Ten Absolutely Incorrect and Completely Clueless Accessible Air Travel Tips


Misinformation is rampant today on the internet, especially in regards to accessible travel. And after reading yet another ill-researched and downright ignorant “Accessible Air Travel Tips” article yesterday, I’ve decided it’s time to act.

With that in mind, I’ve gathered up some actual tips that people have posted about accessible air travel. It should be noted that the misinformation is not my language, but that used by others. And just to set the record straight, I’ve also included the correct information following each “tip.” For the most part, these tips apply to travel on US airlines within the US; however most clauses of the Air Carrier Access Act have also been extended foreign carriers, on flights to and from the US.

Think of this as a public service, so that you will know the real access story before you head to the airport. Oh, and please, tell a friend.

Misinformation: Airlines have to make their planes accessible because it’s the law. If they don’t you can sue them under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Correct Information: Granted it’s true that US airlines have to make their aircraft accessible, but that’s mandated in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The Americans with Disabilities Act has absolutely nothing to do with it. Why does this matter? Well if you start spouting off to the flight attendant about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act when you don’t get a bulkhead seat, you’ll only prove your ignorance. And you’ll really irritate the flight attendant. Read the ACAA so you know what to expect when you fly.

Misinformation: People in wheelchairs are guaranteed bulkhead seating. These are the best seats on the plane because they have more room.

Correct Information: Going back to the ACAA, bulkhead seated is only guaranteed to passengers who travel with a service animal or those with a fused (immovable) leg. Furthermore, even though bulkhead seats have more room in front, they don’t have movable armrests, which makes transfers more difficult for some people. Additionally, people with mobility issues are barred from sitting in exit row bulkhead seats. On the other hand, many airlines hold some designated priority seats for disabled passengers. Check with the airlines in advance to find out their exact policies and reservation procedures, and then book with the one that can best accommodate your seating needs.

Misinformation: If a service animal is too large to be kept in the cabin, you must provide a portable carrier so the animal can be transported in the cargo area.

Correct Information: There are snippets of truth in this piece of misinformation. Service animals must be able to fit under your seat, and they cannot block the aisles or other areas that FAA safety rules require to remain unobstructed. But here’s the deal, if the service animal cannot be accommodated at the original seat, the airline must allow the passenger to move to another seat where the animal can be accommodated.

Misinformation: A physician’s letter is required for all wheelchair-bound people in order to travel by air.

Correct Information: The ACAA prohibits air carriers from requiring medical certification except if the passenger is traveling in a stretcher or incubator, needs medical oxygen during the flight, of if there is a reasonable doubt that the passenger can complete the flight without requiring extraordinary medical assistance. In other words, they can’t require medical certification just because you use a wheelchair or other assistive device.

Misinformation: All airports have jet bridges, so you can just wheel on the plane and up the aisle to your seat in your wheelchair. They do have aisle chairs, but they are uncomfortable, so you should use your own wheelchair to board.

Correct Information: Not all airport have jetbridges. Many small regional airports don’t, and those that don’t and have more than 10,000 annual enplanements must provide lift access to the aircraft. I would not argue that most aisle chairs are uncomfortable, but standard wheelchairs won’t fit down aircraft aisles, nor will most airlines allow you to use them for boarding. The exception is that if you can walk a few steps, you can take your own wheelchair up to the door of the aircraft. Unfortunately FAA regulations prohibit passengers with mobility issues from sitting in exit row bulkhead seats, which are usually the closest ones to aircraft door.

Misinformation: A person with a wheelchair or scooter should check it at the boarding gate.

Correct Information: In most cases checking your wheelchair or scooter at the gate is a prudent move; as it allows you to stay in your own more comfortable wheelchair until you board the aircraft. That said, you cannot gate check assistive devices that have spillable batteries. Those much be relinquished at the check-in desk, as they require special handling. Most airlines also have special procedures for assistive devices with lithium-ion batteries, so check with them in advance if you are traveling with one.

Misinformation: You can store your power wheelchair in the closet on the airplane. This is much safer than stowing it below, plus you will have it if you need to go to the restroom.

Correct Information: Power wheelchairs cannot be stored on-board. They must be stored in the aircraft hold. The ACAA requires air carriers to provide priority space for one manual wheelchair. The dimensions of this space must be 13 inches by 36 inches by 42 inches, and it is available on a first-come basis to passengers that pre-board. True, the closet is usually safer than the hold, but it’s just not an option for everyone.

Misinformation: Most airlines have someone on staff who will handle travel arrangements, ground transportation and hotel reservations for disabled passengers.

Correct Information: Under the ACAA, airlines are required to provide wheelchair assistance from the curb to the departure lounge. This means that they will provide a manual wheelchair with a wheelchair pusher. Airlines do not make accessible hotel arrangements or procure accessible ground transportation for their passengers. They are air carriers, not travel agents.

 Misinformation: When you see your plane start to board, you need to push in front of the other passengers, because it’s your right under the law to go first.

Correct Information:  Under the ACAA, air carriers must offer pre-boarding to disabled passengers; however you shouldn’t wait till boarding begins to address this issue, nor should you push your way to the front of the line. Get to the gate early and inform the gate agent that you need to pre-board, then stay near the gate so the gate agent won’t forget about you. Once boarding begins you will have to wait till everyone is aboard before you can be boarded, so make sure you arrive at the gate early. And don’t wander!

Last but certainly not least, I had to include this tidbit I found on-line. It’s not exactly misinfomation, but it’s just totally useless.

“Handicapped people should travel with pillows.”

I just don’t have any comment on that one.