How to Request Airport Wheelchair Assistance

Silhouette of woman in wheelchair at the airport
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There are times when you might need extra help to get to and from your flights. Perhaps you are recovering from surgery or a joint injury, but still want to attend a family event several states away. You may have a chronic condition, such as arthritis, that makes walking difficult. You may have tripped a day or two before your flight, bruising yourself enough to make the long trek through the airport too painful to contemplate.

This is where airport wheelchair assistance comes in. Thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, all US-based airlines must offer passengers with disabilities wheelchair transportation assistance to and from their gates. Foreign airlines must offer the same service for passengers on flights departing from or flying to the United States. If you have to change planes during your trip, your airline must also provide wheelchair assistance for your connection.  Regulations vary in other countries, but most major airlines offer some type of wheelchair assistance for their passengers.

Here are the best ways to request and use wheelchair assistance at the airport.

Before Your Departure Date

When booking your flights, allow extra time between flights if you must change planes. Your wheelchair should be waiting for you when your flight lands, but you may encounter delays if you are traveling during the summer or the holidays, when wheelchair attendants are very busy helping other passengers.

Choose the largest airplane available when booking your flights. You will have more seating and restroom accessibility options available to you on an airplane that seats more than 60 passengers and / or has two or more aisles.

Call your airline and request wheelchair assistance at least 48 hours before your trip begins.

If possible, call earlier. The customer service representative will put a "requires special assistance" note in your reservation record and tell your departure, arrival and, if applicable, transfer airports to have a wheelchair ready.

If you need to use a wheelchair during your flight, call your airline as soon as you book your flight and explain your requirements. Some airlines, such as Air China, will only permit a certain number of passengers requiring onboard wheelchairs to board each flight.

Think about meals before you leave home. You may not be able to buy food before or between flights, because your wheelchair attendant is not required to take you to a restaurant or fast food stand. If possible, pack your own food at home and carry it with you onto your flight.

At Your Departure Airport

Arrive well before your scheduled departure time, especially if you are traveling during a vacation or holiday period.  Give yourself enough time to check in for your flight, drop your checked bags and go through airport security. Do not assume you will get head-of-line privileges at the checkpoint. While some airports move passengers using airport-provided wheelchair assistance to the front of the security screening line, others do not.

You may also have to wait for a wheelchair attendant to arrive and help you, particularly during peak travel times. Plan ahead and allow plenty of extra time.

Tell your wheelchair attendant what you can and cannot do before you get to the security screening area. If you can stand and walk, you will need to walk through or stand inside the security screening device and put your carry-on items on the screening belt. If you cannot stand or walk, or cannot walk through the screening device or stand with your arms over your head, you will need to undergo a pat-down screening. You can request a private pat-down, if you wish. Your wheelchair will be examined, too.

Expect to check your personal wheelchair, if you use one, at the boarding gate. Airlines generally do not permit passengers to use their own wheelchairs during flight.

If your wheelchair requires disassembly, bring instructions.

If you need wheelchair assistance on the airplane, you will probably board before most of the other passengers. Stating your needs and explaining your abilities will help your wheelchair attendant and the flight attendants provide you with the best possible help.

Important: Tip your wheelchair attendant(s). Many wheelchair attendants in the US are paid below minimum wage.

Between Flights

You will need to wait to leave your aircraft until other passengers have deplaned. A wheelchair attendant will be waiting for you; he or she will take you to your next flight.

If you need to use the restroom on the way to your connecting flight, state that you are a traveler with a disability and you need to stop at a restroom. The wheelchair attendant will take you to a restroom that is on the way to your connecting flight's departure gate. In the US, by law, your attendant does not have to take you to a place where you can buy food.

At Your Destination Airport

Your wheelchair attendant will be waiting for you when you deplane. He or she will take you to the baggage claim area. If you need to stop at a restroom, you will need to tell the attendant as described above.

Escort Passes

If someone is taking you to or from the airport, he or she can request an escort pass from your airline. Escort passes look like boarding passes. Airline employees issue them at the check-in counter. With an escort pass, your companion can go with you to your departure gate or meet you at your arrival gate. Not all airlines issue escort passes at every airport, so you should plan on using wheelchair assistance on your own in case your companion cannot get an escort pass.

How to Resolve Wheelchair Assistance Problems

The biggest problem with airport wheelchair assistance is its popularity. Many passengers use this service, and, over the years, airlines have also noticed that some passengers who do not really need wheelchair assistance use it to bypass airport security screening lines. Because of these factors, you may have to wait a while for your wheelchair attendant to arrive. This issue is best resolved by giving yourself plenty of time to check in and go through security.

On rare occasions, airline passengers have been taken to baggage claim or other areas of the airport and left there by their wheelchair attendants. Your best defense in this situation is a cell phone that is programmed with useful telephone numbers. Call family, friends or a taxi if you find yourself in this situation.

Although airlines prefer to have 48 to 72 hours' notice if you need wheelchair assistance, you can ask for a wheelchair when you arrive at the airport check-in counter.  Arrive early enough to check in for your flight, wait for a wheelchair attendant, go through airport security and get to your gate on time.

If you encounter any type of problem before or during your flight(s), ask to speak with your airline's Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). Airlines in the US must have a CRO on duty, either in person or via telephone. The CRO's job is to resolve disability-related issues.