Airline travel can be a challenge to people for all different reasons. Our experience has been that the airlines try to make it as easy as possible for a person/family with a wheelchair or person with a disability.
Our son finds airline travel exciting for the first hour or so and then he is very keen for it to be over making it a real challenge. He is a wonderful traveller once he gets to his destination but let’s just say I’ve been nearly moved to kiss the ground on arrival! I also scoff at those that say “travel is about the whole journey not just the destination!” For us the sooner the flight is over the better. I am sure that we are the exception rather than the rule. Now with in flight movies, messaging facilities between the seats, games etc the old days of one or two movies and everyone craning their necks to see the screen at the front of the cabin are over.
Our experiences (we’ve been to the US twice as a family) have only been with Qantas, on the A380 and the 747 400. We chose Qantas for 2 reasons, it was important for us to sit together (QF seat configuration on the A380 is 3/4/3) and on the A380 they had a toilet on board that was for people with a disability. On all four flights we only had positive things to say about the staff, both on the ground (from check in) and in the air (Qantas in no way sponsor me so this is purely based on our experiences). I am happy to give them a good rap as they were great!
What I found out on our second trip is that some airlines (in my research I found both Qantas and Virgin have them) have an upper body torso harness available to people with a disability. It is basically an upper body seat belt which may be of some benefit to people with poor upper body control. It might just give a little more support.
It can be viewed on Virgin’s website and I am including the photos Qantas supplied to us before we travelled.
This harness can only be used in certain seats on the aircraft due to it using an anchor point. The harness must be pre booked and I’d recommend doing it well in advance and at the time of booking.
I have a friend who has used them on V Australia domestically so definitely worth checking if your airline has it available if you think it will benefit you.
Airlines now require measurements of wheelchairs so make sure you have the height, width, and weight of your chair when you phone to make your booking it will save calling back again!
Qantas had a very generous luggage allowance for people needing mobility equipment. Check with your airline prior to travel if this is essential to you. Qantas allowed 2 bags, 1 wheelchair and 1 other piece of mobility equipment. This was the allowance to the US but please note this varies according to your destination.
Due to the liquid restrictions in the cabin of the aircraft you need to check with the airline regarding any foods or liquids if they are necessary for you to take on board. Our son has special drink containers he drinks from so I take that through the security check empty then fill it before getting on the aircraft.
We have always used our own wheelchair to the door of the aircraft. Once again you need to mention this at the time of booking, again at check in and it should be possible if necessary. Our son can then walk assisted to his seat but they will provide an aisle chair to your seat if needed. At the door of the aircraft it is recommended that you do up the belt on your wheelchair to lessen the chance of damage and take any items from the wheelchair that are removable for example we always take the seat cushion and arm rests off our wheelchair and stow in the overhead lockers. The airlines encourage it as they prefer it is not their responsibility. Have an empty bag under the wheelchair or somewhere with you to put it all in to save juggling boarding passes, bags, armrests, seat cushions etc. You see people arrive with their one Versace bag looking very glam and there I am with boarding passes between my teeth, bags, juggling cushions, armrests etc while my husband walks our son up the aisle. Not quite the travel look I aspire to but having a bag to at least consolidate the wheelchair bits into makes it look a little more controlled!
The airlines usually board a person with a disability and their family first to allow extra time to get organized. The downside is that at the end of a long flight you are last to leave the aircraft but usually the cabin crew are very helpful with bags. We prearrange to have our own wheelchair waiting for us on arrival at the aircraft door. We have only had this not work once and our son was most uncomfortable and unstable in the airport wheelchair that was nearly double the width of his usual chair and without a pelvic strap. Advise at check in and on boarding that you would like your wheelchair at the aircraft on arrival and we have also been encouraged to remind the cabin crew about a ½ hour before landing so they can contact the airport and ensure it all runs smoothly. These are all small things but at the end of a 15 hour flight it does make a difference.
On arrival in the US we have always been fortunate enough to be taken to the shortest queue possible or let ahead of the crowd to get through customs quicker. This would always depend on the staff at the airport but our experience is that the staff are really considerate.