In the Air with a Chair

A friend received one of those worst-nightmare phone calls. Her husband had had a skiing accident out West and was about to undergo emergency surgery on a very smashed-up knee.

Another friend took her mother, who had trouble walking, to a family wedding across the country. What did these friends have in common? Air travel with a wheelchair. 

As a care provider, I have had some experience with wheelchairs and transport chairs. While both can move a seated person from place to place, they are actually two different pieces of equipment. The biggest difference is the weight. If the rider has enough upper-body strength, he or she can self-propel the wheelchair, giving that person some independence. The lighter-weight transport chair is a better choice if the rider needs to be pushed. It maneuvers better in tight spots and over curbs, and it’s easier to get in and out of the back seat or trunk of a car, but it isn’t designed to be self-propelled. 

If you find yourself traveling by air with someone in either type of chair, your best bet is to enlist a driver to drop you both off at the airport entrance. That way you won’t leave your chair-borne companion unattended while you search for long-term parking. Call the airline ahead of time to evaluate your in-airport transportation options at both arrivals and departures. The airport may have an electric cart driven by an attendant to take passengers to and from the gate. Ask about stowing the chair on the plane as you board versus checking it with luggage.

When you book the trip, tell the airline you will be traveling with someone in a chair. This will help you avoid unexpected problems on the day of travel. My friend whose husband smashed his knee learned by calling that she needed to reserve (and pay for) three seats in a row to accommodate his leg cast. Other helpful booking tips: try to travel off-peak and reserve what’s called an “aisle chair”—a narrow wheelchair that can transport your companion on and off the plane, as well as to the restroom in flight. Airlines and airports vary, so you will need to gather information to ease both your departure and your arrival. 

The complexities of traveling with someone in a wheelchair are just as important to consider for everyday journeys on the ground. Not long ago I took a woman in a wheelchair to a doctor’s appointment and was surprised by how hard it was to get her from my car to the examination table because of the narrow halls and standard-size doorways. There are laws in place that require buildings to be accessible for wheelchairs but it seems to me they sometimes fall short, especially—and irrationally—in medical buildings. 

You may not realize it, but pushing a chair is more complicated than it looks. There are safety issues. You need to know, for example, when and how to use the hand brake and the proper way to lift a person in and out of a chair if a transfer is necessary. Do wear nonskid shoes. You also need to know how to fold the chair to transport it and how to set it up securely. offers a Q&A with invaluable advice for you and your passenger.

I suggest that first timers get familiar with the chair ahead of time—test drive! And if it’s a transport chair, provide a seat cushion for the rider because those chairs lack padding. Try to keep a sense of humor, because you are going to need it, and, above all, always allow more time than you think you’ll need!