5 Tips for Flying Domestically with a Manual Wheelchair

By Chris Kain, kellisaspath.com

Iimagine many people thought it was Kellisa's first flight ever when she was rolling through the Sacramento airport in early April 2023 for a quick flight down to Palm Springs. Kellisa had a strange expression I would describe as eager anticipation with growing anxiety. While very wrong, the observers would also be correct in a weird way.

Let me explain. We lost track of how many times Kellisa has flown sometime after her 400th flight years ago. To keep her safe, Kellisa went 36 months without a flight during the pandemic which was by far the longest such period in her almost 24 years of life. Since Kellisa only left her room a handful of times in the last 3 years, this experience was in many ways all new to Kellisa.

We might have missed our flight if we didn't have experience traveling with a wheelchair and all the extra "baggage" that goes with it everywhere we go.

Wheelchair Travel Craft #1: Plan to Arrive Extra Early at the Airport

I usually plan to arrive 2 hours early if we know the airport and we're flying at non-peak time. Otherwise, 3 hours is the ideal target time for us.

We did leave early, and it made all the difference. We weren't expecting to find the garage and the daily lot closed because they were filled to capacity. We had to drive to an economy lot where it was difficult finding a disabled spot. While I could have just pushed Kellisa from the garage or daily lot, we had to wait and ride a shuttle bus to the terminal.

An airport shuttle driver secures a young woman’s wheelchair in place.

Our wait for the bus was short and we were thankful it was mostly empty because we've been passed by when there wasn't room for a wheelchair. The driver was friendly and most helpful. He had Kellisa on the bus and her chair secured in no time. I did feel bad for the young lady who wheeled up to our bus before we departed because Kellisa had the one wheelchair spot and it's not safe to ride unsecured. The driver helped us off the bus and wished us a great trip.

…insert Photo 1 here

Wheelchair Travel Craft #2: Have Cash Ready for Tips

I slipped Kellisa a $20 and had her hand it to the driver. He tried to give it back but was overcome with gratitude when we insisted. I genuinely believe we made his day because he was able to help us.

A young woman in a wheelchair gazes out the airport gate window at the baggage trucks loading the plane.

Since we are often overlooked and sometimes discriminated against, we love to give thanks and appreciation when someone helps us, and a smile and kind words go a long way with us as well.

Wheelchair Travel Craft #3: Avoid Checked Baggage Unless Absolutely Necessary

Even though the shuttle went smoothly, and Kellisa loved the ride, it meant that we arrived at the terminal later than planned. Since this was a short trip, we only had carry-on bags with us and were able to avoid the check-in lines.

A young woman with glasses and headphones smiles and looks out the plane window from her window seat.

Wheelchair Travel Craft #4: Know the TSA Rules

And know your rights as a wheelchair flyer before arriving at the airport.

We made it through security without any further delays since we have TSA Pre on our tickets, had our IDs out, and nothing that needed additional screening in our bags.

A young woman with glasses and headphones and her adoring father smile for a selfie once seated on the airplane.

The TSA agents didn't have to draw their guns or call a code on us. Yes, both have happened in the past when asserting Kellisa's rights. While still slightly behind our ideal timeline, we had time to purchase a few snacks and stop at the restroom. Again, zero drama. It hasn't always been like that as you may recall my infuriating experience with the wildly improper use of an accessible bathroom.

Wheelchair Travel Craft #5: Always Check in with the Gate Attendants

Ideally, you let the airline know you would be flying in a wheelchair when you book your ticket, but it's always best to have time to discuss your needs when you arrive at the gate, and it helps if you do this before the boarding process starts.

Since we didn't check any bags, we needed a wheelchair inspection and paperwork. This is also the time to discuss your needs so the airlines can make proper arrangements.

We were gate checking Kellisa's wheelchair, so they placed a "Gate Check" tag on her chair along with a destination tag. I also explained that I could carry her on the plane if we were in the first few rows otherwise, we would need an aisle chair.

They boarded us first and after getting Kellisa settled in her second-row window seat, I exited the plane to fold up her wheelchair. I always offer to help with the chair because airline workers won't know how to fold the chair as well as you do and if not done properly, things can get damaged and broken.

Thanks to needing some of the extra time built in and a little advanced planning, our weekend getaway travel experience was smooth. We were enjoying the beautiful Joshua Tree filled desert and snow-capped mountains a short few hours later.

A young woman in a wheelchair sits at a lookout point with the picturesque Joshua Tree National Park and the distant mountains in the background.

About the Author:

Chris Kain is Kellisa's adventurous and devoted father. With a blog (www.kellisaspath.com), Chris shares Kellisa's medical journey (not expected to survive more than a few hours after birth, 22 surgeries and countless brushes with death) and how she lives a life without limits (hiking, camping, kayaking, dancing, bike riding, playing little league baseball, bowling, bungee jumping and many other activities) as she continues to break the stereotypes of a young woman dependent on a wheelchair.

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