How do wheelchair users get on the airplane?

Passengers who are non-ambulatory can still fly, but they’ll need help getting to and from their seat on the airplane. The aisle chair (also referred to as a straight back or high back) is a small wheelchair that is used to transport immobile passengers from their own wheelchair to a seat on the airplane. Aisle chairs are used during enplaning and deplaning, and can also be used during the flight to access the lavatory.

When you are making your flight reservation, be sure to notify the airline of any special assistance requests. If you cannot walk, they’ll need to organize assistance and an aisle chair for your convenience. On the day of travel, present yourself to the gate agent and remind him/her that you will require preboarding assistance and use of the aisle chair.

Wheelchair user boards airplane with aisle chair

Once your boarding pass has been scanned, you’ll proceed down the jetbridge to the door of the aircraft. Aisle chairs are parked alongside the passenger’s own wheelchair to allow for an easy side-to-side transfer. If you are unable to perform the transfer yourself, the wheelchair assistance contractors are able to lift you into the aisle chair. In the photo above, you can see an aisle chair next to my own power wheelchair.

If you do need to be lifted into the aisle chair, know that the assistance teams have been trained in proper transfer techniques – a requirement of federal law. That said, you should still advise them on the best way to accommodate you. If there are any areas on your body that are painful to the touch, be sure to inform them. Communication is key! And, even if you are a seasoned pro at air travel with a disability, understand that they can’t read your mind – they just want to help you.

Once you have transferred or been lifted into the chair, you’ll be secured using a series of straps and buckles. These will go across your chest and legs for your safety. While most aisle chairs are uncomfortable, you should only be seated in it for a few minutes at a time. The images below showcase some of the different aisle chair designs currently used in airports in the United States and around the world. There is unfortunately no way to reserve a particular type – it’s typically the luck of the draw.

Airplane Boarding Aisle Chair Types

The three most common aisle chair types are pictured above. #1 is the chair that is most widely used, and the one I am photographed using earlier in this article. #2 is the oldest type of aisle chair, and it has only two wheels. This chair must be tilted backwards to move and has no armrests. Pray that you don’t get this antique relic of days long past! #3 is a recent design, that is the most comfortable. This chair, produced by the Staxi company, has a slightly angled seat for comfort and is the widest of the three types. All aisle chairs have securement straps that go over the chest and legs. Airlines, contractors and airports are slowly adopting the Staxi chair, and I have seen it in many airports.

Airplane Seat Selection for Wheelchair Users

If you are unable to walk or stand, it will be easier for you to select a seat which is NOT a bulkhead (first row in any class of service) because the armrests are immovable.

If you do choose a bulkhead seat, you will have to transfer or be lifted up and over one or more armrests to get to your seat. Airline employees and booking agents will assume the front row is best for a disabled passenger, but the row behind the bulkhead (with movable aisle armrests) may be more comfortable. On flights longer than two hours, it may also be best to select a window seat so other passengers do not have to cross over you to access the lavatory. Always select the seat that is best for YOU.