Traveling by airplane is a great way to get to a distant destination, but this mode of travel can come with extra challenges for those with disabilities. Planning your trip and knowing your rights and options for accessible travel will help your trip go smoothly.
Traveling by plane is one of the fastest and safest methods of getting to a destination, but noisy airports, narrow airplane aisles and baggage restrictions can make flying challenging, especially when you have a disability that limits your mobility or ease of communication. Whether you have an ongoing disability or a temporary injury, you may encounter extra difficulties while flying.
Prompted by various legislation and a growing awareness of accessibility needs, airlines and airports are making air travel more accessible for individuals with disabilities. However, knowing your rights and options and planning ahead are the best ways to ensure a smooth flight. This guide will explore different things to consider when preparing for a flight.
Knowing your rights and options
If you’re planning a flight and have a disability that requires accommodation, it’s important to know your rights and options. You have certain rights protected by legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), plus airlines and airports offer accessibility and accommodation in different ways to both meet the requirements and go beyond that to make travel easier for you. The legally protected rights discussed in this article will focus on air travel within, to or from the U.S.
While the ADA generally prohibits discrimination and “ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities,” the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) specifically prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel.” The rule applies to all flights of U.S. airlines, as well as foreign airlines when the flight is to or from the U.S. For all the details, you can access the full Department of Transportation (DOT) rule in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Part 382, but we’ll cover highlights here.
The ACAA prevents airlines from discriminating against anyone on the basis of disability, except to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or foreign-government safety requirements. For example, the FAA’s exit-row seating rule requires airlines to only seat individuals in that row who can perform certain tasks necessary in the case of an emergency evacuation. Other than these limited types of situations, airlines cannot restrict travel opportunities for people with disabilities.
While there are detailed qualifiers (mostly based on how many seats an aircraft has or whether it is new or being retrofitted), generally, most airlines and airplanes must ensure accessibility of facilities, which may include some of these features:
- Movable aisle armrests on half the aisle seats onboard
- Accessible lavatories
- Priority space for storing a passenger’s folding wheelchair in the cabin (on new aircraft with 100 or more seats)
- An onboard wheelchair to aid in accessing the lavatory (you may have to give advance notice to the airline to have this available)
- Assistance with boarding, deplaning and making flight connections; this may include ramps or mechanical lifts where necessary
- Option to pre-board
- Assistive devices not counted toward any carry-on baggage limits, and wheelchairs and assistive devices generally given priority for storage either in-cabin or in the baggage compartment
Additionally, airlines can’t require advance notice of someone traveling with a disability, unless you will need certain accommodations that have to be prepared for, such as traveling by stretcher, using an electronic wheelchair with batteries that must be stored properly for transport or needing to hook up to the airplane’s oxygen system while on board. If you have specific accommodation requests, though, it’s a good idea to call ahead or use the accommodation request section to make a note of your needs when booking your flight.
If you use a service animal to help you navigate your daily life or provide another service, you’ll need to know if you can bring it with you on your flight. As of Jan. 11, 2021, the DOT no longer requires air carriers to transport emotional support animals. While the definition of a service animal versus an emotional support animal is sometimes debated, for the purposes of your rights during air travel, we look to the ACAA’s definitions and rules.
For air travel, a service animal must possess these qualities:
- A dog (of any breed or type)
- Individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability
For air travel, a service animal is NOT any of these:
- An animal species other than a dog
- An emotional support animal
- A comfort animal
- A companionship animal
- A service animal in training
Airlines can require limited DOT documentation for your service animal, and airlines can deny a service animal based on a few safety concerns, as outlined by the ACAA guidelines. If you plan to bring a service animal with you, make sure to check whether your situation and animal meet the protected criteria.
Note that some airlines allow emotional support or comfort animals to be transported subject to the same rules as pets. Check with your airline for its current rules before planning to bring an animal that does not meet the ACAA’s definition of a service animal.
Knowing what you’re entitled to and not being afraid to ask for it will make the entire flight process less stressful. If you encounter any problems during your trip, airlines are required to establish a “procedure for resolving disability-related complaints raised by passengers with a disability” and have a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO) available to handle any complaints at the airport when they arise. Additionally, you can contact the Department of Transportation’s aviation consumer disability hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) and 1-800-455-9880 (TTY).
Planning your trip
Probably the most important (and maybe least fun) part of your trip is the planning stage. Taking the time to map out an itinerary and coordinate any services or accommodations you’ll need will help your trip go more smoothly. For flying, choosing the right airline for you and knowing your options for TSA security screening will help you get your trip off to a great start.
Choosing the right airline
Not every airline offers the same accommodations and flight plans. Before choosing your flights, check with the airline to make sure it offers the services you need. For example, airlines have varying policies on medical oxygen and whether emotional support animals are allowed onboard as service animals.
Below is a list of services and accommodations a few of the common U.S. airlines offer, as well as links to each airline’s accessibility services webpage. If you’re flying an airline not listed here, search the carrier’s website or call its customer service line for the information you need.
Alaska Airlines – Alaska Airlines recommends requesting any accessibility services while booking your flight online and also provides a dedicated accessible services phone number. It also offers a free mobile app called Fly for All, which is designed for those with cognitive and developmental disabilities, first-time flyers and unaccompanied minors.
Allegiant Air – Allegiant provides detailed information regarding accommodations it does and does not provide and allow. Make sure you find relevant information for any accommodations you need before booking a flight, especially if you use medical oxygen.
American Airlines – With American, you can request special assistance while booking your flight. If you do so, a special assistance coordinator will contact you before your flight to make sure everything is in order ahead of your trip.
Delta Air Lines – Delta provides an easy notification system for requesting assistance by having you note on your My Trips any needs you have, particularly related to nuts or other allergies, wheelchairs or medical devices and if you’re blind or have low vision or are deaf or hard of hearing. You can also call or submit a separate request form at least seven days prior to travel for any other services you may need.
Frontier Airlines – Frontier lets you request services, such as wheelchair assistance, at the time of booking. Other accommodations, such as allowing a trained service animal, must be communicated through the proper forms at least 48 hours prior to the trip.
Hawaiian Airlines – Hawaiian Airlines states that it complies with the ACAA on providing accommodations to passengers with disabilities. You can call its reservations department ahead of your trip to arrange for any needed services.
JetBlue Airways – JetBlue lets you add a Special Service Request when you book your flight. If you need additional help requesting accommodations, you can call or submit an online request form.
Southwest Airlines – Southwest does not require advance notice of needs for assistance but does recommend giving advance notice so staff can better prepare. You can use the Special Assistance link when booking your flight to note what services you will need.
Spirit Airlines – Spirit outlines its policies and services online, and you should check before you book your flight. It recommends that you provide written instructions for any mobility devices to ensure they are handled correctly in transport.
United Airlines – United offers a variety of accessibility services that it outlines on its website, and you can request wheelchair and other assistance on united.com when you book your flight. United recommends giving advance notice of any of your needs ahead of time and requires 48 hours advance notice for specific accommodations, such as needing onboard medical oxygen or requiring disassembly and packaging of a wheelchair battery.
In addition to reviewing an airline’s accessibility services and accommodations, you can also check the DOT’s website for air travel consumer reports to learn how well airlines are performing in areas such as mishandled baggage and wheelchairs and percentage of on-time arrivals. For instance, the May 2021 Air Travel Consumer Report reveals that, in the January to March 2021 quarter, Spirit Airlines mishandled 2.88% of wheelchairs and scooters, whereas Hawaiian Airlines Network mishandled only 0.49%. Knowing how well an airline performs on tasks crucial to your mobility may help you choose the best airline for your travels.
Also remember to check with your airline before a trip for the current regulations regarding masks, vaccinations, COVID-19 testing and any other coronavirus-related concerns.
Navigating airport screening
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) isn’t necessarily the most beloved aspect of flying, but understanding its procedures and planning accordingly can help you make your way through security with minimal hiccups.
TSA PreCheck can help make sure going through security is as easy as possible. Those with TSA PreCheck memberships have shorter waiting times and aren’t required to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets as they go through security. You can apply online and schedule an in-person appointment for a quick fingerprinting to run your background check. (Some credit cards even offer a credit to pay your TSA PreCheck fee.)
When it’s your turn for security screening, if you need any accommodations or are carrying medications or special assistive devices, you should notify the TSA officer right away of your needs. You can also get a TSA Notification Card ahead of time that you can present to a TSA officer to help explain your medical situation.
It’s also important to prepare any medications or other equipment you need for security screening. For example, if you carry liquid or pill medications that exceed the usual amount of allowed liquids in a carry-on, you should make sure everything is labeled prior to getting to the airport. The TSA provides detailed information so you can arrive prepared.
The TSA also has a help line available for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. You can call TSA Cares at 855-787-2227 for additional assistance during the security screening process. According to the TSA website, you should call 72 hours before traveling if you have any questions about screening policies and procedures or if you want to know what to expect at the security checkpoint.
Additionally, the TSA offers passenger support specialists. If you require special accommodations or have any concerns about going through the security screening process, ask a TSA officer or supervisor for a passenger support specialist who can provide on-the-spot assistance as needed.
Using airline credit cards for travel insurance and other benefits
Another thing to consider when booking flights is how to pay for them. If you use a travel or airline credit card to purchase your flight, you not only earn points or miles, but you also get access to benefits that can make travel easier and give you some financial protection. For example, most travel or airline credit cards offer at least some of these benefits:
- Travel insurance or luggage reimbursement in case of loss or damage
- Trip cancellation/delay coverage to help cover non-refundable expenses for qualifying events
- Free checked bags
- Seat upgrades
- Access to issuer-sponsored lounges at major airports
- Statement credit for TSA PreCheck fee
The travel insurance benefits are possibly the most valuable in the event you need them, as they’ll typically cover non-reimbursable costs you paid for with your card. You can also often find perks like free checked bags, which likely comes in handy for anyone traveling with extra medical equipment, medications or similar items that aren’t required by the ACAA to be transported free of cost.
If you don’t have an airline credit card yet to earn rewards and give you travel perks, you have a lot of options. You can choose a card that rewards airline loyalty (such as the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card) or a card that earns points for any travel (such as the Citi Premier® Card).
Having a disability shouldn’t keep you from air travel. Know your rights, research your airline options and use a travel credit card to earn rewards and access travel benefits, such as travel insurance, free checked bags and seat upgrades.