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How to travel by plane as a wheelchair user

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There are many fears connected with travelling by plane as a wheelchair user. Many people are put off travelling that way after hearing stories of people stuck at the airport/one the plane or damage done to the wheelchair. It could happen, but with good planning most of the plane journeys run smoothly and can actually be a good experience. For us, it was very stressful first time, but it really can be done and it’s actually not as difficult as it might seem. All the information is based on the journey with Ryanair from Bristol Airport, UK.

* book special assistance while booking your plane ticket on Ryanair website (not possible via their app). Give information on your particular needs (tick what kind of assistance you require, whether you can transfer yourself or need lifting into the seat, whether and what kind of wheelchair you are taking with you). Ryanair offers free seats to you and your travel companion. Best to choose seats at the rear side of the plane as the lift usually goes to the rear door. If you had already booked your ticket and want to add special assistance later, it can be done for up to two days before the flight by contacting the airline

Booking special assistance on
Choosing options of assistance required on the Ryanair website

* check in with special assistance desk when you arrive at the airport. From that point, you can decide whether you need assistance straight away, or can make your way to the gate (in case of Bristol Airport, all special assistance passengers always go to Gate 1 and they are taken from there to their particular flights, your carer can stay with you. It might be a different boarding place at different airports, special assistance staff will direct you). At Bristol Airport, if somebody dropped you off by car, you can get a free 30 minute parking ticket as a blue badge holder at the desk

Passenger assistance sign at Bristol Airport

* if you take your own wheelchair, check it in at luggage check-in point. They will put a label on your wheelchair to make sure it goes to the hold. You can then stay in your chair until boarding. If you want to take your power chair, the airline might ask for its dimensions, weight, type of battery. You need to be able to fold your chair and take the battery out. Some power chairs might be not suitable.

Tag put on the wheelchair at the check in desk

* there is a free designated fast lane for wheelchair users and their carers at the security check

Security lane entry for wheelchair users

* special assistance staff will take you from the gate to the ambulift car, usually about 40 minutes before departure. At that point, you need to transfer or be lifted into an aisle seat. Your wheelchair needs to be folded and is later taken to the hold. It might be a good idea to take off any attachments you have on your wheelchair (like lights, side guards) so they don’t get lost on the journey and take them with you on the plane as well as fold the chair to make sure nothing is sticking out (like anti tips or handles).

Ambulift car at Bristol Airport
Ambulift by the plane door
Aisle seat

After boarding the plane, you transfer or are lifted into the plane seat.

A few things we find useful at this point:

– might be worth taking your wheelchair cushion on board, so you can sit more comfortably. If the seatbelt is too short then the flight attendants will give you an extension.

– before transferring/lifting onto the plane seat, make sure both seat belt clips are out of the way and all the belts/side supports of the aisle chair are off and down, just to avoid unnecessary additional lifts

– the safety rules require passengers with reduced mobility to sit at the window seat. It is worth asking the flights attendants to move other passengers if possible, so you can be lifted into middle or aisle seat, again just to avoid additional lifts.

You usually board the plane first (although on our recent travels it was not always the case), but disembark last. Special Assistance staff will come to help you out of the plane after all the other passengers disembark. You need to transfer/be lifted into the aisle seat again, to the ambulift, where your wheelchair will be waiting. You are assisted through passport control (so you don’t need to queue), through luggage collection point, all the way to arrivals hall.

Using the toilet on the plane is not always possible for non ambulatory wheelchair users. Some planes carry aisle seats on board, but not all of them, so you would have to contact the airline if that is something you will require.

Hope this post is helpful and will make your plane journey less stressful. Have a great journey!

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