How to Wheel Around an Airport

 

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Art: Robin Mead

Airport wheelchair services are GREAT. Use them. You will be very glad you did.

They will provide you with a wheelchair and a person (or series of people) who will push it. Often friendly young men. Sometimes they will put you on an electric cart.

You do not need to be on disability or show any special documentation. Any person with mobility problems can request this. Just call and ask for wheelchair service to be added to your ticket, or look when you book the ticket online, there will be a box for wheelchair.

Bonus: Free Advocacy Skills Training

In addition to being a great way to get through an airport, wheelchair services are also a great opportunity to practice speaking up and advocating for yourself! You will probably need to.


TIPS FOR WHEELING AROUND AN AIRPORT

Booking Your Ticket

☸️ Make sure all your layovers are longer than one hour, ideally two. Trust us, you will lose your mind from stress if you don’t do this.

☸️ When you book your ticket online, check the box for wheelchair service or call the airline company and request this be added to your ticket.

Preparing Your Trip

☸️ Bring lots of cash for tips. However many tips you are planning, double it.

☸️ Airline employees don’t accept tips. Wheelchair wheeler people do.

☸️ Plan to arrive extra early to leave plenty of time.

☸️ Sunflower has some brilliant advice for how to make arrangements by contacting the airline disability services ahead of time: Sunflower Goes on a Trip

Arriving At the Airport

☸️ When you arrive at the airport, if there is an outside kiosk or employees outside, you can tell them you need a wheelchair service and ask them to bring the wheelchair right up to the car or curb.

☸️ Alternately, if you are able to walk inside, or have someone with you who can walk inside, tell the person at the counter you need a wheelchair.

☸️ If you are at a large airport, and waiting on lines is going to overtax you, it may be better not to go inside. You may be happier pulling up to the curb and ask the first employee you see to call a wheelchair. If someone is driving, you can try staying in the car til the wheelchair arrives.

☸️ If someone tells you to walk over somewhere else to request a wheelchair, you are allowed to say “no.” Don’t get stuck dragging your bags around and waiting on lines if this is going to make your symptoms worse. Stay where you are, and ask they bring you the wheelchair right where you are. Hold up the line and sit on the floor if you need to.

☸️ You may have to wait 10-15 minutes for the wheelchair and wheelchair wheeler to arrive. If it does not arrive, nows your time to practice your speaking up skills again!

Getting to the Gate

☸️ They will wheel you to the gate and leave you there. If you get up and leave your chair, you are on your own, and may have to wait on lines and carry your bags. If you stay in the chair, when boarding starts, they will board you first and wheel you all the way to the plane.

☸️ If you need to go to the bathroom, you can walk your wheelchair there with you. If you cannot walk that far, you can try to flag down an airport employee and tell them you need someone to take you to the restroom.

☸️ Don’t leave your wheelchair sitting with just your bag on it. Unattended bags can be considered bomb threats in airports.

☸️ If they leave you at the gate, make sure they leave you right in the priority boarding line, so the line cannot move without moving you. The priority boarding line is for people with wheelchairs, and for first class passengers. If they leave you over by the chairs, they may just forget about you.

Layovers

☸️ They do not guarantee you will make your connection. This is a going to be good practice for you to become a great advocate for yourself!

☸️ You can let an attendant on the plane know that you are expecting a wheelchair and are trying to catch another flight. Ask if they can help you by calling for the chair as soon as you arrive. If it doesn’t arrive, don’t be afraid to let them know your timeline and ask them to keep calling.

☸️ Lesson learned: Don’t leave your wheelchair unattended. They will take it away! If you need to lie down on a bench or floor, it’s a good idea to keep the wheelchair next to you so you are touching it and put your bag on it.

☸️ Occasionally, someone may park you somewhere, and then forget about you. This is good practice in speaking up for yourself! Waive down the nearest airport employee you see and ask for a wheelchair attendant.

Arriving At Your Destination

☸️ On the other end, they can wheel you straight up to a taxi cab door (Now you are starting to see why you want so many tips).

☸️ Happy wheeling!


BONUS!

Free Training in Honoring Your Limits

☸️ In addition to being a great training in self-advocacy, it’s also a great way to practice learning and respecting your limits. Throughout the day, there will probably be various times when you are given the choice between walking part of the way or using the wheelchair at every step.

☸️ Instead of asking yourself, “Can I physically walk this extra bit myself?” Try asking yourself “If I walk this extra bit myself, on top of taking this huge trip, will I be doing the best thing for my health? Will I feel ok later or tomorrow?” If the answer is “no,” then your answer is “no.”


HOW DID YOU WHEEL AROUND AN AIRPORT?

 

The hardest part: deciding to use the service the first couple of times. Our society is so negative about disabled and old people, that we feel vulnerable just sitting in a chair. But energy you spend walking when you should have been sitting doesn’t come back – you’ve lost it forever – and it won’t be there in the places there are no wheelchairs. – ABE

They will wheel you through to your gate like a queen. Helps me immensely!! Also speeds up getting through TSA. Let them know you need one at your arrival gate. They ask for no documentation to prove you need one. You just need to ask. I’ve done this twice now. The first time I had to emotionally process asking for help. Now I can’t believe I didn’t do it earlier! You deserve it!! That may be the biggest lesson in it for me. Happy Travels! – BAZ

Give the wheelchair attendant a good tip. They don’t make very much here in the USA. Bonus: not having to wait in the security screening line. Wheelchairs get to bypass the line and go straight to the front! – GC

The most important thing: never take one step. Be in the wheelchair from the minute you get out of the car, to the minute you are in the car on the other end. (I did probably take few steps to my seat on the plane to go to the bathroom but that is it). They may try to ask you to go to a ticket counter to request the wheelchair, or to leave you at the gate so you can walk the runway to the plane yourself, so it’s just a matter of saying: “I cannot walk there I need a wheelchair.” It is really easy to think, “OK, it’s not far, I’ll try it” and then wind up overexerting and getting sick the next day. – YO

Flying was easier than I was expecting. I thought I would be really sick after the plane, but I was OK. I have visited my family a few times this way. Once I arrive, I do not try to go out at all and I never plan a trip for less than 30 days, so I have enough recovery time to make the trip home. – PA

The airline would not accept my electric wheelchair – they asked about battery and size. I took a manual one. I was still looked after very well though – SJNM

An upside to requiring a wheelchair: In some countries they go out of their way to help you. The Swiss Guard at the Vatican took us out of the long line we were waiting in and admitted us immediately. – TB

The bad thing about wheelchairs is the extra security that can involve a same-sex security person patting down every square inch of your body. To avoid this, I now get up from my wheelchair and walk through the security scanners. – CK

I would have never considered using a wheelchair in an airport! But walking yesterday and waiting for a late bus I was in tears from the pain. I was awakening to see how much I bear simply out of my perception of who I should be. I had hidden fears of what it means to admit I am disabled. – AM

I flew from Manchester to Dublin in a wheelchair and I’m delighted to say I had a fabulous experience. – SJNM


Buttercup Wheels Around an Airport

I used to feel uncomfortable using wheelchair services and I was plagued by the obsessive thought that I would run into someone from my high school who would look at me funny. As time has passed, I have come to feel differently.

I am incredibly grateful for this wonderful service that makes it possible for me to travel, grateful to the kindhearted young men that push these wheelchairs, and most especially grateful to our disabled activist brothers and sisters, whomever they may be, who made such things possible in this world.

Also: If you have an emotional support animal, they may be legally allowed to ride in the airplane with you.


Lilan Wheels Around an Airport

The last time I was able to travel was 8 years ago. I used the wheelchair service in San Francisco and Frankfurt. It was pretty much as fabulous as you describe it: friendly service, flew through the gate, a ride on the electric cart, and I saw Martin Sheen! (I don’t think that’s always part of the package?)

Here’s where it went south: At the Lufthansa gate in San Francisco, the flight attendants REFUSED to wheel me onto the plane. This not only meant I had to walk, but I had to carry my own bag. I was near tears. Lufthansa is notoriously rude, and I can’t imagine it’s legal to deny disabled access.

Still, perhaps it’s safest to call the airline in advance to make sure you will be wheeled onto the plane? And don’t let the wheelchair guy abandon you at the gate until he has gotten the flight attendants to pinky swear they will roll you into the cabin and help you stow your carry-on luggage.

Also, if anyone feels self-conscious about using wheelchair service, my SF wheelchair attendant told me that most people who ordered wheelchairs were entirely capable of walking. In his experience, these were women in their fifties or sixties from one particularly country, who were clever enough to get the free ride and free baggage transport. He was quite curious about me needing a wheelchair at so young an age, but he was really nice about it.

By the way: Martin Sheen is SO short.
  

Christine Wheels Around an Airport

I’ve used airport wheelchair services ever since I was diagnosed with ME.

The worst experience was Heathrow. When flying in, they were brilliant and when above and beyond in taking me where I needed to go. It was just leaving from Heathrow that was stressful. They put me in a giant lounge full of disabled people using the wheelchair service and forgot about me (I kept shouting to them and just made the flight). They abandoned me at the gate and I had to try to get to the front of the queue to get on as I couldn’t queue.

The best experience was at Basel in Switzerland – they were wonderful and even had a special truck that we were wheeled onto and then lifted up to the level of the aircraft door (it was a cheap airline so wasn’t linked to the gate via a walkway). In Europe no one tips wheelchair pushers.

I’m not registered disabled (I don’t actually know how to go about doing that in the UK) but I use these services every time I travel as I couldn’t go fly at all without that sort of support.


Thanks for Reading

🌸 Art on this page by Robin Mead and Elizabeth D’Angelo.

🌸 Page Updated: 10/1/19

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5 thoughts on “How to Wheel Around an Airport”

  1. I have a heart condition & low energy do to being anemic, so i definately take advantage of the wheelchair services…i don’t need it the whole time i’m there, jus gettin’ me from ck in to the gate & from the gate to baggage claim…i jus can’t walk long distances…generally there’s a restroom & store w/i walking distance of my gate so i can go to the restroom & get a bite to eat b4 boarding…

    Like

    1. i recently went on a once in a lifetime trip to EUROPE to be for 15 days.

      my travel agency made arrangements for WHEELCHAIR ASSISTANCE all the way from USA to individual countries i was going to.

      i flew aug. 1 from des moines to minneapolis. NO WHEELCHAIR ASSISTANCE THERE FOR ME AS REQUESTED!!

      i used my walker, stowed below in plane, to get to the front desk where 4-6 airline employees…pilots/stewardesses were gathered. i didn’t bother them.

      i looked up & saw INFO BOOTH. so since i SPLURGED to go 1st class overseas with laydown seats; i wanted to know where SKYMILES was located for free food/drink i PAID for in my ticket price…another 1st for me.

      it was adjacent to booth. i had to show my membership no. to get in. they got my DEPARTURE INFO & SAID THEY WOULD HAVE SOMEONE PICK ME UP 30+ MIN. PRIOR TO DEPARTURE to get me to proper gate.

      DONE! it took at least 30+ minutes to get from 1 end of airport to other with THOUSANDS of people flying that day who walked inMIDDLE of large walking areas & would NOT move over for electric carts, which i was on.

      he didn’t honk or ask folks to move either.

      i got to destination, paid him his tip, and a long line there. my turn came …PLANE DEPARTED 2-3 MINUTES EARLIER!!! i was devastated!!

      had my WHEELCHAIR been there to pick me up at arriving gate, i would have had them take me to DEPARTURE GATE, then i would have looked for food/drink!!

      had to go to delta’s help desk. i made arrangements thru travel agency; sorry, we can’t help you; “it was a BULK PRICE”. use phones on wall; they will help you. on there 1 lengthy hour; most on hold; no place to sit down, etc!

      person asked, is your luggage there; ask delta; YES, it’s here.

      next person asked, have them REMOVE BAGGAGE TAG; ok they got that thru to people involved.

      finally after 1 hr. i got a REISSUED TICKET; could not fly out for 27 HOURS later!! i didn’t know where i was gong to be overnight!

      later talked to a mgr. helping another passenger; overheard their conversation & jumped in. he helped me 30 min. at least. he got 1 of their CUSTOMER service reps to help more.

      he got me my REISSUED TICKET IN PAPER FORM, and was kind enough to give me a FREE OVERNIGHT LODGING AT MARRIOTT HOTEL nearby! they didn’t have to do this.

      i finally got to my 1st destination of small island of SARDINIA, west of italy. guess what? NO LUGGAGE; LOST FOR 4 DAYS!!!

      all my prescriptions meds were in THAT as travel agent told me, it’s too much to take 2 suitcases…1 checked; 1 carry-on, a WALKER W/SEAT, & YOUR PURSE.

      so i took cloth bag only; not enough room for 2 wks. of meds, 1 change of clothing, cpap which i couldn’t use due to converter problems, etc.

      so then i needed to find a dr. on island to prescribe me meds to match my list of meds i brought along. luckily they had 1 open at NIGHTS to do this!

      bought trip cancellation insurance since 1 of my brothers was dying from pancreatic cancer; covered LOST baggage too.

      nightmare putting all the paperwork together required to get reimbursed for this which i mailed 2 wks. ago and they still WANT MORE! grrrr.

      SUMMARY:

      bottom line; TAKE MEDS ON CARRY*ON & 2 CHANGE OF CLOTHES AT LEAST for lost baggage.

      if your wheelchair isn’t there, GET STEWARDESS’ ON IT IMMEDIATELY TO GET ONE THERE FOR YOU. don’t go off alone. SOUND OFF.

      sorry, for my lengthy personal journey on my trip of a lifetime in 110+ heat the entire time with no humidity.

      betty gordon, iowa

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      1. wow. thank you for sharing this betty. I know someone who had a bad experience like this, wrote a complaint to the airline and they gave her a refund on the ticket…. might be worth trying 🙂

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  2. I have used wheelchair service in seven US airports. Each and every young man and woman was extraordinarily helpful, cheerful, patient, and kind. Seriously, these good ladies and gents bust their behinds wheeling sometimes two and three people at a time. Never once have I been stranded at a gate. Never once have I been late. Restaurant and bathroom stops have never been a problem.

    Cheers to these good folks! Tip well (I usually tip $5 or $10 depending on the length of time I am with the ‘pusher’, how hard they had to work for me, and their attitude whilst I am in their care). As an anecdote – I checked my walker at the gate in Phoenix and flew straight through to Raleigh. My walker didn’t come up from the hold, so my pusher took me to baggage claim and went behind the scenes. He saw my walker (it’s distinctive) out on the tarmac and headed for flight to Cleveland!!! He retrieved it and brought it to me in straight order. He got $20, because we all know what a new walker costs!

    Liked by 1 person

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