The Thread: Air Travel with a Wheelchair

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

I wanted to share with you a question posed by a DO-IT Scholar in our Internet discussion forum and some of the responses so that you can get the flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online. Featured responses are from DO-IT Ambassadors (those who have completed the DO-IT Scholars program), and DO-IT Mentors, who are academics and professionals who provide mentoring to DO-IT participants. Some forum posts are edited for clarity and brevity.

[My sister] recently broke her leg and has been transporting herself around in a lightweight folding wheelchair. For spring break she is taking a trip. The airline told her she can decide once she gets to the airport whether she wants to gate-check the wheelchair at the end of the jetbridge next to the plane, or check it like normal baggage at the ticket counter. The airline will use one of their wheelchairs to move her around the airport and onto the plane if she wants.

My question is, based on your experience, which should she choose—gate or baggage- Do you have any other advice or travel tips for her- She is staying in an accessible hotel room, but she is afraid of not being able to open and close the door to her room fast enough before the card key times out.

DO-IT Ambassador: If she wants to use her wheelchair in the airport she should do a gate check. In regards to the hotel room door, I have the same issue, and I travel a lot. On your way into the hotel, you can ask in the lobby if someone can come up to your room with you and hold the door. To get out, just call the front desk or bell stand and ask if they can come up and help with the door.

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DO-IT Mentor: I've traveled quite a bit by air myself. I can walk, but use a chair for long distances, so I feel like I have some similarities to your sister. I've used airport chairs and been pushed by staff, and it's usually not a big deal. There might be a better chance of her chair not getting lost or broken if she gate checks it. (I've received chairs in worse condition after a flight, but if her chair is your standard "hospital chair," there's less of an issue.)

DO-IT Ambassador: I am a permanent chair user so I have my chair gatechecked. In terms of damage risk: I think gatechecking or baggage checking has equal risk. The chair is put into cargo anyway so people handle it roughly. In your sister's situation, transferring to an airport chair at check-in would probably be most convenient.

DO-IT Ambassador: If she feels confident that she can navigate the airport in her chair, then she should gate check. I prefer that because I am more in control of how my chair is handled. I usually ask to talk to the people loading the luggage onto the plane before I give them my chair. I tell them how important it is that they be careful, and that they should not throw it. This might seem like common sense, but once they see me and understand the situation, they are much more respectful with my chair. I've had chairs break on several occasions, but not since I've started being more vocal.

As for the hotel room, ask for someone to walk up with you so that you can test it out. Usually it's fine for me, but you never know!

DO-IT Ambassador: If there is room on an airplane, a manual, collapsible wheelchair may be stowed within the cabin. If she does gate check, this would be ideal. Also, when bringing a chair through security, expect to spend ten extra minutes being swabbed for chemical residues.