a toilet independently, without assistance from staff.

Medical clearance and independent travellers

Airlines require passengers to have a certain level of independence when travelling. This includes being able to:

  • Use the toilet during a flight
  • Eat and drink
  • Administer any necessary medication
  • Self-transfer between a mobility aid and your seat

If you cannot meet all those requirements, a carer or accompanying passenger will be required to accompany you on your flight.

Some airlines, such as Qantas, provide reduced fares for both the passenger with disability travelling and their carer.

Medical clearance will be required if you are travelling with a certain type of disability or disease, including those where supplemental oxygen is required in flight.

However, other aids and equipment, like hearing aids and pacemakers, are allowed with no clearance necessary.

It’s best to consult your airline for the appropriate medical travel recommendations. They may require a notice period of up to 72 hours to process clearances for any special medical equipment requirements. Staff will often inspect equipment prior to a flight to ensure it is safe for use in the air.

You should also consult with a medical professional if you have recently had surgery as there are varying time periods where clearance is required or additional medicinal support may be necessary.

Insuring and protecting your equipment

It is possible that your baggage and equipment may be damaged during a flight. Some people with disability have expressed stories where vital supports and aids have been damaged during their journey.

All airlines have a process for damaged baggage and you can lodge a claim with them directly.

If you discover any damage to checked baggage, including mobility aids, visit the airport’s baggage services counter to lodge a damaged baggage report for reimbursement.

If you discover the damage once you have left the airport, either call the airline for assistance or look on the website for where to lodge a damaged baggage complaint or customer care form. Photos are crucial for this process and you should leave any tags on as evidence the equipment was on a flight.

Airlines typically claim they are not liable for wear and tear or minor damage, including:

  • Cuts, scratches and dents
  • Missing external items like wheels, locks, straps, etc
  • Damage to the inside contents of a bag if the item was packed inappropriately

This can be a problem if your mobility aid or equipment is damaged in a way that the airline does not see as serious, such as a damaged wheelchair brake.

Travel and luggage insurance is one way to protect your equipment and belongings. You can avoid a reliance on the airline for a reimbursement, which can be helpful in the case of an airline not covering the full cost of damages to your equipment and aids.

Speak to your travel agency about the best travel insurance for your specific needs or search for providers online and speak to them about their coverage.

How do you prepare for air travel as a person with disability? Let us know in the comments below.

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