Dear Editor,

My husband and I travel often. He has been in a wheelchair since 1973, so we have considerable experience. We will be visiting Tucson in April, and we want to take the power wheelchair this time. We have always used his manual chair for vacations, but many trips have been ruined by inadequate rental cars. We will rent a wheelchair van in Tucson. We need tips, hints, advice and warnings on how best to get the wheelchair safely to and from our destination on an airplane. We have to change planes on the way out, so we don’t want to lose the chair in the process. I wasn’t sure how to post this on the Talk Back. Your site is really great. I’d like to add some information about some places we have stayed that are really wonderful.

Elaine Sloan

Air travel with a power wheelchair is far from a snap, but it can be a smooth process if you take the right precautions. First, alert the airline about the chair when you buy your tickets. Second, make sure you get a set of sealed, gel/dry cell batteries for your trip (always refer to them as “dry cell” batteries to airline personnel). Airlines are nutty about the standard acid-filled wheelchair batteries and must remove and specially package any such batteries.

While checking in, get a “gate check” tag for the wheelchair so that your chair will be brought to you at the door of the plane when you land. Some airlines also attach paperwork to the chair stating that the batteries are dry cells (be sure to tell them). Since you are changing planes, have the gate check tag made out for your final destination, unless you have a long enough layover that your husband will need his own chair. If this is the case, have the gate check tag made out for your connecting airport and simply get a new one made out for your final destination at the connecting gate.

After checking in and going to your departure gate, notify the airline personnel at the gate that you’ll be flying with your chair and will require assistance with transfers. The next part is a bit of work, but can save you the headache of having a broken chair when you get to your destination.

Using a small bag of tools you’ve brought with you, disconnect all of the battery terminal wires, motor connection wires, and chin/hand control wires. Cover all exposed terminals or wire clips with electrician’s tape and place the loose wires in a carry-on bag. I also remove my chin-control and the chair’s computer pack and bring them as carry-on pieces to avoid damage. My experience is that airlines worry when they see wires connected to a battery and will remove them on their own, often breaking things. The disconnection procedure takes between ten and twenty minutes depending on your familiarity with the chair. You’ll reconnect everything when you get to your final destination.

You will board the plane first. Release the chair’s gears and have airline personnel push your husband to the door of the plane. Once again, point out that the batteries are dry cells and that all the wires have been disconnected. The airline personnel will assist your husband’s transfer into an aisle chair, then onto the plane. As soon as he’s out of his chair, replace any arm/leg rests that were removed during the transfer and make sure the breaks and gears are released.

Just before take-off, ask a flight attendant to have the captain confirm that your chair has been loaded on board. Hopefully, following these steps you’ll arrive in Tucson with a power chair raring to go once you’ve reconnected everything.