Airline Travel Tips for Disabled Passengers

I had to dig deep to find information about airline travel tips for disabled passengers. There didn’t seem to be a “one stop” source even though thousands of passengers with disabilities fly each year. The U.S. Department of Transportation has information on the Air Carrier Act as it pertains to passengers with disabilities. What I needed to know for my flight from Raleigh to Alaska was what help is available, how to access it and who to call.

gayle airplane 4My disabilities aren’t necessarily obvious. The leg brace I wear for foot drop keeps me upright but my balance is wonky. It also eliminates the chance that I’ll set a speed record. Directions confuse me thanks to a head injury and there’s epilepsy to be concerned about! I say this because sometimes people who have hidden disabilities hesitate to ask for help for fear of not being taken seriously. Put that aside. Airline travel is a time to be proactive. These resources exist because they are needed.

The TSA has help for disabled passengers in the form of a Passenger Support Specialist. This person will meet you at the security checkpoint and walk you through the whole process. The specialists move you to the head of the line because they know it may take an extra few minutes to get you screened.

tweaked-suitcaseI was concerned about lifting my carry-on bag onto the conveyor belt because of a shoulder problem. No worries. The TSA specialist not only lifted it onto the belt but helped me put everything into the bins. She even put me at ease about being unable to take off my shoe because of the leg brace.  The specialist explained about checking me with a wand and waited for me to emerge from the big scanning machine.

Steps (even small ones) are not my strong suit. The specialist went for a chair the second that she saw me wobble and genuinely asked if I was okay. Another agent offered to carry my bins and suitcase to the repacking area when she was finished. He even put the empty bins back in the rack for me!

The passenger support specialist was also helpful because of my medications. I travel with what seems like a small pharmacy. The TSA has to check all my bottles, my inhalers and nebulizer to be sure everything is safe fly. Because of this, the person I was assigned to was a medication specialist. She quickly looked over my medications and cleared them.

Email TSA Cares  or call (855) 787-2227 Federal Relay: 711 to arrange for assistance. They ask for 72 hours advance notice. Their hours are:
Weekdays: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET
Weekends/Holidays: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET

TSA PreCheck membership is a service I found out about only after it was too late to apply. Applying online only takes a few minutes and $85.00. But, then you have to schedule an in-person interview that includes a background check and screening. You’ll receive what’s called a Known Traveler Number later. I was told to allow a month to six weeks for processing.

Once approved, members are expedited through the screening process. You won’t need to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets. Although it may be tempting not to arrange for a passenger support specialist, it may be wise to think again. TSA doesn’t  guarantee PreCheck service to be available all the time and says that no individual is guaranteed expedited screening. In fact, my bodacious travel companion had to go through the regular process despite having the membership. For these reasons disabled passengers may still want to set up with a program support specialist.

tsa notification cardThe TSA Notification Card is a helpful tool that allows you to quietly notify the agents of any challenges you have that can affect your screening. It’s a small card that you print out at home and bring with you. There is an area for you to type in any disability or medical condition that can affect screening.

I placed mine in the first bin so each agent could see it as the bins worked their way on the conveyor belt. The card seemed to make a difference even with the other assistance.
Your airline will also have help for passengers with disabilities. Call the customer service number for your airline to make arrangements. Alaska Airlines had wheelchair assistance ready for me on each leg of the journey. I never would have made the connection in Seattle without them! Keep some cash handy to tip with if the airline arranges for wheelchair assistance. Each one seemed to appreciate the tip I gave them.

Most airlines allow you have a carry-on bag and a personal item. They may or may not help you stow them. For example, Alaska Air says passengers must be able to lift your own bag into the overhead bin. I found that other passengers were willing to help but there’s no guarantees. Check with your airline in advance and plan accordingly.

Early boarding is available for passengers who have disabilities as well as for priority customers and parents traveling with children. The gate attendant with your airline will call for people who are eligible for early boarding to step forward but may not specifically call for people who have disabilities to do so. If you hear the airline employee call for either of the other groups, take that as your cue to step up as well.

These are the airline travel tips for disabled passengers that I was able to find and used. Flights can be challenging but they don’t have to be. These services enabled me to have a much better flying experience and reduced my air travel anxiety.


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