For power chair users, getting there isn’t always half the fun. With power chairs more sophisticated than ever and air travel often unpredictable, it can be a nerve-wracking experience wondering if your power chair survives the baggage compartment. We’ve asked our expert peers, wheelchair manufacturers and airlines for their best tips to traveling like a pro so your power chair arrives intact at your destination!
7 Tips for Power Chair Travel Made Easy!
● In Canada, power chairs must be accommodated on flights greater than 60 seats, and are carried in a priority cargo area under the plane. Not every power chair fits every plane, because cargo doors vary from plane to plane, and power chair dimensions can vary widely. Cargo doors vary in size with the size of the aircraft, and not every power chair will fit every aircraft.
● Many airlines have a policy of disconnecting battery leads, even on non-spillable batteries due to the risk of spark and fire from battery cells in flight. Lithium batteries must be disconnected and stored in a special pouch provided by the traveler.
● Most power chairs must be transported up a narrow conveyor belt to be loaded into the plane, and many must be tipped back to fit through the cargo door. Any part of the chair that doesn’t fit easily through the cargo door or sticks out from your chair’s frame risks getting caught and damaged while being stowed.
● Understand what you can expect as a traveler with a disability – each country has regulations about the accessibility of air travel that covers air travel within that country, and airlines based in that country. Canada, USA
GETTING READY TO TRAVEL
1. Reach out in advance and advise the agent or medical desk of your power chair. Have the measurements and approximate weight of your power chair handy when you book your flight so that the agent can verify that your power chair will fit the cargo door. Some airlines (Air Canada, Central Mountain Air) may provide details of cargo door dimensions on their websites which can help you with trip planning.
2. Clear your batteries with the booking agent (lead acid batteries are never allowed; Lithium batteries have some restrictions). In general, airlines will accept non-spillable batteries that are affixed to your power chair and spillable batteries that can be disconnected and crated separately. It pays to check first!
3. Get additional insurance to protect your chair against damage from loading and off-loading. Although many airlines have limits to the baggage damage insurance they offer, wheelchair users have protections within Canada and many other countries that require airlines to replace or repair the vehicle. Trip cancellation is also a good idea, in case you have to cancel your trip due to damage to your chair or a health issue, you can recoup many of the costs of the trip and travel another day!
4. Think inside the box! If your chair is very valuable, fragile or you’re handy like peer Chris Marks, consider having a freight crate custom made to protect your chair. Chris built a collapsible plywood box for his chair that he could tow behind his chair and store at the destination airport (for a fee). Going this route requires you to use an airport wheelchair once your chair is crated and taken by cargo handlers and the crate can be quite a surprise to most airline and security staff, so expect questions!
HOW TO GET YOUR CHAIR READY
1. Get it ready: Make sure your chair is in good repair before you leave – have the brakes, battery, and any moving parts checked so that malfunction doesn’t make your chair more difficult for you or airline staff to handle. This is a good time to connect with your wheelchair repair shop for suggestions on how to secure delicate parts in transit.
2. Don’t forget your tools: Pack basic tools that work with your chair, including a tire patching kit, alan wrenches, crescent wrench and manual pump, and any tools required to disconnect or reconnect the leads on your battery. Ground crew often have a tool kit for the same purpose but you are in the best position to know exactly what tools your chair requires. If you have a traveling companion, brief them on basic chair functions and how to disconnect and reconnect the battery, in case it’s not possible for it to be done before you embark.
3. Give them a sign: prepare a sign for your chair that includes your contact details, some basic information about your chair (dimensions, weight and type of battery), how to disconnect the battery, and a few simple instructions for
transporting it, such as where the batteries are, what to push, and where to lift. Air Canada even provides a great information sheet that you can tape to your chair and carry a copy with you (ProTip: no reason why you can’t use it even if you’re traveling on another airline – just cross out the AC logo!).
4. Don’t forget your power! Make sure you pack your battery charger and any adapter you might need for your destination.
JUST BEFORE DEPARTURE
1. Stay with your power chair until just before you board the plane and make sure to get a gate check tag for your chair that has your flight number, name and destination on it. Power and manual chair users are can use their own wheelchairs to get to the gate, enabling you to be present when baggage crew come for your chair.
2. Don’t leave your cushion on your chair when you are boarding – you can ask your flight attendants or crew to carry your cushion on board the flight and either leave it on your seat or stow it in the overhead compartment. Even velcroed cushions can be punctured or torn in transit and pose a huge risk to your skin.
3. Have your traveling companion escort your chair to the loading area and brief ground crew/baggage handlers. You can’t always do this but baggage handlers often appreciate not having to figure out your chair themselves.
4. Get tagged: Make sure to get a priority and gate check wheelchair tag for your chair before you board the plane. This makes sure your chair is marked as priority baggage and won’t be left behind if the cargo hold gets full!
5. Fold in and secure everything on your chair that sticks out or is movable. For example the joystick/control unit and any other fragile components, especially anything that extends outside the chair’s frame can be folded in toward the seat and taped down to avoid catching on the baggage ramp or cargo door. Bring a roll of tape in your cabin baggage so you can secure everything again on the return trip. Arrive early and ask for assistance from gate agents if needed.
6. Know your circuit breaker on your chair and leave a copy of your chair’s manual page about the circuit breaker attached to your chair. Instruct the ground crew to turn it off while you’re there. If you have one on your chair, it may allow you to turn the whole chair off and isolate the battery at the same time, keeping your battery safe for flight and your chair’s electronics intact.
That’s it! Traveling in a power chair requires a bit more planning, but with a little research and some knowledge about your own needs and equipment, you’ll be on your way to your next adventure (and don’t forget to send us pictures!).