Flying as a wheelchair user

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Plane approaching the landing

5742228592_2cd212fbcb_b-1Mobility. The leading promise of all passenger transport companies. Mobility is a meaningful service for all transport companies such as railway companies or airlines. But if you need mobility aids such as wheelchairs or have other restrictions like reduced mobility, hearing or visual impairments, mobility quickly becomes less obvious. Some time ago we had written a report about our experiences on travelling in a wheelchair by train and gave some practical tips, in this article we would like to discuss the special features of travelling by airplane as a wheelchair user.

Legal basics around flight passengers with disabilities

For wheelchair users flight travel are a little bit more complicated. This is due in particular to the fact that there is no uniform legislation or regulation and that the airlines also have a great deal of room for interpretation. Within EU countries, document 1107/2006 entitled ‘Guidelines to improve and facilitate the application of Regulation’ is currently in force, which suggests to airlines certain procedures for dealing with disabled people (PRM), pregnant women, children and the elderly. Only a few passages from this are clearly defined, which is now also complained about by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

However, what is clearly and clearly defined and what air passengers can rely on at any time:
Airlines are not allowed to turn away disabled people!
This results from the following article (see text of the regulation links):

Article 3
Obligation to transport
An air carrier, its vicarious agent or a travel company may not refuse, on grounds of the passenger’s disability or reduced mobility, to:
(a) accept a booking for a flight from or to an airport covered by this Regulation;
(b) to take on board a disabled person or a person with reduced mobility at such an airport, provided that the person concerned has a valid ticket and a valid booking.

Article 4 lays down a few exceptional cases, namely the case where the transport of a passenger would endanger safety on board or the second case where the passenger cannot board simply because of his body fullness because he does not fit through the doors. In all other cases, the airline may not refuse the passenger boarding! The same applies to the companion: all airlines require an accompanying person for persons with disabilities in mobility (PRM, i.e. disabled persons with severe walking disabilities, wheelchair, blind people, etc., who cannot move alone on board without help). Unfortunately, in practice, things go different: time and again, people report that they were left alone because of their disability, even though they had a valid ticket. This is absolutely inadmissible and has just been explicitly reprimanded by the EU!

The second reason for this problem is that the EU’s paper is too inaccurate. It leaves considerable room for interpretation, which is also widely exploited by many countries and airlines. This is another reason why IATA is pushing for uniform legislation with clear guidelines.

Flying as an disabled passenger in practice

We already had a look on the legal aspects. In practice, disabled people are highly recommended to contact the airline at least one week before the scheduled or booked departure and inform them that they need special assistance. Also at the airport, depending on the airport and management, a little preparation can sometimes be helpful – even the handling of the wheelchair varies depending on the airport. While in most international airports and also in Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel we were always able to approach the cabin by wheelchair and the wheelchair was then moved into the hold by a loading employee, in Berlin-SXF we once had to put the wheelchair in exchange for an airport-owned wheelchair at check-in. In addition, aircraft that have registered boarding or unboarding of people with disabilities are usually boarded over the swivel bridge on the ground floor and are not parked on an outside position that is only accessible by shuttle busses (at least theoretically – practice looks completely different…). So in your own interest you should make yourself noticeable beforehand and, if possible, additional hand luggage (medical device should NEVER be checked in as baggage if possible, as both insurance law and organisational problems in the event of damage can occur!) be registered in advance.

Personally, we have not had any negative experiences with any airline, whether TUIfly, Air Berlin, Condor or EasyJet by today. Because of this, we cannot make a recommendation here.

Discounts for severely disabled persons and companions on flights

Those who are spoiled by the compensation of disadvantages in public transport and the railways will be disappointed at this point: as a rule, there are hardly any discounts for people with disabilities on airlines. Only seat reservation is free of charge on most airlines. And most importantly, the wheelchair does not count as luggage! The transport of the wheelchair on the aircraft may not be charged or counted against the contractual amount of baggage allowance.
Only AirBerlin (R.I.P.) had to be emphasized positively: Accompanying persons of passengers with a severely disabled card and a registered sign “B” (or comparable) only had to pay the taxes and fees as well as the service charge at airberlin on domestic flights. Most propably that’s not the true reason why they went on their upper’s…
As far as I know, AirBerlin was the only airline in Germany that transported passengers free of charge on domestic flights and thus partially implements the corresponding recommendation of the European Commission.

Practical tips for flying with a wheelchair or walking disability

Due to the huge differences in handling of PRM depending on the airline, airport and the like, it is difficult to pronounce general practical tips. However, it is particularly important for international flights that it was clearly communicated a passenger’s special needs in advance. There are so-called Special Service Request codes, or SSR codes for short. There are international standards, so that clear registrations can be made using them – despite language hurdles. We therefore generally register air travel with the appropriate SSR codes in order to avoid unnecessary effort at the airport by the service personnel as well as surprised stuff.

What experiences did you make? I look forward to input!

SSR codes for people with disabilities

  • BDGP – Blind or visually impaired passenger with guide dog – no further assistance required.
  • BDGR – Blind or visually impaired passenger with guide dog – accompaniment required from the terminal to the aircraft and vice versa.
  • BLND – Blind passenger.
  • BLDP – Blind or visually impaired passenger without guide dog or companion – no further assistance required.
  • BLDR – Blind or visually impaired passenger without guide dog or companion – accompaniment required from the terminal to the aircraft and vice versa.
  • BLSC – Blind or visually impaired passenger with companion – no further assistance required.
  • DMAA – Passenger with intellectual limitations who understands and can implement safety instructions – no personal assistance, but escorts from the terminal to the plane and back needed.
  • DEAF – Deaf passenger.
  • ESAN – Passenger travels with dog for mental support.
  • MAAS – Passenger needs assistance with baggage claim and connecting flights, also in conjunction with BLIND and DEAF.
  • MEDA – Medical device using oxygen.
  • PPOC – Passenger with approved portable oxygen concentrator.
  • SVAN – Passenger with service dog.
  • WCOB – passenger with wheelchair on board – needs assistance on board.
  • WCHR – Wheelchair to ramp – Passenger can overcome steps and move independently in the cabin, but needs assistance up to the aircraft.
  • WCHS – Wheelchair above steps – Passenger cannot overcome steps, but can move independently in the cabin.
  • WCHC – Wheelchair on board – Passenger requires onboard wheelchair and must be transferred to the seat.
  • WCMP – Manual wheelchair without battery.
  • WCBD – Wheelchair with dry cell battery.
  • WCBW – Wheelchair with wet cell battery.

Related links

Photo: Shreyans Bhansali / under cc-by-nc-sa-2.0

This post is also available in: German

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