Disclaimer: This is mainly for America, even though I’ve been abroad and the process is similar, I’m only certain about American commercial flights.
1. Where to begin when flying in a wheelchair?
When going through the checkout process for buying airline tickets online, depending on the company, there will be an area within passenger information and you can select something along the lines of that you’re in need of assistance, in a wheelchair, and can’t stand up, etc. This feature is typically very hard to find and not entirely necessary. So, begin by buying your ticket as anyone would.
2. What to do at the airport?
2.1 How to check in and make sure you get the assistance needed?
This is what I do: I get there early, 2+ hours for any airport the size of Detroit or larger. Before I go through security there are front desks where people are checking luggage, making flight changes and getting their flight tickets. Go to one of these people (wait in line if you must), and give them your passport, ID or ticket information (if you have it through an app or printed from home). Once they know your flight, tell them you’ll need assistance. What I say is, “I’ll need an aisle chair at the gate, my chair is manual and has no batteries, I can’t stand up or walk.” They need to know what kind of chair you have because of the rules for lithium batteries, they need to know you can’t walk because some people can walk but need to be pushed in a wheelchair to get to their gate but not all the way to their seat. The aisle chair at the gate is how you’ll get into the plane.
2.2 What to do with medical supplies luggage?
If you have luggage and its medical supplies (or related to wheelchair stuff), it should be free of charge to check it at the check in counter where we are in 2.1. Beware of doing this because there is no insurance or liability on the airline’s side if they lose or damage anything. Always have extra medical supplies with you in case the luggage is lost or broken. Keep higher value/fragile items with you, most airlines should allow extra carry-on items that are medical supplies (I’ve never had a problem).
2.3 How it works going through TSA in a wheelchair
I have TSA precheck and I recommend it. With TSA precheck, you go through a shorter line, they usually don’t require you to take off much, or anything. You will get up to the body scanner, the person there will tell you to go to the side, they call someone else who hopefully comes soon, they bring you through a gate, they swab your hands and parts of your wheelchair, take it back to test it and if it comes back good, you’re good. One person once told me that they went through a yard with fertilizer and it caused the TSA swab to alarm (chemical stuff), so make sure not to do that.
Without TSA precheck, the process is similar, you still typically don’t have to take anything off until you get brought through the gate next to the body scanner. There a TSA agent will ask you to do some things, but remember that you are allowed to tell them “I can’t do that” if it’s a large struggle, and they may help you or do it for you if they really need it done (think like taking off your shoes). Instead of a quick way, they’ll pat you down, you’ll have to lift yourself up or get lifted as they pat down your seat and your butt. You can get help for any part of this.
2.4 What to do at your flight gate?
Once you get past security, find your flight gate. If you get there too early, no one or people for a previous flight will be there. Once an employee for the airline is at the gate and they’re working for your flight, go up to them and tell them almost the exact thing you told the employee at the check in desk. You’re the one who needs an aisle chair, you can’t stand/walk, you have a manual wheelchair (or not) and you’re going to gate check your wheelchair and will need the chair and an aisle chair at the gate when you land. The great thing here is that you will board the flight absolutely first unless there’s another wheelchair. Otherwise, you are very very first.
2.5 How to board the plane?
Watch my video! You meet the people who have the aisle chair, tell them your seat number, give them any bags to help you with and go down the walkway to get to the airplane entrance. You’ll transfer into the aisle chair. While you’re there, take your wheelchair apart. You want to take off everything except the big wheels. Take all the rest with you – backrest, armrest, side panels, cushion, etc. Fold the chair down and they’ll take it away and take you on the plane. If you have an extra bag or room in your bag, it helps to shove everything in there, but keep the cushion out because you’ll sit on it. It’ll be a bit of a bumpy ride so I usually lift my butt off the seat using the aisle chair armrests.
2.6 How to get off the plane
Unfortunately, you get off the plane very last. I find that nice, I never liked awkwardly standing in line and slowly pushing my way up. Relax, read a book, talk to someone, and when the people with the aisle chair come, transfer on and just outside the plane, there will be your chair (hopefully intact). Put all the pieces back on, get on, and go out to your adventure!
There it is, in two steps.