Flying With a Disability: What Parents Should Know Before Arriving at the Airport

Lisa Fritscher September 20, 2010 3 Comments

Anchorage Airport Alaska at Midnight

Anchorage airport Alaska at midnight

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, air travel has become increasingly challenging for everyone. Taking off your shoes, undergoing random pat-downs and packing your liquids to comply with regulations can be annoying at best, particularly when traveling with children. If your child has a disability, the process may seem overwhelming. Make a detailed plan before leaving home to help everyone understand what to expect. 

Airport Screening Lanes 

Most major airports now offer three separate security lanes. The black diamond lane is for expert travelers with little carryon luggage and no special equipment. This lane is primarily used by business travelers and frequent fliers, and is not recommended for families. The blue square lane is for casual travelers who are familiar with airport screening procedures. Many well-traveled families with older children use this lane. The green circle lane is for those with special needs, including travelers with disabilities and families with small children. In this lane, everyone is taking their time. You need not worry about “holding up” the line when using the green circle lane. 


Flip Flops

Flip flops are easy to remove at the security checkpoint

All travelers passing through a United States airport must remove their shoes and place them on the X-ray conveyor belt. Have everyone in the family wear flip flops or other easily removable footwear. If your disabled child needs special footwear that involves buckles or laces, decide in advance who will help the child with his shoes. That person should not be distracted with carryon bags, electronics, medications or other equipment. Some airports provide chairs immediately before and after the security checkpoint, but many do not. 

Carryon Items 

All items must be individually placed into a bin and onto the X-ray conveyor belt. This includes any pillows, cushions or detachable baskets on your child’s wheelchair or ECV, as well as any mobility aids such as a cane. Items in carryon bags should be neatly packed, making it easy to identify each item during the scan. 

Unless you have a specifically designated TSA (Transportation Security Administration)-approved computer bag, you must remove your laptop from its case. All cell phones and handheld electronic devices must be separately scanned, and you may be required to turn them on. 


Zip Top Bag with Liquids and Medications

Follow the 3-1-1 rule for all liquids except medications

All liquids and gels must conform to the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule. Each person may present a single one-quart zip top baggie containing liquids in packages no larger than 3 ounces. However, an exception is made for medically necessary liquids. 

If your child uses liquid or gel medications, breast milk or baby food, or if he has a medical need for water or juice, you may carry reasonable quantities. You must declare the liquid items separately from all other carryon items, and present the liquids for additional security screening. 

Wheelchairs or Scooters 

ECV Chair

Lock up your chair anytime you leave it unattended

If your child uses a wheelchair or ECV, you have a few options. If the child is able to walk through the metal detector, this is the simplest solution. Roll right up to the metal detector and have the child walk through. The screener will help reunite the child with the chair. 

If your child is unable to walk, you may carry her through the metal detector. Leave the chair with the screener, pick up the child and walk through the detector. You may not pass the child to anyone else until you have both fully passed through the scanner. 

The chair will need to be screened as well. After passing through the metal detector, you will be directed to a separate screening area where the chair will be carefully analyzed. Most screeners allow the child to remain in the chair during this process. Designate someone in your party to collect the carryon bags from the X-ray belt while you are busy with the chair. 

Stay With Your Child 

Certain medical devices including prosthetics and casts may trigger the need for additional security screenings. Your child may need to undergo a pat-down, be scanned with a hand wand or have the cast X-rayed. At no time is TSA permitted to separate you from your child. Assist the security screener by sharing your child’s physical abilities and limitations. Ask the screener what needs to be accomplished and share your opinions on how best to accomplish the goal without causing pain or distress to the child. Speak calmly with your child throughout the process, giving reassurance that everything is okay. 

Boarding the Plane 

Medication Container

Leave your medications in the original pharmacy containers

Most airlines offer special pre-boarding for passengers with disabilities. As soon as you book your flight, contact the airline to explain your family’s needs. Special paperwork is required for certain medical supplies such as a power chair with wet cell batteries or an oxygen container. Speak with the airline’s special needs department at least 24 hours before the flight to confirm that all paperwork was received. Check in at the gate at least 30 minutes before general boarding begins to handle last-minute details. Wheelchairs, scooters and strollers can be checked at the gate. 

Medical supplies do not count against your carryon luggage limit. If your child requires a great deal of medication, consider packing a separate medication backpack to carry on board the plane. Never pack medications or medical devices in your checked luggage. Divide the medical supplies into enough containers to make them easy to lift into overhead storage. Unless you are in a bulkhead seat, you will also have a small amount of storage space beneath the seat in front of you.

Arriving at Your Destination 

ECV at Airport

An ECV can double as a pack mule for heavy carryon bags

If you gate-checked an item, settle in and relax while everyone else rushes off the plane. Gate-checked mobility aids must be unloaded from the plane’s cargo compartment and then brought to you, a process which often takes 10 or 15 minutes. If you have multiple carryon bags in overhead storage, remove them and place them around your seats to give other travelers access to their belongings. Aircraft personnel will let you know when your chair is delivered. Although incidents are rare, check the chair thoroughly for damage before leaving. By the time you make it to baggage claim, it should be easy to tell which bags are yours!

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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3 Comments to “Flying With a Disability: What Parents Should Know Before Arriving at the Airport”
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