Must-know airline info: Tips for travelers with disabilities

Travel can be stressful at the best of times, but when you have to factor in a disability, getting from point A to point B can become that much more frustrating. Airlines know this and do their part to make air travel as comfortable and seamless as they can for every passenger. Since each airline is different, they may have differing policies where travelers with disabilities are concerned.

We’re sharing some tips and information on what 15 major airlines do for travelers who need extra support when flying.

United

When flying with United, call the airline’s disability desk (1-800-228-2744) 48 hours in advance of travel if you’ll be traveling with an assistive device so they can ensure your device can be used in-flight. Any special needs you have should be mentioned when you make your reservation so the airline staff can do their best to help you. This includes the need for assistance getting to your gate, boarding, getting to your seat, deplaning or connecting.

Wheelchairs are available for use at each airport United uses, but if you don’t see one when you arrive you can ask a skycap or agent for help. Aisle wheelchairs for transferring non-ambulatory customers to and from their seats on the aircraft are also available, as are on-board wheelchairs in every aircraft with more than 60 seats. Some domestic and international airports may not have jet-bridges available for boarding, but in these cases, a passenger assist lift (PAL), mechanical lift, ramp or a stair chair may be used for boarding and deplaning.

In addition, certain seats on the aircraft are made available to passengers with a disability, but the request needs to be made at least 24 hours in advance of your scheduled flight. You can check your wheelchair or other assistive devices at the ticket counter or at the gate, and there is room for one collapsible wheelchair on board. If you want to use this space, request it when you identify yourself for pre-boarding.  Finally, here are United’s disability policies.

Delta

Delta personnel are available to assist passengers in boarding, deplaning and connecting with their flights, and most of the airline’s aircraft are subject to federal accessibility requirements for passengers with disabilities. Depending on the type and age of the aircraft, accessible features of Delta’s fleet include movable aisle armrests, wheelchair stowage locations, on-board wheelchairs and, on larger airplanes, wheelchair-accessible lavatories. Depending on the aircraft, they also provide movable aisle armrest seats so passengers who use aisle chairs to board the aircraft can more easily transfer into their seats. If you your seat doesn’t have a movable armrest and you need one, a gate agent or in-flight personnel can see if another seat with a movable armrest is available on your flight.

Delta also provides a designated location on board most aircraft for stowing one personal wheelchair on a first come, first served basis. The chair or scooter has to fit in a FAA-approved storage area and must be of the weight and size that will fit in the on-board location. You can also check your wheelchair at the ticket counter or the gate and use Delta’s wheelchair equipment for travel within the airport. All of Delta’s aircraft have an on-board wheelchair, and it can be used to move to and from the lavatory. Finally, here are Delta’s disability policies.

American Airlines

When making your reservation with American Airlines, let them know if you’ll need a wheelchair to get to your departure gate, and during your connection (if you have one). It’s also a good idea to remind the airport agent that you’ll need a wheelchair or other mobility assistance at your destination or connecting city.

Some airports have electric carts to assist customers in moving throughout the airport. These vehicles operate continuously, and are available for all customers. Upon request, pre-boarding assistance can be provided if you need it.

Flight attendants can help customers get from their seats to the aircraft lavatory and back during flight by using the on-board wheelchair. Every jet aircraft has a collapsible chair available for on-board use, and there are many seats available with moveable aisle armrests within the main cabin. American Airlines (and American Eagle jet aircraft) has a designated space in the cabin of each aircraft to accommodate one collapsible wheelchair. Non-collapsible wheelchairs or scooters are acceptable as checked luggage and can be checked in at either the ticket counter or the departure gate. Finally, here are American Airlines’ disability policies.

US Airways

When traveling with US Airways, if you have a mobility disability and need special seating, call 800-428-4322 (TTY 800-245-2966) at least 24 hours before your scheduled departure to ensure your needs are met. The airline can provide a seat in a row with a movable aisle armrest for passengers needing to transfer from a boarding wheelchair to their seat, or a bulkhead seat or other seat with more legroom for passengers with a fused or immobilized leg. The airline can also provide an on-board wheelchair but let them know 48 hours in advance if you need one.

US Airways offers pre-boarding for passengers with a disability who need extra time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment or be seated. They also offer boarding and deplaning assistance — if you need it, let a gate agent know. Also let the airline know if you need help stowing or retrieving carry-on items, and if you need a wheelchair at your destination or connection. The agent will make a note in your reservation and order your wheelchair.

US Airways and US Airways Express have designated priority space in the cabin of each aircraft to accommodate one collapsible wheelchair. Non-collapsible wheelchairs or scooters are acceptable as checked luggage, which you can check at the ticket counter or departure gate. Finally, here are US Airways’ disability policies.

 Air Canada

Customers with disabilities or other special needs should let Air Canada know when making their reservation. The more advance notice you can give, the more the airline can do to ensure ease of travel. Some of their special needs services include:

  • Indicating any special needs or conditions with a notation on your boarding card
  • Assistance with registration at the check-in counter
  • Help moving to the boarding area, as well as boarding, getting into your seat, and deplaning
  • Help moving around the airport – wheelchair assistance is available at the airport for this
  • Stowing and retrieving your bags and mobility aids
  • Assistance unwrapping and cutting food, and opening beverages

If you’ll be traveling with an assistive device of any kind, let Air Canada know 48 hours in advance so they can ensure it meets the requirements for your specific aircraft. If you have any questions about getting your needs met, or to ensure that you will be comfortable on your flight, call the Air Canada reservations desk (1-888-247-2262) and ask for the medical desk with the details of your needs and reservation.

Air Canada stows most wheelchairs and mobility devices, either as checked baggage, or if there’s room, on board. There are also wheelchairs on board most Air Canada aircraft for helping customers to the lavatory, or when boarding and deplaning. Finally, here are Air Canada’s disability policies.

Southwest

If you’re flying with Southwest and you need a wheelchair at the airport, or need other special assistance, it’s best to inform the airline in advance, or as soon as you arrive at the airport so your requests can be fulfilled as quickly as possible.

Priority pre-boarding is available for those who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability, or who need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device. Should you need to pre-board you can request a pre-boarding document from the customer service agent at the departure gate. This document lets the boarding agent know that you need to pre-board.

A small wheelchair that can fit down the aircraft aisle is available at every gate and can be used if you need help getting into your seat. Each gate is also equipped with a Passenger Transfer Kit (PTK), which contains a slide board and a transfer sling. The sling is used to lift a customer requiring this type of assistance safely from his/her wheelchair into the small wheelchair and then into the aircraft seat. To make this transfer easier, at least the first two rows on most Southwest aircraft are equipped with movable aisle armrests.

Southwest checks most wheelchairs and mobility devices as long as they can be stowed safely, and there is space for one collapsible wheelchair, available on a first come, first served basis, aboard the aircraft. Finally, Southwest’s disability policies.

JetBlue

Contact the airline (1-800-JETBLUE) to add any special service you might need to an existing reservation. The more JetBlue knows about the type of assistance you need and the earlier you make your request, the more they can do to help make your flight and time at the airport as comfortable as possible. For example, if you’re not able to ascend or descend stairs, you should request special assistance with boarding and deplaning when you make your reservation so airport crew members can have the necessary equipment ready for you.

Airport wheelchair service is available at all airport locations, and JetBlue has specially-designed wheelchairs for any immobile customers to use in reaching their seats when boarding and deplaning.

Note that JetBlue doesn’t offer curbside service at most of their airport locations so if you need help leaving the airport, make a request with a JetBlue crew member inside the terminal so they can provide the curbside assistance needed. Finally, here are JetBlue’s disability policies.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines staff does everything they can to assist those traveling with a disability, but to ensure you have everything you need, try and make reservations as early as possible. Any special services you might need can be requested online or over the phone. Otherwise, let the airline know of any special requirements at check-in, in the boarding area, and on the aircraft, and arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure to allow enough time to board comfortably.

Alaska Airlines transports all types of personal wheelchairs and mobility devices, but it’s also important to note that travelers transporting electric/battery-powered wheelchairs, carts or scooters need to be checked in and available to board at least 45 minutes before the posted departure for all flights, and travelers transporting any other type of non-electric/battery-powered wheelchair, cart or scooter should be checked in and available to board at least 30 minutes before the posted departure for all flights.

Wheelchairs and wheelchair escorts are available at every airport, and some airports have electric carts available for customer use. Should you need to use them, or if you need help getting to your gate, boarding, deplaning or connecting, let a customer service agent know so they can arrange for a wheelchair to be available at each location. For travelers who need assistance getting onto the aircraft, Alaska Airlines offers lifts or ramps for anyone who is unable to ascend or descend stairs, and on-board wheelchairs that can be used to help passengers in reaching and transferring to their seats when boarding and deplaning.

There is space on most flights to stow one folding, collapsible, or breakdown wheelchair and that space is provided on a first come, first served basis. Finally, here are Alaska Airlines’ disability policies.

Hawaiian Airlines

Let the airline know in advance about any assistance you’ll need at the airport, connecting, while on board, or if you’ll need extra time to board your flight. Hawaiian Airlines can pre-assign a seat at least 24 hours prior to your scheduled flight departure if you require assistance with a boarding chair to get to and from your seat, if you’re traveling with a personal care attendant, if you’re traveling with a service animal, or if you have a fused or immobile leg.

There is no weight limit for any assistive devices that you travel with and they will be accepted as either cabin baggage or checked baggage. If there is no space to stow your assistive device on-board, it will be tagged for special handling and placed in the cargo hold as long as you don’t need the assistive device during the flight.

Wheelchairs are available at all airport locations to transport you between the ticket counter and gate, and you can ask a skycap or porter if you need one, or if you need help with your own wheelchair, or other special assistance. If necessary, Hawaiian Airlines has a special boarding chair to assist you in getting to your seat. If you need extra time exiting the aircraft, a wheelchair at your destination or transfer point, or assistance in deplaning the aircraft or through the terminal, the airline requests that you notify a flight attendant at least 45 minutes before landing so they have time to make the necessary arrangements. Finally, here are Hawaiian Airlines’ disability policies.

WestJet

Guests traveling with WestJet should let the airline know if they require the use of a wheelchair. You can do this either online while booking or by calling WestJet (1-888-WESTJET). Note that WestJet Encore flights are ground loaded so it’s important to contact the airline if you need extra help getting to or from the aircraft and while on board.

For the most part wheelchairs are carried in the cargo compartment of the aircraft, but there are a few aircraft, operating on select flights, which are equipped with a shelf that can stow one medically-required, standard-folding wheelchair. If the space is available, you can request it at the check-in counter on a first-come, first-served basis. Checking a medically required wheelchair or mobility device doesn’t count toward the checked baggage allowance. Finally, here are WestJet’s disability policies.

Porter

Customers traveling with Porter who have a disability, and who need special assistance should contact the call center at 1-888-619-8622 for further information about what Porter can do to assist.

Wheelchairs are available for passengers who need them to get around the airport, and each Porter aircraft is equipped with an on-board wheelchair. A checked wheelchair doesn’t count toward your stowed baggage allowance. Finally, here are Porter’s disability policies.

Spirit

Depending on what kind of special assistance you need, you can request it when making a reservation online or through Spirit Airlines reservations to ensure you have everything you need for a comfortable journey.

Depending on the size of the item, customers can take wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, or assistive devices, in addition to one carry-on item on board. You can also check your wheelchair at the ticket counter or the gate and use Spirit’s wheelchair equipment. Spirit Airlines personnel can assist customers with disabilities in boarding, deplaning and connecting with their flights, and provide assistance in getting customers to and from gates. In addition, all of Spirit’s aircraft have an on-board wheelchair.

Once you reach your destination airport, Spirit can help with deplaning and have your personal wheelchair ready for you at the gate or at the baggage claim. They will also provide transfer service on and off the aircraft using boarding or aisle chairs that are designed for aircraft aisles. If you’re making a connection, assistance can be provided between flights using the airline’s wheelchair service. Finally, here are Spirit Airlines’ policies on disabilities.

Allegiant

If you are traveling with Allegiant and you have a disability or special need, be sure to mention it when booking a reservation online or over the phone. You can also contact the reservation center (702) 505-8888) and request the assistance you may need to be added to your reservation.

Battery-powered mobility devices (wheelchairs, scooters, etc.) will be checked at no additional charge at the ticket counter or gate and transported if the cargo compartment is large enough. Other assistive devices, such as walkers, canes, crutches, etc., that can be stowed safely are fine to bring on board and won’t count toward your carry-on baggage limit. If an assistive device can’t be stored safely in the cabin, it will get tagged and transported in the cargo compartment. Finally, here are Allegiant’s policies for special needs passengers.

Frontier

If you need help moving through the airport when traveling with Frontier you can request a wheelchair or electronic cart ride through the concourse (where available) to get from one departure gate to another, or to help you get to baggage claim.

If you’re traveling with a wheelchair or mobility device it can be checked and doesn’t count toward your baggage allowance. There is one space on board Airbus aircraft to stow a wheelchair, which is available on a first come, first served basis. You can request it when you make your reservation.

It’s also a good idea to notify a customer service representative at the ticket counter at the time of check-in and upon arrival at the gate area if you’re going to be stowing your wheelchair on-board. The wheelchair can’t exceed a height of 40 inches, a length of 50 inches, a width of 13 inches, or weigh more than 70 pounds.

Frontier’s customer service representatives will also make sure that passengers with a disability have the opportunity to board before the general boarding begins, and if you’re stowing your wheelchair, will make sure it gets stowed properly. When you reach your destination, a customer service representative or flight attendant will bring your wheelchair to the front of the aircraft after all passengers have deplaned and assist you with disembarking. Finally, here’s additional information about special needs passengers.

(Main image: daquellamanera used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

Article by Jessica Padykula (245 posts)

Jessica Padykula is a Toronto-based writer and editor who regularly covers travel and lifestyle trends. When she’s not writing or researching a story she can be found planning trips to places near and far in a never-ending quest to travel the world.