special needs wheelchair travel
Image Credit: ©Depositphotos/michaeljung

Airline Travel for Special Needs Including Wheelchair Travel

special needs wheelchair travel
Image Credit: ©Depositphotos/michaeljung

Airlines could do a much better job of providing information about the best strategies for flying when you need special accommodations – even for something as common as a wheelchair.

It is unlikely that every person at an airline will know which airplane models provide the best access and easiest transitions. While someone in a wheelchair can board commercial flights, some planes are just better suited and make boarding, moving about, and evacuating easier.

Highest priority should be given to where someone in a wheelchair should be seated so they can most easily be evacuated during an emergency. While major emergencies are uncommon, having to unboard quickly happens more than most realize.

People who use wheelchairs and those who book their flights
need to know what special safety precautions apply to them
and where on airplanes they should be seated.

In the recent uproar over how Delta Airlines treated Marine Lance Cpl. Christian Brown, it was reported “putting Brown all the way in the back violated emergency evacuation procedures”. If that is true, airline personnel obviously need more training.

While Delta has apologized – and rightfully so because two First Class passengers offered their seats and were rebuffed – they have not clarified exactly what their “service standards” regarding passengers in wheelchairs actually are.

Delta does provide special needs assistance which you request by checking the special needs box when booking your flights. SpecialNeedsTravelMom described her experiences with Delta’s attendants when flying with her daughter.


Most airlines transfer you from your own wheelchair onto a narrow, straight-back airline chair that fits down the isles. A few planes are wide enough to let you use your own wheelchair instead IF you can afford to fly first class OR the airline offers you a free upgrade.

special needs vacations
Image Credit: EasyAccessTravel ~ Click image for what they learned traveling worldwide in a wheelchair.


You need to know what kind of battery any motorized device you are taking with you uses because that will determine how your wheelchair, scooter, hoveround or other device is transported on the plane.

AirSafe includes these specifics in their post on Airline Safety and Security Rules for Batteries:

“While spillable wet cell batteries (the kind of battery used in cars or motorcycles) are normally not allowed on aircraft in checked or carry-on baggage, you can bring them on an aircraft if they are part of a passenger’s electric wheelchair. The airline will likely have the battery removed from the wheelchair and transported in a special container. If you have a wheelchair with a spillable battery, you should arrive at the airport early and notify an airline agent that the battery is a wet cell spillable battery. Non-spillable wheelchair batteries are allowed if they meet other battery requirements.”


There are some commercial planes that are better choices than others. Army Capt. Max Cleland “has valuable advice for those who can afford to fly first class. He only flies on MD 88 or MD 90 aircraft and only books seat 1B in first class” because:

”The very front of the plane is wide enough for my own wheelchair. The arm rest of the seat lifts up so I can hop into it from my wheelchair, which gets stowed into the hold until we land. Then I hop back into it.”   This expensive survival tactic “took me decades to figure out.”

Although Delta is getting bad press for how they treat wheelchair passengers on some flights, they have also gotten compliments for providing free upgrades to First Class for wheelchair bound travelers on Delta flights.

My 84 year-old grandmother flies BUFATL to see my parents quite often. Me being the aviation enthusiast, it’s always been my job to get tickets for her. I always tried to book her on the 727 that Delta flew on that route until April.

In any case she had a stroke recently and gets confused easily, so this time I booked her on an MD-80 both ways with wheelchair service. She was so excited when I picked her up at ATL…she got to sit on the front row in first class! She had never flown first class in her whole life. She was impressed with the food and wine they served her. I thought perhaps it was a fluke, but she made a point of calling me when she got home to report that she sat in the same seat on the way back!

Does Delta specifically reserve the front seat for handicapped/wheelchair passengers, or is this just something nice the crew did for my grandma? I suppose it was easier than for them to walk her back to her seat in coach. I imagine if first class was full she would have had to sit in her assigned seat. Is this common practice among airlines?

In any case I sent a email to Delta thanking them for doing this for my grandma. It goes without saying that I will always book her with Delta with that kind of service.

One airline employee said she tried to upgrade to First Class when she could, but what the official Delta – or any other – policies are will vary.

Travel Guide for special needs and wheelchair travel
Click image for Special Needs Travel Guide







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