When I turn up at an airport, my power wheelchair effortlessly transports me to check-in, through security and to the boarding gate. So long as my wheelchair is in working order, my mobility is assured — I’m independent, at least until transferring into an aisle chair to board. That isn’t the case for everyone — many travelers with mobility challenges don’t travel with their own wheelchair and instead rely on wheelchair assistance provided by airlines.

Readers frequently write to ask about the scope of airport wheelchair assistance — where it begins and ends — to better plan their air travel journey. I’ll answer those questions in this article.

John sitting in a mobility scooter next to a power wheelchair.

A rude awakening

Back in 2019, I traveled to Las Vegas, only to have my wheelchair dropped from the airplane’s cargo hold on arrival. Needless to say, it was destroyed. The airline hooked me up with a scooter and later a power wheelchair for use in Las Vegas, but I had to leave it at the hotel upon my departure (the local wheelchair rental shop understandably didn’t want me taking it home on an airplane).

I took a taxi to the airport, sitting not in a wheelchair but in the front passenger seat. When we arrived at the drop-off outside the terminal, I faced a situation that has never impacted me before — there were no airport wheelchairs in sight and no one to provide me with any assistance. My taxi driver had to go inside the terminal to find someone to help me — a process that took nearly 15 minutes.

Airport terminal check-in area.

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide wheelchair assistance to disabled passengers throughout the journey — on the ground and in the air. Section 382.91(b) outlines the scope of this assistance:

You must also provide or ensure the provision of assistance requested by or on behalf of a passenger with a disability, or offered by carrier or airport operator personnel and accepted by a passenger with a disability, in moving from the terminal entrance (or a vehicle drop-off point adjacent to the entrance) through the airport to the gate for a departing flight, or from the gate to the terminal entrance (or a vehicle pick-up point adjacent to the entrance after an arriving flight).

    1. This requirement includes assistance in accessing key functional areas of the terminal, such as ticket counters and baggage claim.
    2. This requirement also includes a brief stop upon the passenger’s request at the entrance to a rest room (including an accessible rest room when requested). As a carrier, you are required to make such a stop only if the rest room is available on the route to the destination of the enplaning, deplaning, or connecting assistance and you can make the stop without unreasonable delay. To receive such assistance, the passenger must self-identify as being an individual with a disability needing the assistance.

The ACAA regulation makes it clear that assistance must be provided from the curbside drop-off and pick-up areas, and everywhere else in between, but the majority of passengers report not being able to secure assistance until after reaching the check-in desk, where they oftentimes have to wait in long lines.

Exterior front facade of airport terminal with two levels.

How to request curbside wheelchair assistance

In the not too distant past, airlines offered curbside check-in at many airports around the country. SkyCaps could be flagged down to call wheelchair assistance for passengers who needed it. Over the past decade, curbside check-in became less widespread, with the coronavirus pandemic exacting a final blow to what had been a valuable service. Now, most curbsides are empty of staff — there is no one for a disabled passenger to flag down.

Today, short of sending someone into the terminal building as my Las Vegas taxi driver did for me, there is no sure-fire way to secure curbside assistance at the majority of airports. Some airports are working to fill the gap left by airlines, but they are few and far between. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport shares the following in its “Access for All at SEA” (PDF) brochure:

For additional wheelchair services from the garage, Link Light Rail, or drives to the ticketing counter, you can contact Prospect at 206-246-1550.

In this case, the airport is subsidizing an additional level of wheelchair assistance — a service that only a limited number of airports have funded from their own budgets.

A second option is to contact the airline’s special assistance service desk prior to arriving at the airport. It’s a long shot, but they may be able to organize someone to meet you at the terminal entrance. Consult the list of airline disability assistance contacts to locate the appropriate telephone number.

Airport sign for car rental.

Wheelchair assistance to rental car centers, parking garages and rideshare/taxi stands

Not too long ago, rental car desks were located inside the airport terminal either at baggage claim or in the arrivals hall. Many airports, particularly the largest ones, have since moved rental cars and even taxi stands offsite. The same is true of parking, with most parking garages now located far away from the airport terminal.

Airlines and airports are not obligated to provide wheelchair assistance to these locations. The duty to provide assistance ends at the curbside pick-up outside of the terminal building.

Passengers who are unable to make their way from baggage claim to offsite rental car, taxi, rideshare or parking facilities (usually via a shuttle bus or automated tram) should plan to travel with their own mobility device or a companion.

Several unoccupied wheelchairs at Salt Lake City Airport.

Resolving the “No Man’s Land” Problem — Closing the Gap in Airport Wheelchair Assistance

Two problems need to be resolved. First, airlines need to provide assistance from the curbside as they are required to do. Secondly, the redesign of airports to move many transportation services off-site necessitates an expansion of disability and wheelchair assistance to those areas.

Airport authorities can play a role in solving both of these issues. First, disability assistance desks should be located curbside — not inside the airport, but curbside. Passengers arriving in a taxi who can’t stand, walk or otherwise enter the airport need a place to request assistance at the curb. Airlines are responsible for this level of assistance and should bear the burden of cost.

Secondly, fundamental changes to the design of airports and the location of ground transportation services has outpaced ACAA regulation. Airports need to fill in the assistance gap that has been created by the redesign of terminals — wheelchair assistance should be provided to airport parking garages, rental car facilities, taxi stands and rideshare pick-up locations.

Disabled travelers can do their part by reaching out to their airport’s ADA coordinator, attending airport board meetings, writing to local government officials — and, as a last resort, filing DOT complaints against airlines that fail to meet their minimum obligations.

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