How to help smooth trip through airport for passengers in wheelchairs

How to help smooth trip through airport for passengers in wheelchairs
A long security check line at Los Angeles airport. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Question: My husband and I plan to travel from Los Angeles to Roanoke, Va. My husband had a stroke in early 2013 and is in a wheelchair. What are the best ways to navigate the airport, from check-in to security to enplanement?

Karen Poindexter


La Cañada-Flintridge

Answer: Poindexter asked several specific questions about flying with someone who uses a wheelchair. What I've learned in the last week makes me start with this disclaimer (learned after getting my journalistic knuckles rapped, with justification): You can talk about solutions for travelers with disabilities, but one size does not fit all.

Factor in the variables of dealing with a gargantuan facility such as Los Angeles International Airport, whence they will be flying, where multiple companies do business (no airline being exactly like another) and add the human variables, and you have answers that can generally address issues but might not be specific to every situation.

One thing on which every expert I spoke with agreed: Knowledge is power. Being prepared for a journey like this by gathering as much information as possible will reduce the number of surprises.

The stress of airline travel is magnified when you are traveling with someone who has a disability, but with preparation, it can be manageable.

Here are some things the person who is arranging travel and is responsible for making it happen needs to do.

• Talk to the airline. That's the single most important thing you can do, which runs counter these days to what we've been trained to do. But this is the time to make those conversations happen.

Vicky Spencer Rouse, a travel agent who runs Special Needs Vacations by V (, describes herself as having a passion for helping people overcome obstacles to travel. She says it's imperative to let the airline know that your traveling companion requires wheelchair assistance — and to be explicit about the kind of conveyance, whether it's a manual chair, a motorized chair or a scooter.

When you arrive at the airport, the person who uses the chair or scooter probably will be transferred to an airline or airport chair. The owner's chair then will be checked as baggage. There should be no charge

Caveat: At least one wheelchair user I spoke with will not surrender her mechanized chair until at the gate. And nearly everybody I spoke with expressed concern about possible damage to the chair when it's checked — because it does happen.

Preparation: If it's a manual chair, remove the parts that are subject to damage or loss. Rosemarie Rossetti, a motivational speaker who has used a wheelchair since a 1998 spinal cord injury (, removes the wheels and armrests from her manual chair and asks that the wheels be stored in a closet in the plane. The armrests, she says, will fit into the overhead compartment. Rossetti, who travels two to three times a month, began doing this after one of her armrests disappeared in transit.

Additional preparation: Note the model and number of the chair and check at your destination to find a medical supply or other establishment that can supply replacement parts just in case.

Cory Lee, who writes the blog Curb Free With Cory Lee (, notes that his mechanized chair has traveled safely except when it arrived without the joystick control. The airline did help him find a replacement part, but, again, having the make and model info may help expedite a solution.

• Work on getting seats together by making your needs known. That's not just a wish. You will be boarded first, in all likelihood, and get off last, and the less hassle getting to or from that seat the better.


Bulkhead seats — the first row — often are reserved for people who have disabilities, Rossetti says.

Caveat: Getting seats together these days is tricky. If you talk directly to the airline, you may have better success. (Load factors of 85% or more make moving around nearly impossible.) The bulkhead seats sometimes are already taken. You may need to work to obtain them.

Preparation: Yomi Wrong, whose work involves a disability access compliance program for a healthcare foundation and who travels often, says she checks and rechecks to make sure that the seats she has requested by phone are available. She calls two days before her flight to be sure the "we'll-make-a-note-of-it" request has, in fact, been noted. There's often no record of it, she says.

Sometimes that requires discussions with the gate agent. Wrong, who uses a wheelchair, insists on seats together for her and her traveling companion. Full disclosure: I have known Wrong for more than 20 years, and I have seen her in action. She has never raised her voice, been unpleasant or used unacceptable language in my presence, but she has run into issues when we've been together. She merely requests that the airline — or whatever entity it happens to be — takes ownership of the problem and not allow it to be shifted back on her. I think people respond to her because she helps them do the right thing; everybody wins.

If the bulkhead still isn't available from the gate agent, Wrong says, she will accept a seat toward the front of the plane, but if she is traveling with a family member or her partner, it must be two seats, she tells the gate agent.

• De-stressing security. First, you must get to the gate. People who are in a wheelchair and cannot walk will get patted down, but if you have surrendered your chair, the attendant who is with you will help you with this.

Caveat: Depending on how long the journey from curbside (you can check in curbside and be rid of your luggage) to gate, you'll want to tipaccordingly. The more time that person spends with you, the more you'll want to tip. If there's a restroom stop along the way, increase the amount of the tip. The amount can be a couple of dollars, although $5 often seems standard for many things today. (If you're going with $5, it doesn't hurt to tip ahead of time. If you think more is warranted, you can always supplement, although if the service was lacking, you can't ask for money back.)

Preparation: Two things can ease your way with security: It is worthwhile for the traveler who's in charge of arrangements to become a "trusted traveler," which can be done through Global Entry through Customs and Border Protection (, which also expedites your return through reentry into the U.S.) or through the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program ( Although that "trusted traveler" still must go through security, there's no shoe/liquids/jacket removal, and the line usually moves quickly, so the able-bodied traveler can be on the other side when the traveler with the disability comes through with the attendant. This will make dealing with carry-ons less burdensome too.

Second, if you have an issue with security, use Twitter to alert the TSA. (Search for TSAmedia and several names will pop up.) It has become responsive to issues raised through that social medium, both issues of the moment and those that require some research.

This leaves perhaps the most important question. When I interviewed Wrong, I said, "I have one question I want to ask you about in detail." She laughed and said, "You want to know about using the bathroom, right?" I did. It's not an easy question to ask. But she and others answered it, and next week's column will address that.

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