From my experience I have found very few obstacles to air travel in the US with an electric wheelchair or mobility scooter. Now I’m not saying it’s a cakewalk but with a little pre-planning a lot of the stress can be removed from the situation.
Usually, I know a little ahead of time my schedule and which of the carriers I’m flying and what their pre-requisites are. Usually its on one of the main carriers that I’ve flown before but if it’s a lesser-known, smaller, airline I will call their Customer Support to find if they have any specific rules and regulations in regard to electric wheelchairs or mobility scooters.
Make sure to carry all health insurance information, medications and back-up prescriptions with you onto the plane along with names of all your doctors, phone numbers, fax numbers for faxing prescriptions, medical diagnosis, names and dosages of all medications you’re taking and any allergies you may have.
Remember to photocopy your passport, airline tickets, credit cards and any other important documents. A good idea is to have as many of these documents in see-through (Ziploc) bags and when you travel always carry them in the same compartment in your carry-on bag so you know exactly where they are and can put your hand on them without a second thought!
Usually the main questions the airline will want to know the answers to are “How heavy is the device?” and “Are the batteries “spillable wet acid’, “dry cell”, “sealed gel” or “lithium-ion”?” (Most devices nowadays use “dry cell”, “sealed gel” or “lithium-ion” batteries and can be safely left in the device. But if you do happen to be running on “spillable wet cell” be sure to let the airline agents know as a leaking battery in-flight can be dangerous. The airline’s baggage handlers will have to remove the battery and place it in a sealed container.)
The other questions I’d answer in my head before leaving for the airport are:
How far back is my assigned seat?
Do I want an aisle or window seat? (If you are able to make your way to one of those “broom-closet-bathrooms” go for the aisle! Recently, I make sure I carry “Travel-Johns” with me as a very reassuring back-up!)
Usually, what I do on arrival at the airport is, while checking-in, ask the agent, even though I have my own chair, if I could have a “pusher” to expedite my journey through security and stay with me to the specified departure gate. Normally you can use your own wheelchair as far as the boarding point of the aircraft and from that point I will either walk to my seat or transfer to a special aisle chair depending on how far back my assigned seat is from the entrance doors.
Also, and it’s something on which I am amiss, it’s a good idea to attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in both English and Spanish) to your wheelchair or disability scooter before you head to the airport. (One clever idea I’ve seen is to attach one of those 7” x 5” clear adhesive shipping label envelopes with the instructions in it to the back of the seat. (Here’s a good information guide from United Airlines.) Under the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), if a wheelchair or scooter is disassembled for transport, it must be returned to the passenger correctly assembled. Having written assembly instructions readily available simplifies this process.
Remember that after the plane has landed you will probably be the last person to disembark. So try to be patient and remember that the flight attendants have to stay on the airplane until the last passenger leaves.
(Recently I had a flight where when the plane arrived at its destination there was four inches of ice on the cargo hold door and the handlers were unable to remove the luggage and our bags had to be delivered to our hotel the next day! I don’t know where they had stored my wheelchair but by good luck it was there waiting for me – but a word of warning, be prepared for all emergencies!)
And here are three things that you should always remember:
So long as your condition is stable you are entitled to the protection of the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), and the airline cannot make limiting regulations.
In the event of a problem with airport or in-flight personnel, you should require them to contact the Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO). The CRO has authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the carrier and must always be available and willing to deal with your grievance. (Each carrier that operates aircraft having 19 or more passenger seats must have a CRO available at each airport during all times that the carrier is operating at that airport. The CRO can be made available by telephone.) They cannot refuse!
The airlines are responsible for ensuring that your battery is reconnected and that your chair is working on arrival at your destination.
Also, if you have any access-related questions you can call the disability hotline operated by the US Department of Transportation at (800) 778-4838. The US DOT also produces a very useful downloadable document: New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability.