Flying with a child with a disability can be challenging. Our daughter, Claire was born with a muscular disorder. While she is ambulatory, standing or walking for long periods of time can be difficult. Additionally, balancing on one leg to get her shoes off in the security line is tricky without assistance.
Navigating airports and flying days are physically taxing. Using a wheelchair is the easiest way to get around!
We’ve learned a few things along the way, so I wanted to write a post to help other families flying with a child with a disability. While Claire’s disability is physical and requires a wheelchair, many of these tips will also apply to other disabilities including cognitive disabilities.
SPECIFY THAT YOU NEED ASSISTANCE WHEN BOOKING YOUR FLIGHT
The first step you’ll want to take to ensure a stress-free travel day, is to let the airlines know that you’re flying with someone with a disability.
While entering passenger information during booking, you’ll see checkboxes for guests who require additional support. You can specify the type of support your child will need, including wheelchair assistance.
Checking this box will alert the airlines. HOWEVER, we have discovered that you will need to follow up with the airline prior to your travel day and/or when you arrive at the gate, depending on your needs. We’ll go into more detail in a bit.
GET HELP THROUGH THE SECURITY LINE USING TSA CARES
Security lines are the things nightmares are made of, especially for families that have a child with disabilities. TSA’s goal is to make sure everyone is safe, but they also want to move everyone through as efficiently as possible. Enter TSA Cares.
What is TSA Cares?
TSA Cares is a program created to assist passengers with the security check process. If you have concerns that make it difficult for you to comply with the usual TSA requirements (wearing religious garments, disabilities, medical supplies, etc.), TSA Cares is the perfect solution.
How to Get Assistance from TSA Cares
At least 72 hours prior to departure, you can complete a TSA assistance form online. If your flight departs in less than 72 hours, you can make a telephone call to and speak with a TSA Care representative.
Be very specific about what accommodations you need. For example, with our daughter, we carry medication that is in larger bottles. She’s also not able to balance on one foot to remove her shoes without assistance. Because of her muscle disorder, everything takes a little longer, and feeling hurried in the line is stressful.
Getting Through Security
As you approach the TSA security checkpoint, let the attendant know that you contacted TSA Cares ahead of time. A representative will be called (or will already be waiting for you).
If you didn’t call ahead, no worries! Just let them know about your situation and they’ll do whatever they can to make the screening process easier. Notifying them ahead of time is preferred so that they can schedule staff to assist you, reducing your waiting time.
We had THE BEST experience at LAX with TSA Cares. Not only did we have two representatives assisting us, they even opened a separate security lane especially for our family! The staff was very gentle, kind, and patient, taking their time to explain the process and assist our entire family.
There was a hiccup when they misplaced my ID. It got stuck under the ID machine), and they couldn’t find it. The staff felt horrible. They took us through the airport to our gate, assisted us with getting the wheelchair tagged and obtaining preboarding passes. I can’t say enough good things about TSA Cares!
IF YOU NEED WHEELCHAIR ASSISTANCE BUT DON’T OWN A WHEELCHAIR
The airline will provide you with a wheelchair if necessary. If you need assistance, contact the airline directly prior to your departure date. An airline representative will meet you at the front of the airport in the drop-off zone with a wheelchair. TSA is not able to assist with wheelchairs.
Even if your child would not normally use a wheelchair, you may want to take into account the amount of walking and/or standing that may be required of them. Much of this depends on the airport size, the busy-ness of the travel day, and your child’s stamina levels.
IF YOU HAVE YOUR OWN WHEELCHAIR
Passengers who are traveling with their own wheelchair will need to visit the gate agent upon arrival. We typically don’t check luggage, but if you do, you can also talk to the ticketing agent at the front of the airport.
The gate or ticketing agent will help you with two steps that need to occur prior to boarding when flying with a child with a disability.
Tag Your Wheelchair
The gate agent will provide you with a tag to attach to your wheelchair, just like you would for checked luggage. While the wheelchair is stored in a separate compartment from the luggage, this extra step ensures it doesn’t get lost and identifies it as yours.
OBTAIN A PREBOARDING PASS
Individuals with disabilities are permitted to board the plane first. The gate agent will print you a special boarding pass for the passenger with a disability. Some airlines only permit one companion to assist during preboarding while the remainder of the family boards with their typical boarding group.
This can be more challenging when you’re flying with an airline that doesn’t pre-assign seating, like Southwest. We did find that the gate agents generally make exceptions and allow the whole family to board, but it was always awkward and a bit confusing.
BOARDING THE PLANE
Wheelchair users will leave their chairs at the entrance of the plane at the end of the sky bridge. The wheelchair will be placed in a special storage compartment with other chairs, car seats, and strollers.
Because it can take a little while to bring the wheelchairs back up to the sky bridge, check with your flight attendant to see if you should remain in your seat or deplane with the rest of the passengers. We have a piece of rolling luggage that Claire is able to sit on in the sky bridge while we wait for her wheelchair to arrive. If we didn’t have that option for her, we would opt to stay seated so she didn’t have to stand and wait.
Start Planning for Your Trip
Flying with a child with a disability isn’t easy, but with a little preparation and help, you can reduce much of the stress of your travel day!
Do you have any questions about the process? Are you planning a trip soon? I’d love to hear from you! Drop your questions in the comments!