Five pro tips for flying with a power wheelchair

You’ve seen the numbers and heard the horror stories. Reports from the Department of Transportation show that domestic airlines are still damaging or losing an average of 30 wheelchairs and scooters every day.

Successfully Flying as a Power Wheelchair User. Follow power wheelchair user Ben Leclair as he flies from his home in Montréal, Québec, to Paris, France. He shares tips on how to maximize your ability to travel safely and independently. New Mobility Media. Youtube Dec 15, 2022

Kenny Salvini, New Mobility December 15, 2022

Factor in other potential issues — multiple awkward transfers in and out of rickety aisle chairs, long hours on uncomfortable aircraft seats and inaccessible in-flight lavatories — and traveling by air with a power wheelchair can seem hardly worth the risk. For former professional wakeboarder-turned-filmmaker and C3 quad Ben Leclair, it’s just another day at the office. “Before my accident, I was flying around the world 30 times a year,” he says, “so the plane wasn’t a stressful place for me.”

The extreme athlete from Québec had just returned from zigzagging Europe to film a video with a few of his buddies when a training accident at a private wakeboarding park left him paralyzed. He was still an inpatient at a Montréal rehab 10 months after his injury when the opportunity arose to fly to Florida to get an award for the video. Leclair didn’t flinch.  “I think the medical staff at the rehab center was a bit hesitant to let me fly, but I wasn’t.”

The video above was created by Québec-based filmmaker Ben Leclair, a C3 quad. For more of his work, check out his Instagram @BenLeclair.

Since that first flight, Leclair has taken multiple international trips to judge and commentate for wakeboarding events in France and the U.K., while moonlighting as a spokesperson and brand ambassador for Amylior Inc. It was on one of those trips that he and a friend had the idea of documenting the air travel process for power chair users from start to finish.

I caught up with Leclair recently to swap stories and put together a few tips for power wheelchair users so we can maximize our ability to travel safely and independently while mitigating damage to the piece of equipment we rely on the most.

1. Know Your Equipment

The vast majority of damage to power wheelchairs occurs when they are being loaded and unloaded from the cargo bays beneath the planes. Most modern aircraft used for domestic air travel have smaller cargo-door hatches that make it difficult to load a power wheelchair in its standard upright position. This means baggage handlers must tip the device on its side. The more you can do to prevent that from happening, the more likely your device will emerge unscathed at your destination.

By properly prepping your wheelchair, you can reduce the chances of damage during loading and unloading. Ian MacKay

Learn how to modify your chair, whether with seating-system adjustments — like reclining the backrest on chairs that have that feature — or with tools if necessary. On his popular blog,, John Morris shares how he replaced two bolts on either side of the backrest with quick release pins to allow it to easily fold down over the seat. Identify all critical components and other items that could easily be damaged — joysticks, alternative drive controls, displays, cupholders, phone mounts, arm/leg/headrests, etc. — and prep them for easy removal prior to arriving at the airport. Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions and do a practice run or two instructing the breakdown and reassembly of your device. This will make the process easier once you arrive on the day of your flight.

2. Do Your Homework

Once you’ve picked your destination and arranged accessible lodging and transportation well ahead of your arrival, it’s time to research your departure and arrival airports, as well as the airlines that fly in and out of them and any potential connecting stops. Leclair strongly advises flying nonstop whenever possible to avoid damage to your device. “The fewer opportunities you give the airlines to handle your equipment, the greater are your chances of having all of your stuff in one piece.”

You can research the cargo hold dimensions of the aircraft each airline uses for your potential routes to determine if your device will fit through the cargo door without being modified. Once you have selected your flights, be sure to include your power chair information and request special mobility assistance that you will need upon arrival (aisle chair, transfer team, etc.).

3. Communicate Clearly and Know Your Rights

Whether this is your first flight or your 1,000th, remember that you are the expert when it comes to your equipment, your body and your positioning. Advocating for yourself often means educating each person you encounter while booking your tickets, checking in, passing through security, waiting at the gate, transferring to the aisle chair and boarding the plane. Make sure to study the Air Carrier Access Act, because you never know when you may need to cite it — more on that below.

Ian Mackay works with Alaska Airlines support staff to ensure a smooth transfer between wheelchair and aircraft.

You can usually find information about each airport’s and airline’s disability assistance on the web, but it never hurts to call and talk to a real human whenever possible. The Transportation Security Administration’s TSA Cares helpline is a valuable resource that will answer questions about screening policies and procedures. Depending on staff availability, TSA can also provide a one-on-one guide who will meet you at ticketing and whisk you through security checkpoints.

The airlines can’t charge baggage fees for medical supplies and equipment, so bring as much gear as you can comfortably transport. For his first flight to Florida, Leclair brought an extra manual chair and zip-tied it upside-down on his shower chair just in case there were damages along the way. “We were like, ‘Shit, if they break one, I’ll have a second one,’” he says. Bringing an empty bag to store the removable chair parts, along with an extra ROHO cushion and pump and portable ramps as needed, are also good ideas.

“The fewer opportunities you give the airlines to handle your equipment, the greater are your chances of having all of your stuff in one piece.” — Ben Leclair

4. Mitigate Damage

Prepare your wheelchair for transfer under the plane by removing those vulnerable parts discussed earlier in the article. Make sure to bring all mission-critical components like drive controls and seat cushions into the cabin with you to avoid having them misplaced or damaged.

You can use colored ribbon or tape to identify important aspects of the chair, including the levers that disengage the motors. Then have a laminated sheet attached to the chair explaining what each color does.

Trail and tech advocate Ian Mackay zip-ties a walkie-talkie to his chair in case handlers have questions while loading his device. “It gives you a direct line of communication with your chair in the cargo hold. This is particularly helpful when a baggage handler at your arrival location has a question,” he says.

If you are traveling with an entourage, strongly request that a member of your team accompany the baggage handlers as they bring the device down to the tarmac for the loading process. Having someone familiar with your equipment will guarantee it gets on the plane and isn’t mishandled. Later, implore the in-flight staff to call ahead to your destination to clear your helper(s) for similar treatment so staff can arrange to get them off the plane first.

5. Protect Your Body at All Costs

The minute you part ways with your power wheelchair, you are literally and figuratively in the hands of airport and airline personnel. This calls for another level of self-advocacy. In his video, Leclair is quick to point out that you are in charge of your transfer. “Don’t let anyone transfer you unless they are doing it safely,” he says. Aftermarket slings like the Comfort Carrier and ADAPTS sling can be helpful to avoid awkward transfers with inexperienced airport staff.

Placing a gel or ROHO cushion on the airline seat will help protect your skin on long flights, but remember that air cushions expand at altitude. Make adjustments accordingly. The Child Aviation Restraint System harness can help stabilize those with limited or no trunk-control in-flight and landing. Note that the CARES harness is only FAA-approved for children under 44 pounds. Adults will have to obtain an FAA exemption letter to be authorized to use one.

With the right people to lean on (and a few extra straps) you can get by on a standard airline seat, says author Kenny Salvini, a C3 quad, flying with his wife, Claire.

Bladder and bowel management is another issue to take into account due to the lack of accessible lavatories, especially on long trips. To avoid resorting to dehydration — a common tactic that can be problematic for those prone to UTIs — USA Low Point Wheelchair Rugby Team member Jeremy Hannaford brings a blanket to drape over his row so he can self-cath. “It helps other passengers mind their business while you handle yours,” he says. Leclair packs an empty 1-liter water bottle for incognito catheter draining purposes. “It’s a little surprise for the flight attendants when they find a yellow bottle somewhere.”

To avoid bowel issues, stick to foods you know your body processes well in the day or two leading up to a long flight. Adjust your bowel program timing if you need: Somewhere around 12 hours before your flight is often a good bet for doing your business to minimize the chance of accidents while traveling. Many colostomy users recommend irrigation prior to traveling to ensure an accident-free trip.

Upon your arrival, wait until you have confirmation that your wheelchair is returned to the jetway before allowing the transfer team to put you into the aisle chair, to avoid unnecessary time on its hard seat. Even if in-flight personnel threaten that TSA will “make [you] get off with their guns,” as world traveler Cory Lee recently experienced, waiting is your right under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Free Stuff
Both the CARES harness and ADAPTS sling are available for free through the Fly Safe Today program from accessible air travel nonprofit All Wheels Up.

Leclair curtailed his globetrotting ways because of the pandemic, but he’s looking forward to exploring the world again, despite the extra hurdles that come with traveling in his power wheelchair. “Inaccessibility is definitely slowing me down, but it won’t stop me,” he says.

He hopes his video will motivate others to return to traveling. “I know it looks really bad for a lot of people, but it is really fun to travel. Maybe this video can bridge the gap and show people that it’s not always hell.”

With a solid plan, clear communication and a little creativity, you too can set yourself up to navigate an inherently flawed system with success.

Source New Mobility


Also see
Passengers with disabilities say they want to remain in wheelchairs on flights CBC
Pride Mobility’s New Travel Power Wheelchair Weighs 43 Pounds and Folds to Fit in a Car New Mobility
WHILL Launches Model Fi Travel Power Chair New Mobility

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