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Flying Wheelchair

Recently I’ve gone on a couple trips requiring airline travel. While I have no problem flying, my poor motorized wheelchair encounters a lot of turbulence.

I’ve been flying more than 20 years and have collected quite a number of stories. But the crazy thing is that flying only seems to be getting more difficult with a wheelchair, not better.

I used to think that once the airlines got some practice, they would get better at accommodating their passengers with disabilities. Sadly, that has not been my experience. I would even say that international flights have greatly improved for accessibility, while flying domestically is absolutely gruesome.

On one of my recent trips my husband (Richard) and I waited nearly an hour for my wheelchair to be delivered from under the plane to the cabin door. I was really worried it had wandered off! Where could my wheelchair have gone without me? What was it doing?

When none of the staff could provide an answer, Richard went looking for it and discovered it had been riding up and down the elevator. Apparently someone had put it on the elevator and neglected to take it off the elevator. Not sure how they expected the chair to make its way back to the owner. I have a fantasy of inventing controls where I could drive my chair remotely to come meet me, including cameras and a GPS locator—wouldn’t that be a surprise!

The worst is when my wheelchair is delivered to me broken. Unfortunately, this has happened more times than I can count. With my rheumatoid arthritis, I cannot walk very far so breaking my wheelchair is, to me, the equivalent of ripping my legs off and saying “good luck with that.”

Inevitably the culprit is people trying to take apart my wheelchair or manhandle it, despite the fact that this is not what they are supposed to do. I question the training that airline staff receive. On another recent trip the pilot actually had to open the side door of the plane so Richard could yell out instructions on how to handle the chair.  If they were to be trained by anyone with a mobility device the focus would be: “Don’t take it apart! Don’t break it! And treat it like it is part of a person, because that is what it is!”

However, do not be mistaken—wheelchairs are very difficult to break. I run that thing into the ground every day and it keeps on working. It takes serious effort to damage wires, smash drive controls, and otherwise damage my wheelchair.

This recent time, we had two flights and my chair was broken and rendered completely inoperable on the first. Poor Richard had to turn off the break and push me and a several hundred pound wheelchair through a huge international airport to catch our second flight. No one from the airline offered to help despite the fact that they broke my chair.

When we landed at our final destination it was late at night and no one could get me a temporary chair, so we borrowed one from the airport (note: not the airline, they were no help, but the airport). The next day, after many calls, a temporary chair was delivered but the lack of my own wheelchair had completely altered our trip and created huge problems. I appreciated that someone from the airline finally said “sorry for the inconvenience,” but the phrasing seemed extremely inadequate. If you cut someone’s legs off, would you say that? No, you would do everything to make it right and understand that you had completely destroyed their mobility.

All these problems are serious. But what takes the cake for me is that despite the fact I have been flying with a couple companies for decades, it is always a surprise when I show up in my wheelchair. It’s in my file. It’s in the record every time I purchase a ticket. It’s confirmed when I check in. I don’t know how to make it any clearer that I use a motorized wheelchair. Sky writer? Carrier pigeon? Fax? What does it take? Why can’t they be prepared and know what to do?

Every time I fly, it’s like Groundhog Day all over again. And I feel like it keeps people with mobility issues, who should be able to travel, from being able to do so. If I weren’t so stubborn and determined to see family and visit places, I would totally give up! But that’s not me. So I’m going to rack up those flying wheelchair miles whether they like it or not.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Linda
    4 years ago

    My gosh, Kelly. What an awful experience! I recently gathered the courage and took the leap to request disability assistance on a flight. Of course I got some stares and dirty looks. The worst part was the embarrassment I felt, especially at that look you get of “you don’t look like you need a wheelchair,” as if I would use the service because I felt lazy. In any case, I digress. It was the easiest and least stressful travel I had done in years despite the negatives. Instead of an immediate worsening of my pain and fatigue I was able to attend dinner that evening with some colleagues and was not nearly as miserable as I usually am when I travel. I have severe RA that was undiagnosed for years and still have not found a biologic that will provide me with enough relief. I know that a wheelchair will more than likely be a permanent part of my future. I never imagined that you would have to worry about airlines damaging one. I am so sorry that you’ve had those awful experiences. Thank you for having the courage to post it. Warmly, Linda

  • Anita
    4 years ago

    I’ve heard similar horror stories about flying with scooters or wheelchairs and it seems difficult to get clear answers from anyone about the rules and procedures for flying with them. I’m planning to buy a scooter/power chair soon and am considering using shipping services instead of bringing it on a plane. There are services that ship luggage ahead for a trip and that seems like it might be better, since they’re likely more trained in dealing with potentially breakable items. I’ve had good luck using the airport wheelchair services to get me to and from the gate (and usually in a much shorter line through the security checkpoints) so it might be worth a try. They really need to get better at accommodating us, or at least be consistent in how it’s handled.

  • Mary
    4 years ago

    This was an interesting read, since I am flying to FL in December and had planned on bringing my scooter with me. In the past I have used the airport wheelchairs and rented a scooter at my destination. Maybe I should do that this time and not chance the airline wrecking my wheels!!

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