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% of wheelchairs and scooters. 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 how-to 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 want to know better 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 it. 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).
The bottom line
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 and free checked bags and seat upgrades.
Traveling by plane is one of the safest (and fastest) methods of getting from point A to point B, but crowded airports, long waits at security checkpoints, and baggage restrictions can make flying a nightmare when you have a disability.
Thankfully, with the help of legislation and strong advocacy, airlines and airports are making it more accessible for travelers with disabilities. We’ve created a fully accessible guide to help you navigate tips and tricks to make flying with a disability an easier, more enjoyable process.
<h2> Know your rights </h2>
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits “discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation.”
That means that those with disabilities have the right to certain accommodations such as wheelchair assistance, early boarding, interpreters, and/or TTY technology that make it safer to travel. While most airports and U.S. facilities have those accommodations available, you will probably have to ask for them.
Flying traveling outside of the United States? People with disabilities are still entitled to certain accommodations, free of charge, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). It states that all domestic and international flights that have the U.S. as the destination or origination are required to provide those necessary accommodations to people with disabilities to ensure safe travel.
Knowing what you’re entitled to and not being afraid to ask for it will make the entire flight process less stressful.
<h2> Planning your trip </h2>
Probably the most important part of your trip is the planning stage. Taking the time to map out an itinerary and plan ahead will prepare you for some of the expected complications and ensure that the airline you choose has the accommodations you need ready to go for your trip.
<h3> Choose the right airline </h3>
Not every airline offers the same accommodations and flight plans. Do your research, contact the airlines you are considering if possible, and make an informed decision on which airline you choose for your flight.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing which airline you use:
- Airline perks. If you are a rewards member of a certain airline, using them might give you perks that make your travel more comfortable.
- Availability of accomodations. While every airline is required to provide a certain standard of accommodations, some airlines go above and beyond with customer service to make sure each and every passenger feels comfortable and safe throughout the trip.
- Airport layout. Find out where airlines are typically located in an airport. You won’t want to have to try and get from one end of an airport to another during a short layover.
- Flight length. Different airlines will have different connecting flight options. If you have a service animal, long flights without any layovers may not be the best fit for you. On the other hand, if overcrowded airports will overstimulate you, longer flights might be better.
Cheapflights.com has a great overview of what accommodations 23 of the major airlines have available for travelers who require extra support.
<h3> Talk to your health care providers</h3>
Before your trip, schedule an appointment to talk to any relevant health care providers. The more specific and detailed you can be about your trip, the better. Your doctor should be able to walk you through possible complications, health concerns, and any vaccinations you may need before traveling.
You should also get a written statement from your doctor on official letterhead that covers your condition, medications, specific accommodations needed and any other pertinent information. It’s always good to have it on hand in case you need official documentation of your medical condition.
Finally, make sure to get a good phone number that you can reach your doctor at, even if it’s after hours. This is especially important if you’re going abroad somewhere that has a very different medical system than the United States.
<h3> Call ahead </h3>
The best thing you can do to make sure you have the best flying experience possible is communicate with TSA, your airline, and the hotels or resorts you are staying at.
Most airline accommodations need to be planned ahead of time, especially when it comes to needing specialized equipment or a service animal. Contact your airline as soon as you book tickets to explain what accommodations you’ll need. They’ll be able to give you an idea of what they can provide and what you can expect from their boarding process.
Contact them again 48 hours before you are set to take off to check in and make sure everything is in order. This will eliminate surprises and give the airline a reminder to line up any necessary accommodations that require pre-planning.
<h3> TSA tips<h3/>
The U. S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) isn’t necessarily the most beloved aspect of flying, but understanding their procedures and planning accordingly can help you breeze through security with minimal hiccups.
TSA Pre-Check can help make sure going through security is as easy as possible. Those with TSA Pre-Check 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 background check and fingerprinting.
The TSA also has a help line available for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. You can call TSA Cares at 1-855-787-2227 for additional assistance during the security screening process. According to the TSA website, you should call 72 before traveling “with questions about screening policies, procedures, and what to expect at the security checkpoint.”
Finally, the TSA offers passenger support specialists. If you require special accommodations or have any concerns about going through the security screening process, they can provide a passenger support specialist who can provide on-the-spot assistance as needed.
<h3> Pack to your advantage </h3>
A lot of times, packing gets put on the backburner when it comes to planning out travel, but it’s an important part of making your flight go as smoothly as possible.
Make sure to pack extra medication. Delays and emergencies happen, and you don’t want to be caught away from home (and your doctor) without essential medications. Experts suggest traveling with two complete packages of your medications, with one in your checked bag and one easily accessible in your carry-on.
Pack medical alert information, and keep it on your person and easy to get to. In the case of an emergency, this information can be a literal life-saver.
Most necessary medical equipment such as your wheelchair, CPAP machine, or diabetes monitoring equipment doesn’t count toward your carry-on items. Make sure you clarify whether any equipment you need falls under this category, and you might be able to bring more on the plane with you than you originally thought. This can help eliminate the need for multiple checked bags, which can make the entire air travel process go much more smoothly.
Make sure to keep important things like your flight plan, doctor’s note, emergency contacts, and any necessary medical information easily accessible in your carry-on. You need these items to be readily available at all times.
<h3> Make an itinerary </h3>
The more you can plan out your trip in advance, the better off you will be. Whether you use a specialty travel agency or do the planning yourself, creating an itinerary can alleviate a lot of the stress of travel, both during your flight and while you’re at your destination.
<h2> Your flight </h2>
While careful planning can reduce stress on the day of your flight, there are still a few things to remember to make sure everything goes smoothly.
- Do a final check of your luggage and medical equipment. Make sure you have your doctor’s note, necessary medical and emergency information, medication, flight plans, identification, and anything else you need for your trip.
- Get to the airport early. We suggest getting there at least two hours early for domestic flights, and even earlier for international flights.
- Take advantage of lounge access or credit card perks. If you are a rewards member or cardholder who receives special access to lounges or early boarding, don’t hesitate to use those perks.
- If you are not a TSA Precheck member, make sure that you are wearing easily removable shoes, belts and jackets. Also make sure that you can easily take out any liquids and electronics from your carry-on to go through the X-ray machine. Request help from TSA if you need it.
- Know your rights, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. You deserve a pleasant flying experience, and there are certain accommodations that you are entitled to, especially when it comes to ensuring your medical safety during a flight.
<h3> Utilizing travel credit cards to ease the stress of travel </h3>
Many travel credit cards offer exclusive perks that you can take advantage of to help alleviate some of the stress of flying. Some issuers sponsor special lounges in major airports that provide a more secluded, calm atmosphere. Most reputable travel cards offer some sort of travel insurance or luggage reimbursement in case of incidents, which can be a financial life-saver if you have expensive medical equipment in your luggage.
Other common perks include:
- Trip cancellation/delay coverage. This is a great perk to have in case of a last-minute medical emergency that causes you to reschedule your trip.
- Priority boarding. Being able to board the plane before everyone piles in can help reduce stress.
- Free checked bags. If you have a lot of medical equipment that needs to be packed, this can come in handy.
- Rewards points. You can use points and miles to upgrade your seats. On long flights, a more comfortable and roomy seat can make an enormous difference.
<h3> Service animals </h3>
According to the ACAA, airlines are required to allow service animals to fly with their partners in the cabin of the aircraft free of charge. Any equipment required for your service animal is also permitted to be flown in the cargo hold as medical equipment, also free of charge.
If you have a service animal, including emotional support animals, make sure you have the proper documentation from your doctor that qualifies them as such. Also make sure you contact the airline and inform them that you will be traveling with a service animal so they can be prepared on the day of your flight.
<h2> While you’re there </h2>
Understand the customs of your destination. Depending on where you are going, your reception might be a little different. The U.S. has strict rules and regulations regarding the discrimination of anyone with a disability, but not all countries have those same standards. Planning accordingly can help alleviate some of those issues.
Make sure you have accurate translations of necessary questions, phrases and jargon if you are traveling to a non-English speaking country. Having written translations of your disability or what accommodations you may need abroad could help your destination ensure that you have everything you need for a safe trip.
Know your medical coverage in case of an emergency. This includes understanding physician availability. Locating the nearest hospital to where you’re staying, taking note of local emergency numbers and obtaining any extra insurance you might need while abroad are all easy ways to prepare for the possibility of a medical emergency while you’re away.
If flying is stressful or physically taxing, plan a restful day as the final day of your trip. While it can be tempting to fill your final day with as many fun adventures as possible, it can make the travel back home extremely difficult. Giving yourself a day to relax and rest before you fly home can make a dramatic difference.
<h2> Travel tips and special considerations </h2>
If you have a physical disability\u2026
- Use your own wheelchair or mobility equipment, and check it at the gate. While airlines will provide you with one, using your own equipment can eliminate wasted time and stress from switching from yours to theirs and vice versa.
- Bring spare parts. If it could break, assume that it will and prepare accordingly.
- If your wheelchair needs wet cell batteries or anything that typically isn’t allowed on airplanes, make sure to call ahead and talk with TSA about your equipment needs.
- Find the right luggage. You want luggage that is easy to handle, protects your medical equipment and is easy to find.
If you have a visual impairment\u2026
- Research the airport layout before your trip. If you have a general idea of where certain things are within the airport, it’ll be easier for you to maneuver on the day of your flight.
- Carry a cane, even if you don’t necessary need it for navigational purposes. It will come in handy if you do end up needing it while navigating a crowded airport that you’ve never been in, but it will also help TSA and other travelers understand that you are visually impaired.
- Choose luggage that is easy to identify. Whether it’s a brightly colored or patterned suitcase or specific luggage tag, making your luggage distinct from those around it can help you and those around you find it. You can also use tools such as a remote luggage locator to help you find your bag with an audible sound.
- Download helpful mobile apps for your trip. Audible GPS apps, currency readers, and other apps can make traveling much easier.
If you are Deaf or hard of hearing\u2026
- Set up text alerts on your phone. Most airlines utilize the overhead speakers in an airport for last-minute updates and changes. Ensuring you’re set up with text alerts and turning your phone to vibrate mode can help make sure you are getting all of the necessary updates about your flight.
- Pack extra batteries and a spare hearing aid.
- Request an interpreter if you need to, especially when discussing medical jargon or your medical condition to TSA.
- Pre-printed copies of common phrases and requests can help you effectively communicate certain things with TSA members, your airline personnel, and/or other travelers.
- Carry a notepad and a pen. While it’s not always the most ideal method of communication, having a notepad and pen ready for short interactions can help alleviate some stress, especially in distracting environments.
If you have a neurological impairment\u2026
- Request a handicapped-accessible room. This makes it easier for first responders to reach you in case of an emergency.
- Talk to your doctor about medications that can help you cope with a long flight or other common travel situations, including exacerbation. According to the National MS Society, certain corticosteroid medications can help treat severe exacerbations, and having a prescription ready to go can help alleviate issues if a doctor or pharmacy isn’t available on your trip.
- Make sure to give yourself adequate rest during your trip.
- If you take daily medication at a certain time, make sure you have a watch that stays synced to your home time zone schedule so that you can stay on track while you’re traveling.
If you have a developmental disorder such as Autism\u2026
- Pack weighted blankets on your carry-on in case you need them to help cope with overstimulation.
- Download your favorite calming music to play while you’re on the plane waiting for your flight at the airport.
- For longer flights, bring a tablet that has a visually stimulating activity downloaded to help keep you calm and engaged. Also make sure you have pre-charged, USB chargers so that your devices don’t die midflight.
- If you are sensitive to noise and/or light, bring noise-canceling headphones and a sleeping mask to help block them out.
Having a disability shouldn’t limit your travel options to staycations and locations within driving distance. Planning, doing your research, and knowing your rights can help you have the best air travel experience possible.
<h2> Accessibility notice </h2>
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