Part II in our Accessible Travel Series

I’m Tabassum. I’ve flown all over the world, and it just so happens that I travel in a wheelchair.

Air travel can be uncomfortable for many people—with or without a wheelchair, but maybe my tips can help!

Wheelchair accessible travel
In front of the London Olympic clock

Have an air travel routine:

I like to arrive at the airport 90 minutes before an international departure. I prefer to check in with an agent and not the self-check in, because I might miss something. This way I can let the airline know my boarding needs, have them check my wheelchair, prepare an aisle chair, and make arrangements to have a wheelchair at my transfer gate or destination.

The aisle chair:

The aisle in an airplane is too narrow for your regular-sized wheelchair, so you’ll have to check it as special luggage.  You’ll use an aisle chair provided by the air carrier to board the plane and use the bathroom. Make sure you ask for assistance when transferring from your in-flight seat to the aisle chair. Or if you’re travelling with a friend or family member with a disability, familiarize yourself with the aisle chair’s location during flight.

Wheelchair accessible travel
View from London Eye

Baggage checking your wheelchair:

Air carriers should ensure your own wheelchair is waiting for you at the gate upon arrival, but don’t make the same mistake I did.  Make sure you’ve properly checked in your wheelchair and received a special item luggage tag. You don’t want to arrive at your destination to find your chair isn’t waiting for you! It happened to me when I flew to Pakistan; I arrived in Karachi, but my wheelchair was in Montreal! Thankfully the Red Cross rented me a wheelchair and my own chair arrived the next day.

Long haul flights:

When I fly from Vancouver to Pakistan, it’s over 15 hours in the air, not including the lay-overs in London or Hong Kong. For long haul flights, this well-known tip applies to passengers in wheelchairs too: drink lots of water and avoid alcohol! More specifically though, ask for a bulk head seat: it’s the row of seats directly after the partition. The bulk head offers more “leg room” or in my case, more space to manoeuver the aisle chair. It’s not possible for people with disabilities to sit in the emergency exits. Keep this in mind if you’re booking on behalf of a travelling companion in a wheelchair.

Wheelchair accessible travel
Cleopatra carvings, Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt

Know your Rights:

Every traveller should know their rights, but especially people with disabilities. International Air Transport Association and the Association of Air Passenger Rights  are both excellent resources for all passengers. The Canadian Government Flight Rights site is also helpful.

In general, here are the rules that airlines should follow to serve passengers with reduced mobility:

  • Assist in interline journeys and airport transfers
  • Communicate passengers’ special needs, and services provided on the ground and in flight between air carriers
  • Provide special equipment when necessary
  • Offer priority boarding and  individual briefings on safety procedures, aircraft layouts and specialised equipment

Depending on where you’re travelling, you may also want to compare your passenger rights in Canada versus the USA or Europe, for example.

In general, my rule of thumb for accessible air travel is:

  • Ask for assistance
  • Know your rights
  • Be firm, be kind

Take care, and keep travelling!


Claims Examiner, World Traveller

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Wheelchair Accessible Air Travel

Aug 7 2013