Traveling with a Wheelchair on British Airways

British Airways logo
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British Airways is the de facto flag carrier of Great Britain. Budget airline EasyJet carries more passengers, but British Airways is the UK's only true global airline. BA is a member of the Oneworld Alliance, is a joint venture partner with American Airlines and provides service to 183 destinations on six continents.

As a top-tier flyer on American Airlines, I have found myself flying British Airways somewhat frequently. My flight history with BA now includes intercontinental and intra-European flights in both the economy and business class cabins. With BA, I've flown to/from places on four different continents, including London (Heathrow, Gatwick and London-City airports); Paris, France; Barcelona, Spain; Gibraltar; Miami, Florida; Beijing, China and others. Check out a map of these travels below:

Map of my flights with British Airways.
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Map of my flights with British Airways.

In this article, I will share what I have learned about wheelchair assistance on British Airways and the airline's treatment of passengers with disabilities.

Tickets & Booking

My flights on British Airways were booked in one of three ways, with each process being just a bit different than the other.

Most frequently, I purchased British Airways tickets through Priceline, an online travel agency (OTA). Priceline allows me to compare prices across multiple carriers to get the best deal. Second most common were tickets booked directly through the British Airways website, www.britishairways.com. The third method occurred when I booked trips through American Airlines, but had a connecting British Airways flight. These such itineraries were purchased via the American Airlines website at www.aa.com.

Requesting Wheelchair Assistance on British Airways

Regardless of which avenue I used to purchase my tickets, I needed to request wheelchair assistance with the airline directly. This can be done by calling British Airways at +1 (800) 778-4838 or through the airline's website.

The booking management tool on the British Airways website features an industry-leading special service request system, which I will describe in detail here (with screenshots).

British Airways special service and disability assistance request
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Once you have logged-in to the British Airways trip management tool using your six-digit record locator (i.e. ABC123), you'll be able to access the special services menu. The PNR can be found in your reservation confirmation e-mail, whether you booked through Priceline or the airline's website.

From the menu pictured above, you'll be able to select a variety of assistance services depending on the nature of your disability. You can select more than one type of assistance, if necessary.

My disability condition results in only a lack of mobility, so I selected the "Mobility and wheelchair assistance" option. Clicking that link took me to the following page:

Select the type of wheelchair assistance necessary for your British Airways flight
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British Airways offers three levels of mobility assistance. I have copied them below:

Wheelchair Assistance Service #1 (WCHR)

  • Assistance to and from the aircraft (depending on the airport this will be either by electric buggy or airport wheelchair)

Wheelchair Assistance Service #2 (WCHS)

  • Assistance to and from the aircraft (depending on the airport this will be either by electric buggy or airport wheelchair)
  • Help with stairs if the aircraft is parked away from the terminal building

Wheelchair Assistance Service #3 (WCHC)

  • Assistance to and from the aircraft (depending on the airport this will be either by electric buggy or airport wheelchair)
  • Help with stairs if the aircraft is parked away from the terminal building
  • Use of the on-board wheelchair to get to/from your seat and to move around the cabin during the flight

As I am non-ambulatory, I selected option #3. While the airline says that you must be able to transfer yourself to/from the aisle chair on your own or with the assistance of a traveling companion, the airport assistance contractors were willing to help and lift me on every British Airways flight I have taken. Being able to transfer under my own power, I declined, but they did offer.

A checkbox on the form allows you to designate that you are traveling with a personal wheelchair, if that is the case. Once I checked those boxes on the form pictured above, I clicked the "Select Service 3" box.

Form to provide information about your personal wheelchair on the British Airways website
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If you are traveling with a wheelchair of your own, you'll be asked to provide a range of information using the form pictured above.

Among the information requested is the type of wheelchair (manual or powered), type of battery (for powered chairs only), dimensions of the device (in centimeters) and weight of the wheelchair (in kilograms). For those living in areas where the metric system is not used (*cought* United States), here are two conversions that will set your calculations in order:

  • 1 inch is equal to 2.54 centimeters
  • 1 kilogram is equal to 2.2 pounds

You can also query Google for the appropriate conversion. For my wheelchair, I searched "265 pounds in kilograms" and received the result of 120 kg, which I entered into the form pictured in the screenshot above.

Once you have completed the form, click the red "Add your wheelchair" button. After you've added your special service requests to the reservation, you'll be presented with a confirmation page:

British Airways special service request confirmation page
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Along with the confirmation, there is some good news shared on this page in the last bullet point, which I have copied below:

You can now reserve your seat free of charge. To do this, select 'Return to Manage My Booking' and click on 'Seating' within the flight details section. Please note that due to safety regulations you won't be able to select a seat in the emergency exit row.

British Airways offers free seat selection to passengers with disabilities who request wheelchair assistance, regardless of their fare or ticket type. Some tickets, including hand baggage only intra-European fares, do not normally include seat selection for free. This is a disability accommodation that all airlines should replicate, including U.S. carriers. Selecting a seat that suits your needs will keep you from having to fight for one at the airport gate. Bravo, British Airways!

Wheelchair Assistance at the Airport

Although BA's special service request tool is the best I have seen to date, the information is not always transferred to the agents in the airport. While I have generally found the airline to be on top of things, particularly with the return of my gate-checked power wheelchair, there have been several instances where I was denied pre-boarding.

British Airways boarding gate at Gibraltar International Airport
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In one such case, on a flight from London-Heathrow to Miami, the aisle chair team did not show up to help me board until almost everyone else had boarded. Because the flight was covered under U.S. law by the Air Carrier Access Act, I wrote to BA about the matter. The response I received was disappointing, with no admission of the violation and no attempt at service recovery.

Sadly, I forgot to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which was a missed opportunity to hold the airline accountable for the violation. On flights to/from the USA, passengers are protected by the ACAA even if flying on a foreign carrier.

With those issues aside, I have always found the assistance staff to be competent and friendly, regardless of the airport used. BA has promptly returned my gate-checked power wheelchair on all but one occasion, including in notoriously difficult airports like Beijing.

Airplanes and Cabins/Classes of Service

British Airways operates both narrow- and wide-body aircraft, from the Embraer 170 all the way up to the double-decker Airbus A380. While I've not flown on all of the aircraft types, the economy and business class seats are fairly consistent in design across the fleet.

Stock Photo: British Airways planes at London-Heathrow Airport
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It is important to differentiate between the types of services that are offered on short- and long-haul flights. The vast majority of trips within the European continent will be operated on narrow-body aircraft, while the dual-aisle aircraft with accessible lavatories are used on intercontinental routes. Premium cabin seating is also much different on short-haul versus long-haul flights, as described below.

Short-haul flights

Most of the intra-Europe BA flights are operated using single aisle aircraft including the Embraer 170, Embraer 190 and the Airbus A319/320/321 family. These aircraft have two classes of service - Euro Traveller (economy class) and Club Europe (business class).

The photo below shows me seated in Club Europe on a flight from Paris, France to London's Heathrow Airport.

John Morris sitting in British Airways Club Europe business class
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Club Europe, like most other airlines' European business class, uses the same seats found in economy. The only difference in the "hard product" is that the middle seat in each Club Europe row is left empty. The higher class of service becomes more apparent through the "soft product" offering, with fairly substantial meals and a wider range of complimentary alcohol.

The first photo above is of one of my meals in Club Europe class - a fresh salad with sliced chicken breast. I paired the meal with a glass of complimentary champagne.

The second photo above is a stock photo from British Airways, depicting a drink tray that is located in the unoccupied center seat of Club Europe business class. If you have decided to sit in the window seat, you'll need the flight attendants to lower this tray in order to reach your seat. They can be tricky to raise and lower, so be patient with the flight crew.

You may be wondering, is Club Europe "worth it?" That depends, but probably not. I typically only fly business class inside of Europe if the flight is part of a longer itinerary with an intercontinental flight segment. Apart from the access to airport lounges that is afforded to business class passengers, Club Europe does not include much more than economy class. With the up-charge oftentimes being hundreds of dollars, you may prefer to save the money and sit in economy class on short-haul flights.

Long-haul flights

Intercontinental and certain other long-haul flights offer up to four classes of service, depending on the aircraft being used. These classes are World Traveller (economy), World Traveller Plus (premium economy), Club World (business class) and First Class.

I've only traveled in World Traveller and Cub World on these flights, but will share photos of each seat configuration below (images courtesy of British Airways):

Seats in the World Traveller economy class cabin are pictured in the first photo above. These seats offer movable aisle armrests, as well as movable armrests between the seats - except in bulkhead rows.

The primary benefit of the World Traveller Plus premium economy cabin, pictured in the second photo above, is additional space. A range of other benefits are also included:

  • Wider seats with extra recline, a head rest and foot rest.
  • Blanket and amenity kit with toothbrush, toothpaste, socks and eye mask.
  • Higher-quality meals and full bar service, including wine and liquor.

Now, turning to the business and first class premium cabins:

Pictured above are the lay flat seats in Club World business class. These seats are arranged side-by-side, with one seat facing forward and the other backwards. If you cannot walk and must use the aisle chair to board, you will need to select an aisle seat, as the interior and window seats are not accessible.

The Club World seats are great if you are traveling with an able-bodied companion, as you'll be sitting next to and across from them. If you get uncomfortable looking at each other (or the random passenger seated next to you), you can raise the dividing partition between the seats.

What I don't like about BA's business class seats is the lack of privacy near the aisle, and the fact that I always feel exposed. I also don't like the fact that their design denies me the opportunity to sit directly next to the window. The aisle armrest cannot be lowered unless the seat is laid flat, which makes self-transfers difficult. The seats are narrow and feel dated, even on newer aircraft like the Boeing 787. That said, the seats are comfortable and I have not had any issues sleeping on long flights.

Lay flat seat in British Airways First Class
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Pictured above is a First Class seat on the British Airways Boeing 787. This seat features a reverse herringbone design, which is my favorite premium airline seat configuration. Many airlines feature this type of seat in their intercontinental business class cabins, including U.S. carriers American, Delta and United. Of course, the British Airways First Class seats are a bit more "posh," and they are decked out with some really nice features including an oversized entertainment screen.

If you are flying in Club World business class or First Class on British Airways, you'll have access to a multi-course food menu, premium drinks (including champagne), higher-quality pillows and blankets, a luxury amenity kit and noise-canceling or reducing headphones. This is all in addition to the ability to lay fully flat during your journey, which is the best feature of all.

If you're wondering if the premium travel experience is worth the added cost, read my article, Business and First Class for the Wheelchair Traveler: Luxury or Necessity?

Airport Lounges

British Airways operates more than 30 dedicated departure lounges, and has agreements with more than 100 partner lounges around the world. The lounges offer a place to relax, complimentary food and beverage, and some offer accessible shower facilities.

The first photo above is of one of the British Airways lounges at London-Heathrow Airport. The second photo is of a wheelchair accessible roll-in shower at the British Airways Galleries lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3. It's always nice to freshen up with a shower before or after a long flight.

Access to these lounges is available only to passengers flying on a business or first class ticket, or to elite status members in the British Airways Executive Club or Oneworld Alliance partner airline frequent flyer programs. It is not possible to purchase admission if you are a non-status passenger flying on an economy class ticket. It would be nice if British Airways offered lounge access or the ability to buy a single visit pass to passengers with disabilities.

For more information on British Airways lounges, click here.

Final Thoughts

British Airways runs a solid operation and, in my experience, treats passengers with disabilities well. While I've had a few issues with wheelchair assistance on BA, I've found them to be much more accommodating than airlines in the United States. As an American, this is troubling, because the Air Carrier Access Act "guarantees" many more rights to disabled air travelers than similar policies in the United Kingdom and European Union.

As I have no plans to leave American Airlines, I'll continue to take flights on British Airways. That doesn't give me any pause, and I look forward to future trips with British Airways.


Have you taken a trip on British Airways with a wheelchair or disability?
What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments below!


This article was first published on March 19, 2017 and has been updated.

Featured image courtesy British Airways.

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