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Flying With a Wheelchair-Assisted Passenger

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I recently returned from a four-day trip with my mother, who wanted to fly from Salt Lake City to Seattle to visit my brother. She is in her 70’s and has suffered from a mini stroke and brain bleed. While her recovery has been filled with impressive milestones, she still needs assistance at times. Her gait is slow, and at times, a bit unsteady. Flying without wheelchair assistance would be more than challenging for her.

This was my first time accompanying a wheelchair-assisted passenger, and there was a lot I didn’t know. I thought it might be helpful to pass on what I learned. We were flying with Southwest Airlines, so this information will be specific to Southwest. However, I’m sure other airlines have similar services.

Booking the flights

When making reservations with Southwest Airlines, I could see no way to indicate online that my mother would need wheelchair assistance. So I made the reservations online and then called Southwest later. They added a note to her reservation that printed out on the boarding pass.

Apparently, there is a way to indicate a need for assistance while booking flights online — I found this detailed instruction at the “Customers With Disabilities” tab on the Southwest.com website.

Arriving at the airport

First of all, I strongly suggest you arrive at the airport earlier than you would otherwise. Perhaps 30 minutes earlier than what the airlines usually suggest.

At the Salt Lake City airport, we were dropped of by a family member and we were able to walk right to a skycap at the curb who took my mother’s check-on bag, ordered her wheelchair, and printed her boarding passes. (I had hers and mine on my phone, but a wheelchair-assisted passenger really needs their own paper boarding pass.)

Note: I made the stupid mistake of keeping my bag with me. I am used to traveling with a carry-

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Seattle Airport assistance

on and a personal item and never checking on a bag. However, my mother was checking on her suitcase. Since I was going to have to wait at baggage claim with her for her bag, I might as well have checked mine, too. As it turned out, I really wish I had because I ended up needing free hands to push the wheelchair (more explanation later).

We then walked into the terminal and waited about ten minutes for the wheelchair. I learned that each airline assists its own passengers and provides this service free of charge. This is not a service provided by the airport at large. The wheelchair escorts are generally employees of another company contracted by the airline.

Going through security in a wheelchair

Wheelchair passengers and an accompanying travel companion have access to shorter security lines. Even though my mother did not have TSA pre-check status, she was treated as if she did. She was not required to remove shoes or take out her Ziploc bag with liquids.

I didn’t have to take off my shoes either, or show my liquids, but I did have to remove my laptop and other electronic devices from my carry-on bag. When I flew from Seattle back to Salt Lake City, I didn’t even have to remove the electronics.

If a wheelchair-assisted passenger is capable of walking, he/she will be required to walk through the metal detector and then be re-seated in the chair.

Getting to the Gate

The airline’s provided wheelchair assistance ends when arriving at the gate. The escort will usually ask if a bathroom stop is needed on the way and will wait, but not assist, while the passenger is using the restroom.

In our case, we arrived at the gate, our escort left, and then we decided to go use the bathroom. That’s when I realized what a mistake it was for me to still have my carry-on with me. I now had to push my mother with her carry-on while pulling my carry-on along behind me. Awkward at best!

I also had to figure out how to unlock the wheels to move the chair! So… pay attention to how the wheelchair operates, in case you need to push the wheelchair somewhere. This particular wheelchair had a release bar that had to be pushed towards the handle and held there (a lot like my electric lawnmower controls).

Here’s another word of advice: if you do stop to use the bathroom, be sure you have not left anything behind. You don’t want to be sprinting back to look for something when it’s time to be boarding at the gate! (Let’s just say I know from experience!)

Boarding the plane with a wheelchair
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Gate agent pushing the wheelchair down the ramp to airplane door

With Southwest Airlines, wheelchair-assisted passengers are boarded first, regardless of their boarding position number. Their traveling companion also boards with them. The gate agent is usually the person who will push the wheelchair down the ramp to the door of the plane. The wheelchair-assisted passenger then walks (or is assisted) to his/her seat.

It helps to choose a seat close to the front of the plane if you will be making a plane change because you will need time to get off the plane, be greeted by another wheelchair and then transported to the connecting flight’s gate.

Getting a Rental Car

More and more airports are building offsite rental car facilities these days and that can make it tricky to pick up a rental car with a wheelchair-assisted passenger.

Southwest provided wheelchair assistance from the final flight’s arrival gate to baggage claim and then to the rental car facility shuttle stop.

The driver of the shuttle got out and assisted with my mother’s bags. He also “knelt” the bus to the curb so it would be easier for her to board the shuttle.

At the rental car facility in Seattle, there was plenty of seating available so my mother could sit while I took care of paperwork. We walked a short distance to an elevator that took us to the floor where our car was. We preferred to rent a full-size car, even though it was just the two of us. It was easier for my mother to get in and out of the car…and a more comfortable ride for her as well.

Navigating the rental car facility was a little tricky because we now had all of our baggage. Make sure your bags have good swivel wheels (or use backpacks!), and this will be a lot easier for you!

If my mother had not been able to walk at all, she would have had to remain seated where the shuttle dropped us off. I would have had to find a way to pick her up with the rental car from that location.

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Hotel airport shuttle

The Return Trip

Because we were returning to the Seattle airport via hotel shuttle, we weren’t dropped off close to a skycap. I had chosen to return the rental car the night before and stay in a hotel close to the airport, so my mother wouldn’t have to deal with the rental car return.

It did mean we had a little longer walk to get to a wheelchair (up an escalator and across a skybridge).

Helpful Notes:
  • Tips for skycap assistance are usually $1-$2 per bag
  • Tips are certainly appreciated by the wheelchair assistant, although not required. We tipped from $2-$5, depending on the level of service (waiting for a bathroom stop, having to deal with carry-on baggage, baggage claim waiting, assisting all the way to the rental car shuttle stop, etc)
  • Be sure to see the Southwest Airlines Special Assistance page on their website for any questions about passengers who need help. I was amazed at all the ways in which the airlines try to accommodate the needs of their passengers.
  • Even though the request for wheelchair assistance is printed on the boarding pass, you should ask the gate agent to notify staff at the next destination that a wheelchair will be needed upon arrival. It just makes things go smoother.

All of the staff who assisted us were very friendly and genuinely pleased to be able to help. I was very grateful to have this support as I traveled with my mother, and it makes me more confident I can help her again in the future. I hope that sharing my experiences will make it a little easier for you if you need to travel with a wheelchair-assisted passenger.

Please share this post if you think others could benefit too!

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17 thoughts on “Flying With a Wheelchair-Assisted Passenger

  1. Kevin Wagar

    Fantastic tips. I have not been through this myself, but I have seen many wheelchair users on flights. I’ve always marveled at the complexities of it, and been proud of those who don’t let anything stand in their way of travel.

  2. Shannon

    This was an extremely informative post. Pinned for future reference as my father just had knee surgery so this might be me with him soon!

  3. Nisha

    I can empathize with you and agree with your post completely. I have traveled a couple of times with people needing wheelchair assistance and I have found that the airlines and airport staff are generally quite nice and helpful and on our part we should do what is expected of us , that is, coming in early 🙂

  4. melody pittman

    Great tips! My mom requires a wheelchair when she is flying, too. Nice that you mentioned the tipping as I hardly ever see anyone offer tips. Lots of things I needed brushing up on.

  5. Jade Mortimer

    This is all information that I’ve never thought about but might need one day! It’s good to know that you have to speak to the airline directly and not the airport. Does a wheelchair user automatically get the extra legroom seat to help manoeuvre in and out of the chair?

    1. Tami Post author

      I don’t know about other airlines, but on Southwest, the wheelchair passenger boards first and has first choice of all seats on the plane, so… Yes, he/she can choose the bulkhead seats for ease of seating!

  6. Alice Teacake

    A much needed post with a ton of detail! Sometimes you just have to learn by doing and you picked up some great tips for anyone who is going to travel with a wheelchair. Nice one Tami 🙂

  7. Lillie

    Such a useful article! Great point about checking bags. I’ve also resisted checking bags, but you’re so right that having free hands makes it worth it, especially since others are checking bags anyway!

  8. Jennifer

    I had to fly not long after I had knee surgery and needed wheelchair assistance. What you describe is pretty standard. The attendant will leave you at the gate, however, if you do need to go to the bathroom or somewhere else away from the gate, a gate agent present can call an attendant back to assist you.

    I think the other thing you probably didn’t experience is that some planes do not board from a jet bridge. Wheelchair passengers may need to climb stairs to the plane from the tarmac. I was able to do it with assistance, but I’m not sure how they handle completely disabled people in that scenario.

  9. Susanna

    This is great information! I recently was boarding a flight and overhead a family – with two adults in wheelchairs complaining to the airline about a few things. The airline mentioned the family had not communicated properly when booking and it caused confusion. So, I am sure this post will help a lot of people avoid that confusion. It’s great info to know. Thanks!

  10. Eric Gamble

    Great tips. I have also recently been having this experience as my mom struggles with walking and just cant keep up. Therefore I usually have to transport her around the airport in the wheel chair to make both of our lives easier.
    I had no idea that southwest extends the wheel chair courtesy to the rental cars locations. That is a great tip to know.
    Glad you added the tip info too. I have been caught twice now with the “assistant” waiting with their hand out.

    1. Tami Post author

      Oh no! They’re not supposed to ask for tips! It’s still voluntary, but I guess some have come to expect it.

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