We’re sure this has happened to you. The flight is over and (Ack!) here comes your power wheelchair. Despite all your planning, discussions with airline personnel, and disassembly precautions, they still managed to do something unexpected to your chair. Ever wonder what was going through their minds? Well, now we know…

The following are the Department of Transportation’s guidelines for aircraft stowage of power wheelchairs:

 

Step 1: Determine the Orientation in Which the Wheelchair Will be Stowed

A wheelchair should be stowed standing upright if possible. If it cannot fit in the cargo compartment standing upright, it can be laid on its side so that it does fit. The stowage position most often determines how the battery must be stowed. The dimensions of the cargo compartment access door may require the wheelchair to be tipped sideways to fit through the door – a factor which also influences battery stowage.

You need to compare the dimensions of the wheelchair to (1) those of the cargo compartment in which the wheelchair will be placed and (2) the cargo compartment access door.

Therefore:

 

  • You need to determine if the wheelchair can be loaded and stowed:
    • standing upright vs. on its side vs. not at all
  • You can determine the overall wheelchair dimensions by one or more of the following methods:
    • a) Ask the passenger
    • b) Measure the chair
  • You can determine the aircraft cargo compartment and access door dimensions by one or more of the following methods:
    • a) See the Operating Manual
    • b) Ask cargo handlers to take measurements

    If the wheelchair can be loaded and stowed upright:

    GO TO STEP 3
    If the wheelchair cannot be loaded or stowed upright:

    GO TO STEP 2

    Step 2: Determine if the Wheelchair Battery is “SPILLABLE” or “NON-SPILLABLE”

    Batteries are categorized as a hazardous material by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Material Transportation Bureau (MTB). U.S. DOT regulations specify methods for battery stowage on aircraft partially as a function of the battery type. There are two major types of batteries used in electric wheelchairs:

    Most common type: Lead acid batteries “Spillable” – A lead acid battery is filled with a fluid called electrolyte. Electrolyte is highly corrosive. It can leak or spill out of the battery unless the battery is packaged and handled properly.

    Less common type: Gel-cell battery “Non-Spillable”- A gel-cell battery is filled with electrolyte which is formulated in a gel or “jelly” state. The gel will not leak or spill out of gel-cell batteries.

    You can determine what type of battery powers the wheelchair by one or more of the following methods:

  • a) Inspect the battery for the label “Gel-cell”
  • b) Ask the passenger
  • c) Open battery vents to determine if they are filled with electrolyte fluid or a gelled substance

    Step 3: Implement the Proper Method for Stowing the Battery

    Based on the findings from Steps 1 & 2, you need to determine the proper method for stowing the battery from the chart.

    METHOD A: PREPARE BATTERY FOR STOWAGE IN WHEELCHAIR

    IMPORTANT: Use this stowage method only when the wheelchair with spillable or non-spillable batteries will be loaded and stowed standing upright.

    1. Make sure the battery is firmly secured to the wheelchair. If holder bracket appears to be loose, either (1) tighten holder bracket screws, bolts or belts or (2) strap the battery to the wheelchair frame with strong tape such as duct or electrical tape.

    2. Disconnect the power supply using one of the following methods:

  • First choice: Disconnect the plug on the main power cable which runs from the battery case to the motor. Depending on the wheelchair brand, the cable will be labeled “power” or will be color-coded red.
  • Second choice: If there is no main power plug, disconnect the battery terminal cables from both the positive (+) and negative (-) poles.CAUTION: When performing this task, you must wear eyeglasses and use the proper size wrench and pliers. To avoid damage the terminal connectors should not be “jerked” loose, but rather, loosened sufficiently to be detached without using excessive force. You must not let metal tools touch the metal frame and the battery terminal pole at the same time or you could generate sparks or enough heat to pose a burn hazard.3. If the battery is in its own container (bucket) equipped with a lid, no further preparation is needed (if the lid has been removed to disconnect the battery cables, put it back on). Proceed to step 4.
  • a) If the battery container does not have a lid, terminals must be capped or taped to protect the battery from accidental contact with metal objects during transit or reinstallation in the wheelchair; contact could cause sparks and high heat.
  • b )If the battery is not in a container which would serve to contain minor seepage of battery acid, the battery’s regular vent caps (which are not “spill-resistant”) should be replaced with “spill resistant” vent caps. Package the regular vent caps in a plastic bag and attach the bag to the wheelchair.WARNING: Regular vent caps must be replaced before reconnecting the battery to avoid dangerous pressure buildup in the battery during subsequent use.4. Stow the wheelchair in the aircraft cargo compartment in a manner that assures it will remain standing upright, using cargo straps or netting.

    END OF PROCEDURE
    METHOD B: REMOVE BATTERY FROM WHEELCHAIR AND PACKAGE IN APPROVED CONTAINER

    IMPORTANT: Use this stowage method when the wheelchair with spillable batteries must be turned sideways to fit it through the cargo compartment door or if it will be stowed on its side. Both are conditions that could cause battery acid to spill or leak from the battery.

    1. For batteries placed in separate containers/housings, remove the container from the wheelchair (if practical) and remove the battery from its container. You may have to perform the next step first, before removing the battery from the container.

    2. Disconnect the power supply by disconnecting the battery terminal cables from both the positive (+) and negative (-) poles.

    CAUTION: When performing this task, you must wear protective gloves and eyeglasses and use the proper size wrench and pliers. To avoid damage, the terminal connectors should not be “jerked” loose, but rather, loosened sufficiently to be detached without using excessive force. You must not let metal tools touch the metal frame and the battery terminal pole at the same time or you could generate sparks or enough heat to pose a burn hazard.

    3. Cap or tape the battery terminals/poles to prevent contact with metal objects during transit or removal/installation.

    In order to perform the next task properly, an approved battery container including the following items are needed:

  • 1 roll electrical tape
  • 2 roll 2″ masking tape
  • 1 roll packing tape
  • 1 roll putty
  • 2 battery terminal/pole caps
  • 6 “spill resistant” screw caps
  • 6 “spill resistant” push caps
  • 3 sheets absorbent material
  • 1 large polyethylene bag to hold the battery & container
  • 1 small polyethylene bag for regular battery caps
  • 1 cardboard shipping box
  • 1 special wheelchair shipping tag4a. If the battery is “spillable” and is equipped with regular vent caps (which do not resist spills), replace these caps with the “spill resistant battery” vent caps. Package the regular caps in a plastic bag.4b. If the battery is “maintenance free” type, seal the vent slots with putty and hold the putty in place with the 2″ masking tape.

    WARNING: Putty must be removed from vent holes before operating the chair.

    5. Wrap the battery with three layers of absorbent material. Three layers will be enough to absorb the entire fluid contents of the largest wheel chair batteries.

    6. If the battery container has been removed from the wheelchair, place the wrapped battery back in its original container, place the battery (and container) in the plastic bag, twist the top of the bag, and seal the plastic bag with tape.

    7. Place both the plastic bag containing the battery and the smaller plastic bag containing the regular battery caps in the shipping box.

    8. Seal the box with shipping tape.

    9. Attach a wheelchair shipping tag to the box.

    10. Stow the box in the aircraft according to the proper orientation as defined by the “THIS SIDE UP” instruction and arrows printed on the box. Stow the box near the wheelchair to avoid their separation.

    END OF PROCEDURE
    METHOD C: REMOVE BATTERY FROM WHEELCHAIR AND STOW

    IMPORTANT: Use this stowage method when a wheel-chair with non-spillable batteries must be stowed on its side. Non-spillable batteries will not leak if the wheelchair must be tipped during loading or must be stowed on its side. However, the batteries should be removed to prevent shifting of the battery and potential damage to the wheelchair during transit.

    1. Disconnect the main power plug (remove cables from the battery terminals only if necessary to remove the battery from the wheelchair).

    2. For a battery in a separate container which can be easily removed from the wheelchair, remove the container with the battery left inside the container.

    3. If the container has a lid which prevents the battery terminals from contacting other metal objects, make sure the lid is secure (put the lid back on the container if it was removed to detach the battery cables).

    4. Place the battery (and the battery container if provided) in a shipping box and seal the box with shipping tape.

    5. Attach a wheelchair shipping tag to the box.

    6. Stow the box and the wheelchair close together in the aircraft. Secure the box and wheelchair with cargo straps or netting.

    END OF PROCEDURE