Why air travel for people who use wheelchairs is getting better

Flying with a wheelchair can be challenging, from going through security to getting on and off a plane. 

For people like me who depend on a wheelchair, flying requires lots of patience because  boarding and disembarking a plane takes longer. I spend more time on a plane than your average flier because I’m the first to board and the last to depart because I need assistance.

Further, the process is more invasive for us. Going through security requires a complete pat-down of my body. 

Still, my experience flying – and I do it several times a year for work and pleasure – is getting better.

Easier boarding

An improvement in recent years has been the use of aisle seats. I transfer to these chairs when I get to the door of the plane. Then, with the help of two airline workers, I’m taken back and transferred to my seat. 

I previously had used my crutches, and making it back to my seat was exhausting. Not to mention I felt this long line of travelers behind me, so I felt pressured to move as quickly as possible. An aisle chair provides a much better experience, and I feel confident in the airline personnel who have been trained to help. 

An airline employee assists Lucia Rios board a plane using an aisle chair. (Shandra Martinez)

I learned about this service when American Airlines invited me and some of my work colleagues to attend a training at its corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, to learn about their efforts to support travelers with disabilities. 

American Airlines is working with Open Doors Organization (ODO), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Chicago. It was founded in 2000 with the mission to make goods and services accessible to people with disabilities in travel, tourism and transportation. (AA was the only U.S.-based airline to make this list of best airlines for wheelchair users.)

At the session, ODO explained how new federal regulations are raising expectations for airlines and other travel providers. One example is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s publication of the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights last year. It spells out the rights of those with disabilities to accessible airport facilities and to receive assistance at the airports and on aircraft. (In our Disability Inclusion series, we reported on how West Michigan airports have been putting this into action.)

More improvements being developed

It was eye-opening for me to see that airlines were making big investments for their customers with disabilities, not only in the airports, but also on the planes. New things are being developed to improve the traveling experience for people with disabilities. People may not realize the things that are being worked on behind the scenes, and this process can take time. But I was excited to see that they are taking people with disabilities into account.

Over the years, airlines have gotten a lot of much-deserved criticism for losing or breaking wheelchairs. An airline has lost my wheelchair. I was traveling to Dallas, and my wheelchair was left in Chicago. That’s even more inconvenient than an airline losing luggage – replacing a wheelchair is much more difficult than finding new clothing. Fortunately, they were able to deliver my wheelchair to me the next day. But that impacted what I could do for the first day of my trip.

Now, I'm extra cautious about my wheelchair when I fly. Fortunately, I have seen a change in policy and attitudes by airline personnel, and I’ve noticed a better process for taking my wheelchair before I get onto the plane and returning it so it isn’t damaged or lost.

For example, when I flew on Delta their process was very thorough. At check-in time, personnel actually looked over the wheelchair, then gave me a ticket that I gave to the people who handled the wheelchair. They also place little reusable placards with identification information on the wheelchairs.

I really liked that process because it creates accountability, and I need to have something on my  wheelchair that has my information in case of a problem. This has helped me feel more comfortable trusting the airlines with my equipment. 

I’m optimistic things will continue to get better. One change I hope to try out in the future is a new airplane seat that would allow travelers like me to remain in their own wheelchairs during their flight. 

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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