Travellers with a disability
If you or someone you are travelling with has a disability our tips and advice can help you fly safely.
The key to a safe and comfortable trip is planning
Travelling with a disability requires careful planning, persuasive skills and occasionally, assertiveness. When you fly, know your needs and be prepared to describe them calmly and with confidence to someone who doesn't.
A good practice is to be informed, be firm and be polite. Understand that you do have rights and that airlines and airports are bound by legislation to provide services for people with disabilities. In all your communication get names, in the case of either good service or bad, and write them down. This lets the person know they are accountable for their actions.
When planning a trip by air, consider:
- is the airport and aircraft accessible? Check the airline or airport's Disability Access Facilitation Plan (DAFP) on their website
- are there aerobridges for embarking and disembarking? If not, what will be the procedure for getting on and off the aircraft if stairs are not an option?
- is the aircraft toilet accessible by aisle chairs (ie width of door, grab bars, lever taps, and manoeuvring floor space)?
- are there moveable armrests on the plane for easier transfer between the aisle chair and the seat?
- what arrangements are in place for transporting and storing a wheelchair, including the battery? Take note also that if you're travelling outside your own country, you may need a voltage converter if you plan to use electrical appliances or have a power wheelchair.
- is assistance available at the baggage area?
- can a passenger with a disability board before the other passengers?
- what facilities are available in an emergency for vision and hearing impaired passengers (eg Braille/large print book explaining emergency procedures, cabin layout and facilities)?
You can generally get this information from your airline by phone or a service such as TTY.
You do not have to provide the airline with advance notice of your intent to travel or your disability, but it will give the airline more time to prepare and ensure any required equipment is available.
Some airlines require advance notice to transport an electric wheelchair, as it must be stowed as luggage and requires specific treatment. This can take some time. Reduce this potential inconvenience by arranging it in advance with the airline and allowing sufficient time before the flight. Be sure to speak to each airline you are flying with.
Having details available of the type of battery installed when making arrangements will help the airline as they must follow certain regulations when transporting wheelchair batteries.
If you provide the required notice, but have to fly with another airline (eg the flight is cancelled), the original airline should provide assistance.
Tell the airline as much as possible about your access requirements and what they can do to assist.
When making bookings advise the airline of any particular needs (e.g. movable armrests and accessible toilets). Not all aircraft will have these or other necessary facilities available. If you require aisle seating request this when making the booking.
Ensure you understand what they offer and what you can expect from them. If you are not satisfied with the service offered, contact the airline's complaints department. Phone around to find the airline which offers a service that will best suit your individual or group needs.
Always double check and reconfirm reservations and specific arrangements well in advance, even if this means getting it in writing. You are advised to double-check that the following are correctly identified:
- list of all disability-related services for which a commitment has been made
- date, time and place of departure
- check in time
- seat assignment
- on board services provided, including meals to be served, etc
- number and length of stops, including overnight stopovers.
The airline may require a carer or assistant to be present when transporting:
- a person travelling on a stretcher or in an incubator (where this service is offered)
- an intellectually disabled person who is unable to comprehend or respond to safety instructions
- a mobility impaired person who is unable to assist in their own evacuation.
Arrive early. Some airlines offer a customer assistance officer to help passengers with check-in and boarding processes. Phone ahead to find out what services are available.
Some airports offer a shuttle system, people movers, moving walkways or kerbside baggage check-in to help people with a disability. Find out if the airport offers kerbside service such as collecting bags, pushing wheelchairs, helping with check-in, and so on. There should be an accessible route from the airport entrance to the check-in counters, baggage handling areas and boarding locations, without expecting travellers with a disability to navigate any further than travellers who do not have a disability. Baggage facilities should be designed and operated to provide efficient baggage handling for all concerned.
Airlines cannot restrict the movements of passengers in terminals, including those with a disability. Nor can they require them to remain in a holding area or other location while waiting for transport or assistance.
If travelling with an accredited assistance dog or guide dog, present your dog's accredited ID card or acceptable documentation at the time of check-in.
People with disabilities must undergo the same security screening as everyone else. Security personnel will examine any assistive device they believe is capable of concealing a prohibited item.
Any passenger who activates the security system when they pass through it is subject to further screening. Some airports use a handheld device which allows a complete screening without having to physically search the person. If this method is unavailable a physical search may be necessary. At the passenger's request the search must be done in private. Further screenings cannot be required for any different reason than for the non-disabled, however they may take more time.
Further information on airport security screening for passengers with disability can be found on the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development's website.
- Ensure all equipment is clearly labelled and identifiable. Remove seat cushions and any other parts that could easily become separated and lost. Keep these items with you as carry-on luggage.
- Some assistive devices may need to be disassembled in order to be transported. If you have concerns you may want to attach assembly and disassembly instructions to all mobility devices. Chances are the people who disassemble the item won't be the same as those reassembling it.
- If a stopover is involved in the trip, request that equipment be returned for this period. This will give added independence and reduce the risk of things getting lost or damaged.
- Wheelchairs and other assistive devices stowed in the cargo hold should be given priority over cargo and baggage. They should be the first items unloaded. Mobility aids should be returned to their owner as close as possible to the door of the aircraft unless otherwise requested by the passenger.
- The airline is obligated to return them to passengers in the condition they were received in. Always be sure to inspect belongings for any damage as soon as the destination has been reached.
You do not need to sign a waiver of liability for damage or loss of wheelchairs or other assistive devices. The airline should make note of any pre-existing defect to the device.
You are entitled to bring on board and use ventilators and respirators powered by non-spillable batteries. These assistive devices do not count towards carry-on baggage limits.
Travellers with disabilities are permitted to board the aircraft before the other passengers. This eliminates being jostled and rushed by other passengers and the crew can offer their personal assistance.
You will generally be the first to board the plane and the last to disembark, although flight personnel may ask if you wish to disembark before or after the other passengers. You can decline the offer of pre-boarding if you wish. Tell the crew about any specific needs when pre-boarding.
Where possible embarking and disembarking medium and large aircraft is done by level boarding ramps, jet ways, mobile lounges or lifts. Where these are not available, a lifting device, other than that used for freight, must be provided to assist passengers with limited mobility safely on and off the aircraft. Passengers should not be hand carried on and off the aircraft.
Trained service personnel who understand how to assist individuals with a disability in embarking and disembarking should be made available by the airline.
The airline is responsible for providing assistance to you in reaching a connecting flight. The airline cannot leave you unattended for more than 30 minutes in a device in which you are not independently mobile.
If you are able and happy to walk to your seat you should feel free to do so. There is plenty to hold onto for support. If you are unable to walk you will need to be transferred to an aisle chair.
If an aisle seat was requested but not allocated, ask the cabin crew to swap your seat for another. Being stuck sitting in the middle seat could make it very difficult to get to a restroom during a long flight. Passengers in wheelchairs are required to transfer to an aisle chair for transfer to their seat. Certain types of aircraft have movable armrests on some aisle seating which enables an easier transfer between the chairs.
Explain to the crew exactly what they can do to help
Anyone who cannot act without assistance or lacks sufficient mobility, strength, dexterity, vision, hearing, speech, reading or comprehension abilities to perform emergency evacuation functions are prohibited from sitting in certain seats, such as exit row seats.
Canes and other mobility aids may be stored under seats or in overhead compartments. Small items such as cushions may be kept in the cabin with the passenger as hand luggage.
Before landing remind the cabin crew that your mobility equipment is required at the gate. They can then ensure the necessary arrangements are in place.
Assistance by cabin crew
Cabin crew may assist a passenger with a disability to:
- move to and from their seat as part of the embarking and disembarking process
- open packages and identify food
- use aisle chairs when moving to and from the toilet
- move to and from the toilet in the case of a semi-ambulant person
- load and retrieve carry-on items, including mobility aids and other assistive devices stowed on board the aircraft
- ensure that all passengers receive a briefing they understand.
Note that cabin crew are not required to provide assistance with eating, assistance inside a toilet or medical services for a person with a disability. Cabin crew are also not required to provide assistance with lifting or carrying a passenger.
Many airlines offer additional services such as upper torso restraints, if you have difficulty sitting upright, and leg support bridges if you are unable to bend your legs while seated. Again it is important to contact your airline to confirm what services are available and to arrange in advance for these services to be provided.
Many difficulties stem from lack of awareness of the issues. Communicate your needs to the cabin crew and be sure that the cabin crew inform you what the options are and what you can expect.
Travel tips for wheelchair users
When making reservations
Some things to consider when making airline reservations:
- book as far in advance as possible
- tell the reservations person that you will be travelling with a wheelchair or scooter
- inform them if you need assistance with boarding such as an aisle chair to get to your seat
- if it is a long flight and you are able to use a standard restroom but are unable to walk to the restroom, ask that they make the aisle chair available to you during the flight
- confirm that the airline has a record of your requests at least 48 hours prior to departure
- some aircraft designs have moveable armrests that lift up on certain aisle seats. You can request to be seated in one of these (if available) to make it easier to transfer from the aisle chair.
Make sure you know:
- the best way for you to be transferred between chairs
- how to disassemble and reassemble your chair for transport
- how to complete minor repairs (it might help to carry a couple of essential tools with you)
- contact details of a reputable wheelchair repair business at your destination, just in case it's needed.
At the airport
Arrive early and get a gate check tag during check in. This tag, attached to your chair, lets the ground crew know to bring your chair to the gate when your plane arrives, rather than to the baggage claim area. You will generally be the first to board the plane and the last to disembark although flight personnel may ask if you wish to disembark before or after the other passengers.
If you use a fold up manual wheelchair you can request that it be stowed in the on board coat closet, if the plane has one. This is at the discretion of the flight crew and space may not always be available.
Transport of wheelchairs
Airline operators require all types of wheelchairs to be checked luggage. In particular, electric wheelchairs have their own special requirements for air transport. All electric chairs must be stowed as checked luggage so it is important to minimise the possibility of damage during transit. Remove seat cushions and any other parts that could easily become separated from the chair. It is a good idea to disconnect and remove any battery wires that may be visible to the ground crew. Electrical connections may make them nervous and they have been known to remove them before they load the chair into the cargo hold. For transporting ease airlines much prefer gel or dry cell batteries to traditional acid filled ones.
Some disassembly may be required for transport so consider attaching some how-to instructions to your chair. Remember it also has to be reassembled at the other end by a different ground crew who may not be experienced in such procedures. For this reason it's probably a good idea to travel with some basic maintenance tools for your wheelchair.
If you are unable to walk from your wheelchair to your seat in the aircraft, you'll transfer to a carry-on or aisle chair for the trip down the aisle. You can't ride your chair onto the plane - it simply won't fit.
An aisle chair is a tall, skinny, high-backed chair designed to fit down the narrow aisle of an aircraft. It has retaining straps to hold you in and is quite stable. Even so it might be a good idea to take your own leg strap just in case you need to strap your legs into the chair.
Most planes are fitted with some aisle seating that has a movable or lift up armrest. This enables an easier transfer from the aisle chair. If you require assistance transferring to the plane seat, let the crew know how to help you. If an aisle seat was requested but not allocated, ask the cabin crew to swap your seat for another. Being stuck sitting in a middle seat could make it very difficult to get to a restroom during a long flight.
Certain types of aircraft have a privacy curtain that includes the aisle to allow a companion to assist you. All aircraft toilets are small and not all restrooms have disabled facilities. Ask the reservations person for as much information about the facilities on the type of plane you will be flying on.
Large wide bodied aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Boeing 767, Boeing 777, Boeing 787, Airbus A330, Airbus A340 and Airbus A380 have at least one accessible restroom. Some are large enough to accommodate the aisle chair inside, making it possible to transfer to the toilet. These planes generally carry an aisle chair on board but check this when making your reservation.
- HREOC - disability standards and guidelines
- Australian Attorney-General's Department - human rights and anti-discrimination
- Australian Federal Register of Legislation - disability standards for accessible public transport 2002
- Disability Access Facilitation Plan
Note: While the links below provide valuable information, they are not necessarily relevant to the Australian regulations. If you are in doubt about anything, please contact your airline.
- Canadian Transportation Agency - a guide for people with disabilities
- Wheelchair travel
- Travel health online - valuable information when preparing for air travel
- US Department of Transport - air travel tips