Advice for air travel with power wheelchair
January 5, 2017 4:57 AM   Subscribe

We are flying for the first time with my daughter's power wheelchair, and could use some advice to make sure the chair gets to our destination, and home again, in one piece, while making life easy for baggage handlers.

We want to take our disabled daughter for a break from the cold of the Canadian winter and have booked a trip to Mexico, where we have been several times but not since my daughter's disability got to the point where she needed a power wheelchair. We are working with an excellent travel agent who is contacting the airline to answer as many of our questions as possible. She has confirmed that the flights we are taking will go into jet bridges, that we know what to do with the chair at the airport, arranged for accessible van transfers to the wheelchair-friendly resort etc. However, I'm hoping to get some real-life advice from other travellers about the best way to make sure that the chair makes it there and back in one piece.

1) We have been told to include the owner's manual with the chair. We don't have one, but can print one found online, however the part about battery disconnection is very vague. I'm thinking of typing up a one-pager with clear instructions and photos on how to disconnect the battery and how to put the chair into 'freewheel' mode so it can be pushed easily. Is that a good idea? (Maybe even attach tags to the two levers that have to be pulled out for freewheel?) I'm assuming it would also be a good idea to include flight and contact information with all this in a ziploc bag somehow attached to the chair? (Would it be worth running it through Google Translate into Spanish for Mexican baggage handlers?)

2) The backrest will have to be removed and the back supports folded down to fit the chair into the aircraft hold. How do we make sure the backrest doesn't get separated from the chair? (Again should I attach tags to the two pins that need to be removed to fold the supports?)

3) What do we do with the wheelchair charger, which we will need to keep the chair running while we are away? It's a fairly large box, weighs around 10 pounds. Do we put it in a suitcase as checked luggage or bring it as carry-on in its own bag? We'd want to be sure it wasn't going to get damaged.

4) I've read that it's a good idea to take photos of the chair before travel so any damage can be identified?

5) What happens at security? We're not sure yet whether she will be able to stay in the power chair until the gate, or if she will have to transfer to a manual airport chair at check-in. Either way, she can only stand for very short periods of time and walk very short distances with a cane. Standing in the full-body scanner would be impossible for her. I assume they can do a pat-down while she is in the chair?

Any other advice or things that we may not have thought of? Or am I overthinking all this? I figure airlines and baggage handlers must deal with wheelchairs on a fairly regular basis so have good procedures in place?
posted by valleys to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am not sure about the handling of a power wheelchair by the airport people. My wife used a regular wheelchair. She was wheeled into a private room for the security check. Then we could go to the airplane door and an attendant would remove the chair and put it into the hold. And it would be brought back to the boarding door upon arrival at the destination. There came a time when she could no longer navigate with crutches to the seat. We stopped flying after that.
posted by JayRwv at 5:44 AM on January 5, 2017

My wife has a similar degree of mobility, in that she walks only short distances, slowly and with poor stability. She uses a manual chair to cover long distances, so I don't have experience with a power chair.

Security will be more invasive than if she were able to make it through the scanner. They will pat her down fairly thoroughly (same sex agent, assuming this is in the U.S.), and wave a wand over the chair itself. She might have to remove her shoes.

The most easily-lost part of my wife's chair is the seat cushion, and it has to be detached to allow the back to fold down. We take the cushion on as a carry-on (it doesn't count against baggage limits). I'd be inclined to carry on your backrest and charger, and stick the loose pins in your pocket. Maybe order a spare pin to take with you in case you drop one in a crevice somewhere.

I would plan to disconnect the battery and put the chair into freewheel mode yourself. Leave directions too, I guess, but I think that asking employees who will be rushing, unfamiliar with your particular chair, etc. to decode instructions that might not be in their first language would vastly increase the likelihood of something getting broken.

If she can't manage the walk from the plane door to her seat, the airline can provide an aisle chair.
posted by jon1270 at 5:56 AM on January 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not knowing your daughter's situation I don't know if this would work. Can she use a regular push chair to navigate the airports? Then rent an suitable electric chair at your destination. This might be easier then making sure all the various parts make it to your destination and back in one piece. The airlines should also have small narrow wheel chairs that will fit down the airplane aisle. Does the airline charge extra to handle a larger electric chair?
posted by tman99 at 7:03 AM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

We use a power scooter that disassembles into 4 components, although we leave it assembled for the air trip. We drive it to the gate and get it gate checked. We then pre-board, run the scooter down to the door and leave it there. The airline loads the chair into the hold, and unloads it at the destination. It is a fairly simple and routine process. If your chair is more substantial than this one it might be a different procedure.

The chair body is plastic and pieces have been broken off in some trips. So far this has not caused any structural issues for the scooter.

Pack the battery charger in your luggage. Take the backrest onto the plane with you if it will be separated from the chair, to avoid it getting lost.

When we last went though security the one using the chair was done before the rest of us were. They give special attention to them, and have a bypass line.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:55 AM on January 5, 2017

I use a power chair and have been through airports with it a number of times to multiple countries, including Mexico. I've always been able to take it to the plane door. Even when the plane was sitting out on the tarmac, they took me over to the plane with a van with a lift on it.

At times they've been unable to bring it to the gate on arrival. When that happens they've pushed me through to baggage reclaim in a manual chair.

Can you disconnect the battery yourself and put it in freewheel mode before handing it over? I've never given them a manual or anything but mine folds and I disconnect the batteries myself.

My experiences of security tally with the above commenter. Not having to wait in line is nice though.

I agree that you should bring onto the plane any removable parts if you can, and the charger. They won't count against your carry-on, as another commenter mentioned. If you can't do that with the backrest/back supports, I'd attach them as securely as you can.

Definitely put flight and contact info onto it. And take photos.

You're not overthinking this, unfortunately. These are all good questions and real concerns. One thing you unfortunately should consider is what you will do if you get it back damaged or they lose it. Eg is there somewhere convenient to your destination airport that you could easily rent something temporary? I don't want to worry you more than you already are but I've had mine go missing for the entire duration of a multi hour layover. They did find it in the end but it drove home the need for a backup plan.

That said, like I said, I've done it many times to different continents and other than that incident and some minor hiccups it's been fine. Take what precautions you can but enjoy your holiday too.
posted by bizarrenacle at 2:54 PM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

My powerchair flying experience is all in US. In addition to your excellent research...

Always ask to "gate check" the chair. That way you can see the baggage handlers take it down to the hold. When you land, do not leave the airplane until the chair is in your possession. Airline staff can't leave until everyone is off; their inconvenience may help speed up return of chair to you.

In the US, mobility equipment has priority in the closet that usually holds the attendants/pilots coats. When I travel, I break down the chair: removable back & joystick in suit carrier bag to hang in the closet. I would sit on my cushion.

Use colored masking tape to super-loudly show which way to push the freewheel. (Twice I had levers bent 90° to their correct operation: they tried to pull out when they were supposed to swing over.)

Photos of freewheel levers in "go" and "stop" position, laminate it, and hang it to the seat with a zip-tie.

This know your rights sheet briefly explains airlines' responsibilities under the Air Carrier Access Act. Yes, US airlines are not covered under the ADA, but under an earlier, less stringent, law.

Just in case, research chair rental resources at your destination. The airlines have been known to trash chairs. They will eventually make you whole financially. But if you have a backup plan, your vacation can unfold happily.

Have a great trip.
posted by Jesse the K at 6:22 PM on January 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks everyone for the input. All went very well. Kudos to Westjet and their staff. On the flight from Canada to Mexico we were able to take the power chair to the gate then transfer her to an airport chair to get to the plane door. We took the seat back and headrest onto the plane with us. I had covered the brake/freewheel handles in bright pink tape to make them obvious, and attached a sign in English and Spanish explaining how to use them. We had to wait about 10 minutes longer than our luggage for the chair to be delivered, mainly because they didn't see the sign and I had to communicate in my non-Spanish to look for the pink handles. On the return they asked us to leave the chair at check-in so used an airport chair to get her to the gate and plane door, again took the seat back and headrest on the plane with us. Only delay getting the chair when we got home was because it made the cart it was on so heavy that it got stuck in the heavy snow that was falling!
posted by valleys at 9:27 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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