Air Travel Tips for People with Disabilities
In addition to knowing one's rights under the various laws, there are a few things persons with disabilities should remember and prepare for when traveling by air.
U.S. Air Carrier Access Act
The U.S. Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 prohibits discrimination in airline service on the basis of disability. Subsequent amendments to the ACAA set standards for:
- Boarding assistance via lift devices for smaller aircraft, where level entry boarding is unavailable,
- Seating accommodations for passengers with disabilities,
- Reimbursement for loss of or damage to wheelchairs,
- Application of the law to foreign carriers operating flights to and from the United States,
- Provisions for passengers who use medical oxygen or who are Deaf/hard of hearing,
- Terminal accessibility, and more.
As a result, air travel for people with disabilities has become more accessible. The Association for Airline Passenger Rights continues to advocate for and provide updated information on people with disabilities in air travel.
European Union Laws
On July 26, 2007 a Europe-wide law requiring airports and airlines to meet the needs of disabled air passengers came into force. This European Regulation (1107/2006) focuses on the rights of disabled people and people with reduced mobility in air travel.
Further guidance on Air Passengers' Rights from the European Commissioner of Transport was posted in June 2012 that addressed concerns about pre-notification, unjustified refusals, and problems with medical and mobility equipment.
If experiencing difficulties with air travel in Europe, a complaints form and the national enforcement body for each country is listed on the European Commission website.
- Airline Assistance Hotlines
- Whenever possible, plan and book flights well in advance and inform travel agents and airline representatives of the following:
- Type of disability and equipment aids such as canes, crutches or wheelchairs (manual or power).
- Special dietary requirements or need for assistance at meals (airline personnel are not permitted to assist with eating, but should assist with opening packages and identifying food items on a meal tray).
- Whether another person will accompany the disabled traveler.
- Call the airline directly to ensure that all disability-related needs will be met. Ask for the name and position of each person you speak with and record this information.
- Make arrangements for travel to and from airports. Many U.S. companies like taxis and airport shuttles offer this service free of charge. Make these arrangements well in advance along with your flight arrangements to avoid frustration upon arrival and departure.
- European facilities have call buttons or telephones at designated points to enable you to communicate your arrival at the airport and ask for assistance both outside and inside the terminal building.
- Arrive at the airport one hour earlier than normally advised. This will allow time for accommodations to be made and avoid delays.
- You may want to consider varying the lengths of your flights depending on disability-related needs. Long flights may be uncomfortable, especially for people who cannot use inaccessible airplane toilets. Shorter connecting flights may be a better alternative.
- Allow at least 90 minutes between connecting flights (or longer if required to pass through immigration and customs during a layover) in order to ensure enough time to transfer between gates.
- Air carriers must provide enplaning and deplaning assistance requested by passengers with disabilities, including assistance beyond the screener checkpoints, and between connecting gates, but have discretion in how this assistance is provided. You may also request that an unticketed individual assist you through security to your boarding gate, but individuals who wish to assist passengers with disabilities beyond the screener checkpoint will be required to present themselves at the airline’s check-in desk and receive a "pass" allowing them to go through the screener checkpoint without a ticket.
- Carry personal supplies such as medications (in original containers with prescription), eyeglasses, hearing aid equipment, or other such essentials in your carry-on bag.
- Read more tips from travelers with disabilities, and learn how to prepare your powerchair for flights, strategies for identifying luggage, and more at: Survival Strategies for Going Abroad:A Guide for People with Disabilities.
Be prepared to be flexible and ready to deal with difficult situations.
- Be familiar with the main provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act and airline policies.
- Knowledge is power and familiarity with airline policies can expedite the boarding process and save a lot of potential hassle.
When possible, carry copies of the specific airline policy to support requests in interactions with airline staff. Contact the Customer or “Special Services” department of each airline to request copies of policies on the rights of passengers with disabilities.
Advance research and comparison-shopping are crucial to having a successful flight, as even airlines with the best records can be inconsistent.
- When booking a flight it will show the type of jet for the international leg of the flight, and allow for seat selection (or you could use a travel agent). If sleep is a concern for maintaining your health in flight, view different types of reclining seats at Seat Expert or Seat Guru comparison charts (see the comparison chart sidebar for the differences in space for business and economy premium seats on various long-haul airlines too).
It should be noted that airlines in other countries have significantly different policies regarding service for people with disabilities. Some European airlines have excellent reputations for being very cooperative and helpful to people with disabilities. Others may have virtually no experience with people with disabilities.
Some foreign air carriers may require a medical certificate for all independent air travel by people with disabilities or may even require a personal assistant. If you do not need to travel with a personal assistant, U.S. and Canadian rulings protect passengers with disabilities from being required to bring one, including on foreign flights to/from the United States. For more information, read this section of our personal assistant tip sheet.
All passengers must undergo a security screening process – be patient and cooperative, but know your rights.
On November 22, 2010, a special counselor from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released a letter providing information about TSA screening procedures, including the use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) and "pat downs." The letter addressed how people with disabilities are affected by these screening procedures:
"Some people with disabilities are ineligible for screening using AIT including the following: people who use wheelchairs and scooters who cannot stand; anyone who cannot stand with their arms raised at shoulder level for the 5-7 second duration of the scan; anyone who is not able to stand without the use of a cane, crutch, walker, etc; people who use service animals; people using or carrying oxygen; and individuals accompanying and providing assistance to those individuals described above. These people will be screened using alternate screening techniques including pat-downs."
To view the complete letter, visit the blog from Disability.gov.
If an assistive device can be passed through the security screener without setting it off, it need not be subject to further screening. However, if it does set it off or looks like it could contain a prohibited device or substance, then it will be subject to further screening.
If any person requests a private screening, that screening must be accommodated. If it is requested in a timely manner, airport personnel must complete the screening in time for the passenger to board his/her plane.
Assistive devices such as walking canes, once inspected to ensure prohibited items are not concealed, are permitted in the passenger cabin. Assistive devices such as augmentative communication devices and Braille note takers will go through the same sort of security screening process as that used for personal computers.
Passengers who have special equipment that cannot go through the x-ray machine or body scanner should notify the screeners and request a physical/visual inspection of the equipment. A slate and stylus are permitted on board the aircraft after inspection; however, it may be necessary to advise the security screener of the purpose of the slate and stylus and that it facilitates the passenger's communications.
Service animals, once inspected to ensure prohibited items are not concealed, are permitted on board an aircraft. Any equipment (including, but not limited to, harness, backpack, leash or collar) that is carried on the animal will be manually inspected. If necessary, remind the security screeners that the service animal's belongings should not be removed during the manual inspection.
Syringes are permitted on board an aircraft once it is determined that the person has a documented medical need for the syringe. To show a documented medical need, a passenger must have in his or her possession medication that requires the use of a needle or syringe. The medication must have a professionally printed label identifying the medication or a manufacturer's name or a pharmaceutical label.
Airport personnel in some countries may not be familiar with diabetes-related supplies and equipment such as insulin pumps, which can cause delays at security checkpoints. Carry documentation of all medical equipment, such as insulin pumps, meters, test kits and test strips, to present to airport security during the screening process. Explain to the TSA that an insulin pump is too sensitive to go through the body scanner which can cause the pump to work incorrectly, and request a physical pat down. Learn more: Diabetes and International Exchange.
- The limit of one carry-on bag and one personal bag (purse or briefcase) does not apply to medical supplies and/or assistive devices (including service animals and their equipment). Passengers with disabilities generally may carry medical equipment, medications, and assistive devices on board the aircraft. In the European Union, this is limited to two pieces of equipment for free and people transporting power wheelchairs, service dogs or needing oxygen must let the air carrier know 48 hours in advance.
72 hours prior to travel:
- On January 30, 2012, TSA announced the launch of TSA Cares, a new toll-free helpline number designed to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, prior to getting to the airport. Travelers may call TSA Cares prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. TSA recommends that passengers call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel.
Voice (855) 787-2227
Travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service to contact TSA Cares or can e-mail TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) toll-free hotline is available seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST, to provide assistance on the spot or for upcoming trips and can be a great resource if and when difficulties arise.
Voice (800) 778-4838
TTY (800) 455-9880
The TSA has partially lifted its ban instituted in August 2006 regarding liquids, gels and items of similar consistency on planes, and there are many exceptions for people with disabilities who travel with gels, eye drops and prosthetic equipment that is gel-filled. For updates go to the TSA 311 for Carry-Ons website on liquid gels.
Exceptions to liquid carry-on restrictions for passengers with disabilities:
with a name that matches the passenger’s ticket. Passengers needing over the counter items such as lubricants for catheterizing, liquid nutritional supplements and similar items while in flight should obtain a doctor's note. Also, be prepared to have all such items thoroughly inspected and to answers question regarding their use.
- Up to 5 oz. (148ml) of
- Up to 4 oz. of essential including saline solution, eye care products and KY jelly.
- Gel-filled bras and similar prostethics
- Gel-filled wheelchair cushions
- Life support and life sustaining liquids such as bone marrow, blood products, and transplant organs carried for medical reasons.
- Toiletries such as shampoo, lotion, toothpaste etc. must be in 3 oz. containers (i.e. travel size) and packed in a one quart plastic baggie. All other liquids will continue to be confiscated at security check points.
- Small amounts of if a baby or small child is traveling. While baby formula and breast milk will be permitted past the screening checkpoint and on board, please be aware that these items will be subject to physical inspection. You will not be required to taste these liquids in the presence of a security officer.
To review other items not permitted onboard and aircraft please see.
Passengers should expect delays getting through security and allow plenty of extra time by arriving at the airport well before flight times.
For more security screening information specific to passengers with disabilities please see,.
For Passengers with Mobility Disabilities
For travel on U.S. airlines, people who do not own a wheelchair, but need to use one at the airport, can request one and assistance from airline personnel.
Airline personnel will assist passengers who cannot walk to transfer from a wheelchair to an aisle chair (narrow wheelchair) in order to reach their seats.
Be prepared to instruct airline personnel on the best way to offer assistance during the boarding process.
Travelers using a manual wheelchair can request that their own personal wheelchair be checked at the gate of the aircraft and be brought to the gate upon landing. It will be stored in the cabin if there is room or in the luggage compartment if not. Two days advance notice may be needing for groups of wheelchair users on the same flight or for stowage of a power wheelchair on a flight with less than 60 passenger seats.
- Stowage of a folding wheelchair has priority over the carry-on luggage of other passengers, but does not require removal of carry-on baggage of passengers who boarded at an earlier stop.
- Single-aisle airplanes do not have accessible restrooms, so alternative arrangements need to be made to compensate for inaccessible facilities. For those who may need frequent access to toilet facilities, toilets are available at all points at the airport once through passport control and at the boarding gates, so booking shorter segment flights may help. Travelers may also wish to book flights on double-aisle planes. Airplanes with single aisles and greater than 60 seats can also have an aisle chair on board if requested at least 48 hours in advance. Airline personnel can assist with getting to the lavatory on this aisle chair during flight but are not required to assist to or inside the lavatory.
- In some cases, international exchange participants who require assistance during travel may wish to bring along a travel companion. See the tipsheet Personal Assistants on International Exchange Programs for examples of companies providing this service.
- Passengers using a power wheelchair should see the Power Wheelchairs and Other Electrical Devices for International Travel tip sheet.
- For more information about traveling with a service animal, please see the Guide Dogs and Service Animals While on International Exchange tip sheet.
- Also read this tipsheet on Packing for Easier Travel with a Mobility Disability.
- People who use catheters can find steps for How to Travel with a Urinary Catheter.
Passengers with vision disabilities may ask at check-in to have the assistance of a sighted guide to airport gates or can ask that a gate agent be alerted to their arrival and arrange assistance as needed.
- If traveling with a service dog, there are specific air travel regulations in place that are summarized on the tipsheet Guide Dogs and Service Animals While on International Exchange. Otherwise download a full PDF document of the 14 CFR Part 382 regulations "Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation"
from the Department of Transportation.
- Air carriers must ensure that qualified individuals with a disability, including those with vision or hearing disabilities, have timely access to information (such as new security measures) that the carriers provide to other passengers. For example, on flights to Reagan Washington National Airport, persons are verbally warned to use the restrooms more than half an hour before arrival since after that point in time passengers are required to remain in their seats. This can be accomplished through written instruction from carrier personnel or alternative formats, such as visual messaging, for Deaf and hard of hearing passengers.
For passengers with hearing disabilities, telescreens are provided in most airports and U.S. airlines offer captioned safety videos.
- For travelers with hearing devices such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, external component of cochlear implants, and middle ear implants are generally not affected by X-ray inspection, the walk-through metal detector, or the hand-held metal detector. However, if concerned or uncomfortable with going through the walk-thorough metal detector, or are uneasy with having the external component of one's cochlear implant X-rayed, ask for a full body pat-down of your person and a visual and physical inspection of the exterior component while it remains on.
In order to get prompt and appropriate assistance, travelers with non-apparent disabilities may need to be particularly assertive and articulate.
- Airport escorts are sometimes available to guide individuals through the airport, which can be useful to people with autism, a brain injury or a developmental disability. In the United States an unticketed parent or personal assistant can receive a permit to pass through security at the originating airport. Some exchange programs may also arrange for participants to fly together as a group.
- Crossing time zones during air travel may present challenges related to taking medication or adjusting sleep schedules. Some travelers start to adjust their schedules gradually while in transit, while others change to a new schedule after adjusting to the new time zone. Consult with your physician and/or with experienced travelers with similar disabilities for guidance on making these adjustments.
- People who have difficulty handling unexpected situations or stress may wish to plan ahead for air travel by identifying coping mechanisms, such as listening to music on a portable electronic device, using ear plugs during flights, etc.
- For people with multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory conditions or other health-related disabilities, be aware of the possible "disinsection" or spraying of aircraft with insecticide. It's to prevent transport of mosquitoes and other bugs carrying deadly diseases. Worldwide, 49 countries require disinsection, according to an article by Deborah Oaks. Before traveling, find out if your flight uses disinsection or if your airplane has been sprayed in the past month (as airplanes are used for both domestic and international purposes). Connect with the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides to learn about their efforts towards the use of non-chemical disinsection on flights. And, read more about "bleed air" online at CNN's American Morning report Toxic Air Flights.
- Information for people living with HIV/AIDS and air travel can be found at: HIV/AIDS and International Exchange Planning
- For people on the autism spectrum, suggestions on navigating airports can be read more at: Autism Spectrum / Asperger Syndrome and International Exchange
- For passengers who need access to oxygen, learn more on our tipsheet: Oxygen and International Travel.
- People with epilepsy can find useful suggestions online in International Travel with Epilepsy and Traveller's Handbook for People with Epilepsy.
Adapted from Mobility International USA’s Building Bridges: A Manual on Including People with Disabilities in International Exchange
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