What travellers need and can expect
- Preparing for air travel
- Advance information
- Making the booking
- Carers and assistants
- Medical requirements
- At the airport
- Mobility aids and assistive devices
- Assistance animals
- On board
- In an emergency
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, the answers to the following questions should be seriously considered:
- is the airport and plane accessible?
- are there aerobridges for embarking and disembarking? If not, what will be the procedure for getting on and off the plane if stairs are not an option?
- is the plane toilet accessible by aisle chairs (ie width of door, grab bars, lever taps, 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 disabled passenger 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)?
All travellers are entitled to information regarding facilities and services available on their flight, including:
- limitations which are known to the carrier concerning the ability of the aircraft to accommodate an individual with a disability;
- the location of seats with movable aisle armrests and any seats which the carrier does not make available to an individual with a disability such as exit row seats;
- limitations on storage facilities in the cabin or in the cargo bay for mobility aids or other necessary equipment; and
- availability of an accessible lavatory.
This information is generally available upon request by phone from the airline concerned. Carriers must provide a comparable information service for people with a hearing impairment most likely via a TTY service. There should be no difference between the quality of the information service provided for disabled travellers and non-disabled travellers.
Travellers are not obliged to provide the airline with advance notice of their intent to travel or their disability, however it is to the travellers advantage if they do. It gives the airline more time to prepare and ensure any required equipment is available. If the airline is aware of how they can assist, it should result in a smoother and more comfortable trip for all involved.
Some airlines require advance notice to transport an electric wheelchair, as it must be stowed as luggage and requires specific treatment. The procedures the airlines must follow are time consuming and can unfortunately involve inconvenience to the passenger. This can be reduced by making advance arrangements with the airline as early as possible before the proposed flight, and allowing sufficient time for any necessary preparation of the wheelchair for flight. Should travel involve more than one airline, arrangements should be made with each airline. 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 a passenger provides the required notice, but has to fly with another carrier (eg the flight is cancelled), the original carrier should provide assistance to the second carrier in furnishing the accommodation requested by the individual.
CASA's prime responsibility in this area is to ensure that the presence of a guide dog or assistance dog, in the cabin of an aircraft, does not affect a person on the aircraft in a way that may adversely affect the safety of the aircraft. Recently there has been a re-evaluation of the requirements relating to the carriage of guide dogs and other assistance dogs in the passenger cabin of an aircraft.
While the Australian Civil Aviation Regulations have generally accepted the carriage of dogs accompanying a blind or hearing impaired person, the carriage of other assistance animals requires specific approval from CASA. Taking into consideration the growing use of assistance dogs in the community, CASA has now allowed some airlines to accept, for carriage in the cabin of an aircraft, dogs, which have been accredited by specific charitable organisations who are full members of “Assistance Dogs International”, without recall to CASA.
Should the airline wish to accept assistance dogs, for travel in the cabin, which fall outside the recently established criteria then special permission, must still be obtained from CASA.
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 (eg. 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. Travellers 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.
If you travel with an accredited assistance dog or guide dog, this should be made known at time of booking. This will assist to ensure your dog's accredited ID card meets the operator’s requirements. It should also assist in a smooth check in for you and your dog.
You should always be cognisant of the fact, however, that it is still a matter for the operator, having regard for the safety of the aircraft and its occupants, to decide whether an assistance dog will be carried or not.
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; or
Cabin crew cannot provide personal care such as assistance in the toilet or administering medication due to Occupational Health and Safety regulations.
Airlines are not required to provide medical oxygen, carry incubators, hook-up respirators or accommodate a passenger who must travel on a stretcher. If the airline chooses to provide these services, they will require advance notice and an early check in. There also may be a charge for this service.
Carry all medications in hand baggage along with details of the condition and treatment. This will aid the cabin crew or any doctors who may need to offer treatment during the trip.
Be aware of the side effects of drugs and medications when combined with the flight environment (eg less oxygen). If unsure, check with the doctor or medical advisor before the flight.
Most people, particularly those with permanent and stable conditions, will not require medical clearance before travelling. It is important to check at the time of booking what information will be required.
A disability is not sufficient grounds for an airline to request a medical certificate. Medical certificates are only required if the passenger:
- is on a stretcher, in an incubator or needs medical oxygen during the flight;
- has a medical condition which may require extraordinary medical assistance or may not enable them to complete the flight safely; or
- has a communicable disease or infection which can be transmitted during a flight.
Arrive at the airport early. Some airlines offer a customer assistance officer to help passengers with check in and boarding processes. Phone ahead to find out exactly what services are available.
Some airports offer a shuttle system, people movers, moving walkways or kerbside baggage check-in. This assists with the movement of travellers with a disability and their luggage between parking lots, terminal buildings and gates. Find out if the airport offers kerbside service (ie collecting bags, pushing wheelchairs, helping with tickets, etc).
Areas such as disabled parking bays, ticketing counters, baggage check in and retrieval areas, restrooms, telephones and medical aid facilities should be clearly marked and easily accessible.
There should be an accessible route from the airport entrance to the ticket 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 any other member of the travelling public. If they pass through the security system without activating it they shall not be subject to any extra screening procedures. Security personnel are free to 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. It should be provided in a timely manner to ensure flights aren't missed.
Further screenings cannot be required for any different reason than for the non-disabled, however they may take more time.
All individuals with disabilities including those with a hearing or vision impairment should have timely access to the same information provided to the general public, including:
- scheduled departure times and gates
- change of gate assignments
- status of flight delays
- schedule changes
- flight check-in
- checking and claiming of luggage.
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.
Passengers 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.
Passengers are entitled to bring on board and use ventilators and respirators powered by non-spillable batteries. These assistive devices shall 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 cabin 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. Passengers have the option to decline the offer of pre-boarding if they wish. However if they choose to board with the rest of the passengers they will be fighting others to get to their seats.
Tell the cabin crew about any specific needs when pre-boarding. This will enable cabin crew to take note of requests before the cabin becomes chaotic and fills with other passengers.
Embarking and disembarking
Where possible embarking and disembarking medium and large aircraft is done by level boarding ramps, jetways, 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 the passenger in reaching a connecting flight. The airline cannot leave a passenger unattended for more than 30 minutes in a device in which the passenger is not independently mobile.
Down the aisle
Passengers who are able and happy to walk to their seat should feel free to do so. There is plenty to hold onto for support. If the passenger is unable to walk they 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 the cabin crew exactly what they can do to help. Chances are they have just as much anxiety about transferring assistance and boarding as the passengers do. Cabin crew are more likely to be co-operative and happy when they are aware of what is needed and expected.
Anyone who can not act without assistance, lacks sufficient mobility, strength, dexterity, vision, hearing, speech, reading or comprehension abilities to perform emergency evacuation functions are prohibited from sitting in certain seats (eg exit row seats). These seats are to be occupied by passengers with the most potential to be able to operate emergency exits and help in an aircraft evacuation.
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.
Accredited assistance dog or guide dog
Accredited assistance dogs or guide dogs accepted for travel in the cabin will generally be provided with an absorbent mat to lie on. They can accompany their companion to their seat, where arrangements should be made for restraint to prevent them from moving from the mat. If an obstruction is likely you may be assigned another seat. Check with the airline about any specific arrangements that need to be made for the assistance dog.
Assistance by cabin crew
Cabin crew shall 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; and
- ensure that all passengers get a briefing in a form 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 phone ahead to ascertain what services are available and to arrange well in advance for these services to be provided.
Many difficulties stem from lack of awareness of the issues. Passengers should communicate their needs to the cabin crew and likewise the cabin crew should inform the passenger what the options are and what they can expect.
In most serious emergencies, there may be others who are unconscious or injured and thus need immediate assistance. Evacuation of unattended passengers with a disability who require assistance would proceed in the same manner as these others. However, of greater concern is the more frequent type of accident where initial damage is limited but very little time is available for evacuation.
It is the responsibility of the cabin crew to ensure that all passengers get a briefing in a form they understand. In most instances verbal and auditory measures are enough. All airlines should provide special format safety information such as large print or braille briefing cards for passengers unable to access the video and cabin crew safety demonstrations. It's a good idea to let the cabin crew know in advance that you require this service.
In the unfortunate occurrence of an emergency adopt a brace position as best as is possible. Once the plane has come to a stop the cabin crew are well trained in how to move passengers with a disability from the aircraft to safety.
For more information on brace positions and emergency procedures, see the section on what to do in an emergency.
- 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.