Airline travel can be frustrating for everyone, but it is particularly difficult for seniors who have limited mobility and other special needs. It was especially “unfriendly flying” during Covid-19 and the travel disruptions brought on by historic weather conditions. The guide below explores the flying challenges faced by disabled and senior travelers from reservations, airport screening, assistance with flight attendants, traveling with a companion, and other issues of interest to disabled travelers. Fortunately, a federal law known as the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) makes airline travel easier for individuals with disabilities. That law originally regulated airlines that are based in the United States. It now applies to foreign airlines when their flights take off from or land at an airport in the United States. Together with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), federal law requires substantial accommodation of disabled passengers. A companion piece here flushes out the rules regarding service animals and an accessible lavatory, as well as lays out a handy chart of disability accommodations by airline carrier.
Many airlines go beyond the requirements imposed by the ACAA and the ADA. Most airlines have a “special needs desk” that is dedicated to answering questions posed by disabled passengers. Since the airline employees who staff those departments are specially trained, seniors who need assistance with travel will usually receive better customer service by contacting an airline’s special needs representative. It is particularly important to contact that department in advance when passengers are in a wheelchair or will need to bring medical devices on board the aircraft.
Planning ahead is crucial for seniors whose ability to travel is impaired. Here is a step-by-step guide to the issues seniors and their family members should think about when planning a trip that includes one or more flights.
Getting Through Airports and Screening
Assistance at Airport Gates
Accommodations On Board the Aircraft
Every airline in the United States accepts reservation requests via telecommunication devices used by hearing-impaired passengers (TDD). The airline’s TDD telephone number can be found on its website.
Passengers who need specific accommodations should notify the airline (usually by calling its special needs number) at least 48 hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. Subject to availability, passengers may request aisle seats, movable armrests, seats with greater legroom, and adjoining seats for traveling companions who are providing assistance.
Seat selection is often the key to assuring that an elderly traveler’s mobility issues can be accommodated. When making a reservation, make sure to specify the nature of your disability and ask for a seat that you can easily access. For example, on a Boeing 747-400 that has an upper and lower deck, an elderly passenger might want to avoid a seat on the upper deck, which can only be reached by climbing stairs.
Traveling with a companion
When an elderly passenger is traveling with a companion, be sure to alert the person taking the reservation of the need for adjacent seating. When a passenger suffers from Alzheimer’s or any other cognitive disability, or when the passenger suffers from a disability that produces erratic behavior, the airline might require a companion to accompany the passenger on the flight.
Getting Through Airports and Screening
Airlines lease ticket and counter space from airports. The airport authority that manages the airport is responsible for providing accessible lavatories and other accommodations within the airport.
Assistance with transportation within the airport, including transportation between gates on an electronic cart or wheelchair, is provided by the airline. At some airports, curbside assistance is available from skycaps who are employed by individual airlines. At smaller airports, a request for curbside assistance may need to be made to gate agents inside the airport.
Security screening is the responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Registering for the TSA PreCheck® allows passengers to expedite screening. Passengers in the program are not required to remove belts, shoes, light jackets, or laptops before walking through the screening device. About 85 airlines at 200 airports within the United States participate in the TSA PreCheck® program. Passengers who are 75 or older are not usually required to remove their shoes or light jackets during screening, even if they have not been approved for the TSA PreCheck® program.
Passengers who need to bring prescription medications on board the plane are exempt from the limitations that apply to carry-on liquids. Be sure to bring a copy of your prescription and to keep the medicine in its original labeled container. You should also notify the TSA officer of medical devices such as syringes, IV bags, and pumps that you want to carry onto the plane.
Passengers in a wheelchair are asked to walk through the screening device if they can do so without assistance. Passengers who cannot walk through the screening device are subject to a pat-down search. The wheelchair will also be screened. Removable parts may be x-rayed. Passengers who can stand but not walk will be asked to stand next to their wheelchair during that process. Passengers can ask for the pat-down search to take place in a private area within the airport to avoid embarrassment.
Under most circumstances, disabled passengers are briefly separated from their traveling companions during screening. Traveling companions who are not disabled must undergo the usual screening procedures. An exception is made, however, for passengers who suffer from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Traveling companions are allowed to remain with those passengers during screening. It is advisable to bring medical documentation of the disabled passenger’s mental status to assure appropriate treatment by TSA officers.
Assistance at Airport Gates
Gate agents are employed by the airlines. A disabled passenger in need of special assistance at the gate should notify the gate agent. In particular, disabled passengers with hearing or visual impairments should notify the gate agent so they do not miss announcements of flight changes or delays.
Gate agents can arrange for assistance transporting passengers between connecting gates. Airlines are required to provide that assistance promptly and are never allowed to leave a passenger in a wheelchair unattended for more than 30 minutes. In 2013, U.S. Airways (which subsequently merged with American Airlines) paid a substantial fine due to passenger complaints about delays in transferring disabled passengers between gates.
Airports that accommodate larger aircraft typically have a bridge between the gate and the jet. Smaller airports and those that serve smaller aircraft do not always provide direct boarding from the gate. When passengers need to exit the building to board the plane, airlines make lift devices available for passengers who cannot climb stairs to enter the aircraft. Note that airlines are not required to provide lifting devices if the airplane has less than eighteen seats. A “boarding chair” is usually used to board disabled passengers on those airplanes.
Passengers who need assistance boarding an aircraft should make that request to a gate agent as soon as they arrive at the gate. Airlines are required to make pre-boarding available to disabled passengers who request extra time to board. Be sure to advise the gate agent in advance if you want to take advantage of pre-boarding.
Accommodations On Board the Aircraft
Passengers with visual or hearing disabilities should notify a flight attendant. In-flight announcements will be personally conveyed to passengers who may not have heard or seen them due to a disability. Flight attendants can also provide sight-impaired passengers with safety information cards in large print or braille.
Larger, newer airplanes provide more accessibility features to disabled passengers than smaller, older airplanes. Many airlines have a mixture of aircraft in their fleets, so passengers may need to check the airline’s website or ask the airline’s disability specialist for information about a specific flight.
Accessibility features that benefit disabled or elderly passengers include:
- Movable armrests. Most commonly found on aisle seats, a movable armrest makes it easier for disabled passengers to transfer between the seat and a wheelchair. At least half the aisle seats on airplanes delivered or refurbished after 1992 that accommodate 30 or more passengers must have movable armrests. Passengers should notify the airline of their need for an aisle seat with a movable armrest at the time the reservation is made, or at least 48 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure. It is also wise to ask the gate agent to double-check that the assigned seat has a movable armrest.
- Aisle wheelchairs. Flight attendants use onboard wheelchairs to transport passengers to and from lavatories and to transport passengers to and from their seats as they board or exit the aircraft. Flight attendants assist passengers as they transfer between their seat and the wheelchair, but they will not generally lift or carry passengers. Any airplane that has a wheelchair accessible lavatory must make onboard wheelchairs available. Any airplane that seats more than 60 passengers must make an onboard wheelchair available to a disabled passenger who requests one, regardless of the availability of wheelchair accessible lavatories.
- Accessible lavatories. Wide-body aircraft (those with two aisles) delivered or refurbished after 1992 must have at least one wheelchair accessible lavatory. Some larger single-aisle aircraft (such as the Airbus A320 and some Boeing 737s) also have wheelchair accessible lavatories. The lavatories in smaller and older aircraft do not always provide wheelchair accessibility, but they typically have handrails for the benefit of disabled passengers. Flight attendants will assist passengers as they move between their seats and the lavatory but will not provide assistance within the lavatory. There is no federal requirement as of March 1, 2022 that lavatories on single-aisle aircraft be accessible to passengers with a disability. The good news: there is a proposed DOT rule to improve accessibility to lavatories on single aisle aircraft for travelers with disabilities; for future information on the proposed rule, read our write-up here.
- Cabin wheelchair storage. Every new aircraft delivered to an airline or refurbished after 1992 must be equipped to store one collapsible manual wheelchair in the passenger cabin. That requirement applies only to airplanes that seat at least 100 passengers, although some smaller airplanes can also store a collapsible wheelchair in the cabin. The storage space is usually available on a first-come, first-served basis, so passengers who want to transport their manual wheelchairs conveniently should make the request for cabin storage as early as possible.
Airlines will usually accommodate service animals in the cabin if they can be transported without blocking an aisle or emergency exit. You should give the airline advance notice of your request. If you are traveling with an emotional support animal, you will need to provide advance documentation of the animal’s certification for that purpose. Service animal rules were revised in 2020 and are discussed in our companion article here.
Assistance from flight attendants
In-flight personnel will assist disabled passengers by storing and retrieving items in overhead bins, including carry-on luggage and medical assistive devices. In-flight personnel will assist passengers who need help opening their meals and identifying the contents, but will not provide assistance with eating, personal hygiene, or the use of medical equipment. Passengers who need help with syringes, who need assistance using the lavatory, or who need to be carried should travel with a ticketed passenger who can help them.
Passengers can generally bring assistive walking devices, such as canes and walkers, as carry-on items if they will fit in an overhead compartment or beneath a seat. Those items do not count toward the limit the airlines imposes on the number of items a passenger is entitled to bring on the plane.
Wireless devices, such as a wireless glucose monitor, cannot be used on board the aircraft. Additionally, personal air filtration units cannot be used on board the aircraft. Other electronic assistive devices and approved Portable Oxygen Concentrators can be used during the flight if they comply with FAA requirements. Passengers should notify the airline of the need to use those devices 48 hours in advance of the flight to assure confirmation of their ability to use the device during the flight. They should also arrive at the gate early so that airline personnel can inspect the devices to assure that they meet FAA guidelines.
Portable dialysis machines can be checked as baggage free of charge. Subject to space availability, they can also be carried onto the plane and will not count against carry-on limitations, but they cannot be used on board the aircraft.
Passengers traveling in a wheelchairs will need to check the wheelchair at the gate. In any aircraft that seats 60 or more passengers and in many smaller aircraft, they can board the place using an aisle chair provided by the airline. Airlines usually have transfer equipment available at the gate, including a slide board and a transfer sling. Those devices are used to transfer a passenger from his or her wheelchair into the onboard wheelchair. Airline personnel are not generally permitted to lift a passenger without using safety equipment. Contact the airline’s disability specialist in advance to determine whether the airline will provide a slide board and transfer sling or whether you will need to bring your own.
If in-cabin wheelchair storage is unavailable or the wheelchair is not collapsible, the passenger’s wheelchair will be stored in the airplane’s cargo area. Wheelchairs that are checked at the boarding gate can be picked up at the arrival gate.
Motorized wheelchairs and scooters are stored in the cargo area. If the wheelchair fits through the cargo door, it will be stored without disassembly. If the wheelchair must be disassembled to fit through the door, airline staff will assist in disassembling the wheelchair. It is useful to bring instructions to help the staff understand how your wheelchair comes apart.
Airlines often require 48 hour advance notice if the passenger will be transporting a motorized wheelchair. Most wheelchair batteries are FAA approved, but airline staff will need to inspect the battery to make sure that it can legally be carried on the aircraft. Lithium-ion batteries and batteries that are not labeled “non-spillable” may need to be removed and packaged as dangerous cargo.
Airlines must transport a passenger’s wheelchair free of charge. Airlines will transport more than one wheelchair for free if they are for the passenger’s personal use. If you are connecting to an international flight on an airline that is not operated by a carrier in the United States, you should contact the foreign airline well in advance to inquire about the airline’s policy for transporting wheelchairs.