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Airlines page 1 of tips

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 and so forth, 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 two 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 designed 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.

uppertorsoharness 2

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 Virgin 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 for 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. It’s also a good idea to insure your mobility equipment, through a company like CoverMore.


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, and again at check in. 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 organised. 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.


19 thoughts on “Airlines”

  1. I recently flew (Qantas) for the first time with my 6 yo who has CP and she used the harness (as pictured in your blog) on 2 of the 4 legs. I was concerned about the potential chocking hazard as she kept slipping down and the cross strap got close to her neck. Obviously I repositioned her however I was concerned about what would happen in a sudden deceleration. Also she was unable to achieve the ‘brace’ position as recommended if required. She indicated it didn’t support her much. so for the small gain I don’t feel it it worth (for her) against the increase risk during an emergency. (FYI – she is GMFCS IV and the size of a small 6 yo. I worked as a commercial pilot prior to children.)
    Thank you for your Blog.

    • Hi Diana, I am wondering if you’ve heard of the CARES harness? This comes in an adult and child size. I can understand the Upper Torso Harness being too big for a 6 year old. Check out CARES as I’ve seen photos of some of our little Facebook friends on flights using it and they look extremely secure. Hope that helps for future flights. Julie

  2. Appreciate the info/tips on your blog! I am 50 and have CP from the shoulders down. I’ve only flown domestically within the U.S. and never on a flight longer than 5 hours straight. I cannot walk at all and have never been on a plane that had access to a wheel/aisle chair and an accessible restroom in flight. Fortunately, I’ve never had an “accident” but 5 hours plus boarding/wait times is pushing it for me, especially as I get older. Some folks have told me that, ironically, I might do better on longer or overseas flights because the larger planes, like the A380 you mention, have those facilities. I’d really like to take my wife and kids on to an outside the continental U.S. vacation, but worry I’ll have to resort to NASA diapers and some real good luck to accomplish it. Glad you’re enjoying your traveling and your trips here to the States!

    • Hi Christopher, It’s lovely to learn a bit more about you and your family. I hope this blog post gives you the confidence to give travel a go for a long-haul flight. It definitely is not easy but the rewards of travel are so great that if you can it would be wonderful. We love the States and my daughter in particular, can’t wait to get back and explore more. Julie

  3. My husband is a quadriplegic on a ventilator, have you had any experience with airlines in terms of boarding the aircraft? He could only fly if they provided a service where he was hoisted from his powerchair onto the aircraft seat.

    • Hi there, I understand and be assured there are a lot of people in a similar position. You don’t say where you live or where you are looking to travel. My best advice is to contact Eagle Passenger Lifts via Facebook or via their website and find out if the airports you want to travel from and to have their lifts available for your husband. Good luck with it. Julie

  4. Hi Julie, Do you know if there is anywhere we can purchase a torso harness for use when the airline we are flying doesn’t have one?

    • Hi Skye, You need to be a little careful. You have to check the airline will allow you to use a harness. The CARES harness attaches around the back of the seat which means the person behind can’t use their tray. Not all airlines allow you to use it. contact special needs handling at the airline you are thinking about using. Here’s the info on the CARES harness Good luck! Julie

      • I had the same question…
        My husband who is a quadriplegic & 198cm (over 6’7″) has used the upper torso restraint on a previous Qantas flight.
        We have booked to travel with Fiji Airways next year, and have been told we must bring our own FAA approved restraint.
        I have contacted the suppliers of the CARES restraint and was told they manufacture an adult sized harness but it cannot be used by a person over 6 feet.
        I am know questioning how Qantas got around that one, and where I can get one?

        • Hi Kylie,

          I think the Qantas harness works a little differently to the CARES harness. The airline supplies the Upper Body Torso Harness themselves. The CARES harness is the only one I know you can buy commercially. Is it just recommended you don’t use it for someone over 6 feet or you simply can’t use it? I wish I had an answer but I don’t I’m sorry.

          I’m happy to post the question on Facebook for you to see if anyone has found a solution.


  5. Hi Everyone, Virgin Australia now offer same services as Qantas in Australia in terms of person with physical disability in a wheelchair. My son is 16 and we flew recently with wheelchair to the door of plane, aisle chair and helpers to transfer to seat and a very similar harness.

  6. Hi Julie, As a travel consultant, have you had any experiences with Hawaiian Airlines? If so what are they like to travel with for a wheelchair?

    • Hi Debbie,

      I haven’t personally but our friends used them to fly to Hawaii and found them to be excellent. I’d caution that the A380 aircraft are the only ones (that I know of) that have a larger cubicle toilet. We’ve flown Qantas to LA and they’ve been awesome not only because of the staff but also the bathroom made life easier. Julie

  7. If flying from Adelaide Airport, when being dropped off at the Airport ask your Taxi driver or driver to drop you off at the ” Disability Drop Off ” point, at the other end of the airport. After unloading, use the Wall phone inside the door(opposite wall) and someone will answer( no coins reqd), they will send a helper to come and assist you to checkin. I learnt this after years of lugging bags and pushing w/c from lower cab rank. I think you can also use this entrance for when leaving the airport on return.

  8. Hi
    Love the blog and all the info. We are big travellers and think it’s so important for everybody to experience!
    I have flown all over the world and never had an issue getting my manual wheelchair to aircraft door on arrival. However, recently had a horrific experience with Jetstar refusing me access to my wheelchair. Now I am nervous to travel domestically in Australia. I am wondering whether you have flown Virgin and ever had a problem with them bringing the wheelchair to the aircraft door? I am considering booking a flight with Virgin but don’t want to be treated how I was Jetstar.
    I can highly recommend Air New Zealand for any flights (we regularly fly to Canada) and they are always excellent with my wheelchair and sports equipment.
    Thanks for the help!

    • Hi Megan it’s such a confidence knock when something like that happens. We’ve had great experiences with Jetstar, Virgin and Qantas but equally we’ve had issues with all three on odd occasions. Mostly we have no issue getting the wheelchair brought to the door but sometimes there is miscommunication and we’ve been left with an airline wheelchair. I’d like to add this is in the minority and usually an error rather than someone not understanding our need. I would hope you’d have a smooth run with Virgin. I’d stress at time of booking, boarding and even mid flight your need for your own chair. I really hope you have a positive outcome on your next trip. Julie

  9. Hello. Our friends’ son will be 20 when we travel to Hawaii this year, he has CP and only has limited use of his arms and hands. What is your experience with toileting on a plane without a larger toilet, on a 9.5 hour flight ?


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