A woman is escorted on an airplane by a male travel agent in an aisle chair.

Airline Travel When You Have SMA – Tips, Tricks, and What to Know Before You Go!

Traveling when you have SMA can be a daunting undertaking. Many individuals who have SMA have never flown on an airplane.

Air travel remains quite inaccessible even in 2022. As someone who lived far from home for many years, my only option to see family and friends was to travel by airplane.

I became quite good at traveling on my own and even transferring planes to get to where I wanted to go. I hope my experiences and tips can help you feel more empowered to get to your next destination.

What to consider when booking your flight

When booking your flight, try to get the most direct flight you can to your destination. Having to transfer planes causes more wear and tear on you and your wheelchair.

If you must transfer to another plane, be sure to give yourself ample time to get to the next plane. You will be the last individual off of the first plane and may have to wait for airport staff to assist you off the plane and for your wheelchair to make it back up to the gate for you to use again.

This may also be the only time for you to use the restroom. So, plan accordingly.

Pick an aisle seat that is close to the front

When choosing your seat try to pick an aisle seat. The reason is that it is much less difficult to transfer to an aisle seat. You will also want to look for a seat closest to the front of the plane. It is difficult to get an aisle chair down the aisle of a plane.

An aisle chair is a small chair that you will be transferred to in order to get you on the plane. The less distance you have to go once on the plane the better.

On most major airlines when you are booking your ticket there will be a question asking if you have any accessibility needs. Be sure to fill out the questionnaire so that the airline can be expecting you and help you get your needs met.

This will be the time to let them know you are traveling with your own wheelchair, will need assistance to your gate if traveling alone, and that you will need an aisle chair to get on and off the plane.

Going through airport security in a wheelchair

Once you have arrived at the airport and checked your baggage, the individual checking you in will contact airport staff to come to assist you through security and to your gate if you are traveling alone.

Be sure to arrive early for your flight as security when you are in a wheelchair can be a much longer process. You do not have to remove your shoes if you are unable to do so.

If you cannot walk, you will have to go through a full pat-down procedure. You and your wheelchair will be searched. Don’t be scared to state what you can and cannot do. It is their job to accommodate your disability.

Tips for boarding the plane

When you get through security check-in with the gate agent. They can help you change your seat to be closer to the front of the plane, get you an aisle seat if you were unable to book one and make sure that you have the assistance you need to get on the plane.

Let them know you will need an aisle chair if you are unable to walk. You will also need a gate check tag for your wheelchair so that it is stowed under the plane and brought back up to the door of the plane after the flight.

Don’t forget to use the restroom. You will be unable to access a bathroom once on the plane.

Limiting your liquid intake prior to traveling can be helpful. You will be the first to board the plane so make sure you give yourself time to be able to use the restroom prior to boarding.

Transferring to a seat on the airplane

Airport staff will bring you backwards down the bridge of the plane if in a manual wheelchair or allow you to drive down to the door of the airplane in a power chair. Once at the entrance of the plane if you are unable to walk you will be transferred to the aisle chair.

If you are worried about transfers there is a portable transfer sling that may interest you for travel. It is costly but may be worth purchasing for your comfort. Visit www.adapts.org to check it out.

Airplane staff will then lift the aisle chair across the gap between the bridge and the plane. You will then be wheeled down the aisle of the plane backward. Once you reach your seat, you will be lifted out of the aisle chair into your airplane seat. Be sure to be vocal about how you want to be transferred.

Instructions for handling your wheelchair

If your wheelchair can fit whole underneath the plane, they will not fold it. If it cannot, instruct the crew on how to fold your wheelchair without breaking it.

Having the manual to present could be helpful if you are unable to instruct them yourself. Most batteries in power wheelchairs will not have to be removed due to the kind of battery that they typically have. Be sure to check ahead though!

If your cushion is removable take it onto the aircraft with you so that it does not get lost. Some people find it helpful to sit on their own cushions when on the plane.

United has a wheelchair information card that you can fill out and print. They advise having it laminated and attaching it to your wheelchair prior to travel.

I like the idea and could see where it could be helpful for both the airline and the traveler. You can find it on their website.

Getting comfortable on the plane

Be sure to get comfortable once you are on the airplane. Bring any propping devices that you think may be helpful if you are unable to sit on your own.

Have the flight attendant adjust the window shade or airflow if you are alone as you will be unable to do so on your own. Have a plan for landing.

Landing feels much like when a car stops a little too quickly. If you are not prepared for this you may end up in a compromising position that you are unable to right yourself after.

Deplaning at the end of a flight

Getting off the plane will be just like getting on only in reverse. However, you will be the last person off of the airplane this time.

If you are transferring planes often the airport staff taking you back off the plane in the aisle chair will be the person to transport you in your wheelchair to the next gate.

If this is your final destination don’t forget to stop at the baggage claim and have your accessible ride figured out prior to landing.

Congratulations you made it! Let your adventure begin!

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