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Air Travel Tips After an SCI or BI

November 22, 2019

Flying for the first time after a life-altering injury can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience, something our patients and their families know well. That's why Craig Hospital staff developed a program to help re-introduce patients and families to an airport in a learning environment alongside a care team. For nearly five years, Craig Therapeutic Recreation staff have organized a monthly outing to Denver International Airport to give groups of patients and their family members an opportunity to learn how to navigate the airport in a new way, often in a wheelchair for the first time. Each month, the group travels to DIA to work with United Airlines, TSA personnel and G2 Passenger Assistance staff to go through security, travel between terminals and learn how to board a plane. Craig Therapeutic Recreation Specialist Donna Goldberg helps organize and lead this trip each month alongside other TR staff, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and a nurse.

“The airport outing is an excellent way to help patients prepare for air travel,” Donna says. “They get to experience going through security, riding the trains and directing non-Craig staff on how to transfer them out of their wheelchair and onto the aisle chair. Without the pressure of having a flight to catch and with the support of Craig therapists, patients have the opportunity to ask TSA and airline professionals questions they have about preparing for air travel as well as practice going through the airport and getting ready to fly home. The airport outing gives patients the confidence to know that they can handle air travel for vacations, business and more when they leave Craig.”

On each trip, patients are encouraged to bring family members and caregivers to learn alongside them. Minnesota natives Brok Hansmeyer and his wife attended a recent airport outing to help prepare them for their upcoming holiday travel.

"We’ll be flying twice in the next month with kids, so it was nice to learn how to fly without the extra responsibility of kids, bags and the busyness of flying over the holidays. The airports are just going to be busier, so it was good to be able to practice flying in a more relaxed environment where we had people being able to help us, showing us how to transfer onto the aisle chairs, how to get through security," Brok says. "I feel a lot more confident now knowing how to set up a plan. Get to the airport early. Let the airport know that you’re in a wheelchair so they can be prepared. Usually you’re in a rush at the airport, so you'll need everything planned ahead of time, everything packed. Have a plan in place to get to A to B to C to on the airplane."

Preparation, time management and knowing what you need are keys to successful travel. Below are a few tips to help you embark on your next adventure. Rules and regulations for airline travel change regularly, so always double check with your airline and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website prior to leaving.

Tips for Air Travel

Before Getting Off the Ground
Planning your trip ahead of time is key to success. Be aware of your physical and personal care needs when deciding on time of flight, nonstop or connecting, length of stay, and where you will be traveling.

Reservations
All airlines have online reservation systems. Anyone can make reservations online, except for those who need oxygen or ventilator support. Book your departure to give yourself time for personal care and travel to the airport. Call the airline’s accessibility department to indicate what type of wheelchair—power or manual—you are using, assistance you will need with transfers and to reserve seats. If you require assistance at the airport, notify the airline before going. The airline or TSA personnel (also known as TSOs) can assist you through the airport and security screening.

Pre-Flight:
Arrive at departing airport at least 2-3 hours before flight. It may take you a little longer to get through the airport and you do not want to be rushed.

Check-in with Airline:

  • Self-identify right away and often—advise them that you will need an aisle chair.
  • Check all luggage; traveling through the airport will be easier if you take one small carry-on bag with you. Note: Luggage that contains mostly “medically necessary” items will not incur a baggage fee.
  • Confirm seat assignments. Request a bulkhead or an aisle seat assignment. This should have been arranged through the accessibility department when first making your reservations.
  • Request an aisle chair (straight-back chair with wheels) for getting onto the airplane.
  • Request assistance with bags and transfers onto airplane if needed.

Going Through Security and the Screening Process

  • Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) may be used for people who are able to stand and walk unassisted. People who are not eligible for AIT screening include infants, people who use wheelchairs or anyone who cannot stand without assistance for 5-7 seconds during the screening. AIT scanning is safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical transplant(s) and prostheses.
  • The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) employs professionals who are referred to as Transportation Safety Officers (TSO). These people will be guiding you through the screening process, assisting with carry-on bags and performing the necessary screening process.
  • TSA has developed guidelines with input from disability-related groups and organizations in order to assist individuals with disabilities or medical conditions. They have trained their airport screeners how to ensure safe, dignified and comfortable screening in special circumstances. For more detailed information about traveling with a disability, please consult the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) website as rules and regulations are updated frequently.
  • Advise the TSO about your level of ability such as if you are able to stand, walk a few steps, raise your arms, or lean forward in your wheelchair. Also advise them about any attached medical devices (pumps, leg bags, drains, etc.) and what areas of your body are hyper-sensitive and/or painful. You may ask for a private screening at any time.
  • People who are using wheelchairs will be given a physical pat-down. The TSO will search outside of your clothing. They may ask you to stand up, push up or lean forward. They may also ask about your leg bag, if you have one.
  • Friends and family will have to go through the walk-through screening device. All carry-on items must go through the x-ray machine.

Service Animals

  • A service animal must have identification such as cards, documentation, presence of a harness or marking on harness.
  • You will not be required to be separated from your service animal, but you are required to maintain control of the service animal, unless the walk through metal detector alarms; then you both will need to go through additional separate screening.
  • TSO will ask permission prior to touching your service animal or its belongings.

Medications

  • The limit of one personal item and one carry on does not apply to medical supplies, equipment, mobility aids or assistive devices required by an individual with a disability.
  • All medications must have proper documentation for going through security, such as your name, medication name, dosage.
  • All medications in any form and associated supplies such as syringes, sharps, infusers, inhalers and auto-injectable pens will be allowed through the security checkpoint once they have been screened.
  • If you have any type of internal medication pump (for example: insulin, baclofen, pain), advise the TSO that it cannot be removed.
  • The 3-1-1 Rule of limiting liquids to 3 oz. per bag per person does not apply to medications. You should carry what you need for the flight and/or delays only. Ice packs, as long as they are frozen, are allowed for medications that need to be kept cold.

Medical Oxygen and Respiratory Equipment

  • Please check with your airline as each has its own policy for on-board oxygen transportation and in-flight oxygen usage. It is best to carry a prescription for oxygen and respiratory equipment with you.
  • Notify TSO if equipment can’t be safely disconnected so they can to do an alternate screening.
  • Oxygen supplies and equipment go through x-ray screening or a physical inspection and an explosive trace detection screening.
  • CPAP must be taken out of the carrying case and placed in a bin (we recommend having it in a plastic bag). Face masks and tubing can remain in the carrying case.

Medical Devices: prosthetics, casts, braces, walkers, crutches and canes

  • All devices will need to be seen and touched as part of the screening process. You will not be required to remove prosthetics, braces, or casts. Walkers, crutches and canes undergo x-ray screening if they can fit through the x-ray machine
  • You may request a private screening in another area so screening isn’t conducted publicly.

External Medical Devices

  • Notify TSO if you have a feeding tube, ostomy bag, urine leg bag, or other type of external device.
  • You should not be required to remove clothing or to empty any bags; shoes can be left on.
  • You may be asked to lift your clothing or pant leg to expose the location of a device.

Computer Assistant Devices

  • Notify TSO that your assistive device is not a laptop computer but an augmentation device (for speech, movement, etc.).
  • These devices will have to undergo a visual and explosive trace detection inspection.

Check-in at the Gate

  • Arrive at your designated gate at least one hour before flight time.
  • Check in with airline personnel, confirm your seat, and request an aisle chair for boarding if needed.
  • Ask for a “Gate Check” tag. This lets the airline personnel know your wheelchair must go on your plane. Attach the Gate Check tag to your wheelchair (Airline personnel might do this for you.)
  • Ask about the “early boarding” procedure as each airline has a different procedure. Be ready to board before other passengers. People who require an aisle chair are first to board and the last to get off the plane.

Boarding the Airplane and During the Flight

  • Stay in your wheelchair down the jetway to the airplane door. If you are not able to maneuver a steep jetway, airline personnel will assist you.
  • Airport personnel will be available to transfer you from your wheelchair to an aisle chair at the door of plane. Be specific with them about how to safely transfer you. Take your seat cushion and any removable parts off your wheelchair. Store these in the overhead bin on board.
  • Remind the flight attendant that your wheelchair needs to go under the plane and make sure it has the Gate Check tag on it.
  • Once you are settled into your seat, remember to do weight shifts, drink plenty of water and have a good flight! Have a plan for emptying your leg bag; ask your family or traveling companion to assist you. And if you must, use the “throw up” bag provided in the seat pocket and dispose of it in the airplane lavatory.
  • About 30 minutes before landing, remind the flight attendant your wheelchair is underneath the airplane and that it needs to be brought to the door of the plane after landing.

Getting off the Airplane

  • Once all other passengers have deplaned, you will be assisted off the plane. Make sure your wheelchair is at the door before getting on an aisle chair. Transfer to the aisle chair. Be sure you know your wheelchair is there for you to transfer into.
  • Check your wheelchair for any damage. If there is any damage to your wheelchair, you must file a damage claim with the airline before departing the airport.* That claim is filed at the Airline Baggage Claim office. *Different airlines have different damage claim policies but it is best to file one as soon as possible.
  • Proceed to the baggage claim area to retrieve your checked luggage.

Complaints or Comments about Airline Service

Consumers with concerns about air safety should contact the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (faa.gov); concerns about aviation security should contact the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) (tsa.gov).

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) (transportation.gov/airconsumer) operates a complaints handling system for consumers who experience air travel service problems. Consumers may also register complaints and comments about airline service concerning accessibility, handling of a person with a disability or any alleged discrimination.

Print out this checklist from our Resource Library to help you and your family prepare for your next flight.