"Traveling by Air for the Disabled"

Accessible Skies

Although air travel is the most preferred mode for most people today, very often travellers with a disability still restrict themselves from using this quick and convenient mode of travel, assuming (wrongly!) that disability means an inability to travel by air.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While, there are places where barriers to access still exist, a large majority of airlines and airports today are driven by the need to adapt to the changing flyer profile. Recent years have seen a marked rise in the number of individuals with disabilities preferring to travel by air, as well as older travellers with special needs. This has made it necessary for airports and airlines to modify their facilities and train their staff to cater to these passengers.

This article attempts to provide fliers who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids with information about what to expect from the time an airline reservation is booked to the moment their flight touches down, in order to have a safe and enjoyable flight.

Before you go

Planning for any accessibility issues ahead of the actual journey is crucial to ensuring that you have a comfortable and safe journey.  

Segment your journey into:

  1. 1. Arriving at and leaving the airport
  2. 2. Passing through the terminal
  3. 3. Boarding/exiting the aircraft
  4. 4. Moving inside the aircraft

Arriving at and leaving the airport

Before you even start making your travel plans, decide how you are going to travel to and from the airport.

Remember that it is always easier to access the originating airport than the destination airport. This is because you will be familiar with the transportation options to get there, as well as the layout of the terminal facility.

Having said that, you will also need to work out how you will get to the airport. Will a friend or relative drop you, or will you be driving in your car and leaving it in the car park? If you do plan to leave your car in the parking lot, find out if there are any accessible buses to transfer you to the terminal.

Your next concern should be the destination airport. With limited information about your options at the destination airport, it is best to find out from your travel agent if there would be any walking distances involved between the airport terminal and your ground transportation. If possible, make arrangements for travelling to your accommodation well in advance. By taking care of as many details as possible, you will save yourself loads of headache.

Passing through the terminal

Whether you are familiar with the terminal layout or not, reduced mobility often requires assistance at the airport. Usually, the airport will provide you with assistance to reach the check-in desk. From here on, it is the responsibility of the airlines to provide you help.

If you are a wheelchair user, you may be required to check in your wheel chair for security reasons. Since your own chair will be stored in the hold at some stage during the boarding process, make sure that your travel agent has informed the airport of your requirement for a 'transfer chair' that is designed to facilitate to get you on board.

You might also need to seek personalized assistance from airlines personnel, especially if you are required to move from one terminal level to another and need to access an elevator.  This is usually the case at very large international airports and if you are booked on connecting flights.

Boarding/exiting the aircraft

By this time, passengers with disabilities might have had gone through as many as three transfers — the transfer from the automobile in the car parking to a shuttle bus to access the terminal, the transfer to a people mover to reach the airstrip, and the use of an electric cart to reach the gate.

The accessibility issues that you will face while boarding or deplaning, especially when travelling on smaller aircrafts or via smaller airports include unavailability of low level loading bridges. This could make it practically impossible for seniors and persons with disabilities from flying to and from a city that uses smaller regional jets and does not have a loading bridge. Many airports tackle this problem by offering mechanical devices, such as manually operated stair-climbers, aircraft boarding lifts, or platform lifts.

If the airport does use a bridge to board the aircraft from the terminal, you could be faced with other accessibility issues, such as its length, gradient, and evenness of surface that you will negotiate.  Obviously, it is crucial to determine if you will need assistance in getting on and off the plane.

Moving inside the aircraft

The most important accessibility issue inside the aircraft is perhaps the width of the aisle to facilitate easy movement. Luckily, most airlines require that disabled passengers are boarded first and disembarked last. This is helpful because it’s easier to move inside an empty aircraft.

Accessing the washrooms

The maneuverability issue gets critical in long distance flights where the proximity of your seat to the washroom decides if you will need to negotiate long distances down the aisle. 
Obviously, it is helpful to book a seat that will allow you easy access to both the washrooms as well as the exit. But do remember that while the cabin crew can provide you with some assistance, they are not allowed to lift passengers in and out of seats during the flight. You will do well to travel with a companion who is better equipped to take care of such situations.

Getting into your seat

One major consideration to keep in mind while requesting for a particular seat is how easily you can get into and out of it. This particular accessibility issue is determined by the width of the seat. Your travel agent can easily inform you of the seat dimensions. Alternately, you can check it out at www.airlinequality.com in the 'airline seating' section.

Also, easy measures such as requesting for an aisle seat with moveable armrest can take care of this problem.


If you are a wheel chair user, remember that during your journey, you can expect to be ‘transferred’ physically from a minimum of two to a maximum of six times from the point where you check in to the point where you claim your baggage at the destination airport. While aircraft personnel are trained to assist you with transferring and lifting, here are some pointers to ensure that these transfers are performed safely:

  • Ask the personnel to explain what they will do beforehand.
  • Do let them know the lifting procedure you are most comfortable with, as well as your best transferring side.
  • Before transferring, make sure that both the chairs are locked and stabilized, and are placed as close as possible.
  • Ensure that you are secured in the boarding chair with straps around the torso and feet to prevent you from slipping or bouncing.

In conclusion

As we move toward a barrier-free society, air travel for people with disabilities continues to improve with more accessible airplanes and airports being constructed and airlines training their staff to be more sensitive to the needs of passengers with disabilities. To ensure that you benefit from these improvements in accessibility, get know your rights and responsibilities as well as those of the air carriers.

Airports need to abide by laws and regulations and give the disabled traveler the same opportunities as the able bodied. Heathrow Airport UK is continually improving existing terminal facilities to cater for the needs of passengers with special needs with wheelchair access and wider pathways, ramps and lifts to aid the wheelchair user. If a stopover is required while traveling to or from London, most of Heathrow Hotels have rooms that are wheelchair accessible. Heathrow Holiday Inn has 10 accessible rooms and is one of the closest to Heathrow Terminals 1, 2 and 3 or alternatively why not try the Luxurious Radisson Edwardian Heathrow with 17 accessible rooms.

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