For many disabled people, the thought of flying in an economy class airplane seat seems like an uncomfortable, painful or even dangerous proposition. Leg room is at a premium, and disabled bodies may not be able to endure multiple hours spent in such a constrained position.

New First and Business Class seating options may be the answer. Flying “up front” is seen by many as a treat or luxury, but for travelers with disabilities, it can be a necessity. If the destination you have in mind requires a transcontinental, transatlantic or transpacific flight, you’re looking at 5 to 15 (or more) hours on an airplane.

Premium cabins can make such journeys manageable, even comfortable. While the cost of first class tickets is substantially higher than what you’d pay for economy, they open up access to much more than a bigger seat. I’ve chosen to highlight three advantages to first and business class travel here. Be sure to check with your airline to determine what is included with your ticket.

Airline Lounges

Wheelchair travelers typically arrive to the airport early and book long layovers. We don’t want to miss our departure or connecting flights. But if you’re arriving to the airport 3 hours before departure, where will you wait? The gate area is loud and chaotic, but there is a better place to relax.

Delta Air Lines Sky Club, Atlanta.
Delta Air Lines Sky Club, Atlanta. | Photo courtesy Delta/Chris Rank.

Many airlines offer international first and business class passengers access to exclusive lounges at their hub airports. I’ve enjoyed many such lounges, including the American Airlines Flagship Lounge in Los Angeles, Cathay Pacific’s Pier in Hong Kong, Delta’s Sky Club in Atlanta and Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse in New York.

In addition to offering a quiet place to relax before your flight, guests can enjoy complimentary food and drink. Some lounges provide a world-class dining experience, while others offer a light to moderate buffet.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Lounge, New York-JFK
Salmon entree at Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, New York-JFK.

Resting pods and lounge chairs provide a place to get out of your wheelchair and stretch. Qatar Airways’s Al Safwa First Class Lounge in Doha even offers rooms with a bed! For many of us, the opportunity to relieve pressure by laying down is critical.

For those looking to take a shower before or after a long-haul flight, some airline lounges provide accessible roll-in showers with a seat. It’s very refreshing!

Not all airport lounges are the same. The services available are fully dependent on the airline and airport. Rest rooms and showers are not available in every lounge. Some offer made-to-order food, but the majority stock self-serve buffets. While all premium lounges offer complimentary drinks and snacks/food, the quality and breadth of the selection does vary.

Check your airline’s website for more information on their lounge offering.

Lie Flat Seats

This is what you are paying the big bucks for. Most airlines offer seats that fold completely flat on their transatlantic and transpacific intercontinental flights. American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United also offer these seats on some domestic routes, such as New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, among others.

Lay Flat seats allow travelers to manage the pressure placed on their bodies. Travelers can adjust the seat and lay on their back, stomach or sides – it is all possible. By repositioning multiple times during a long-haul journey, passengers can significantly reduce the risk of skin breakdown and pressure sores. The ability to sleep comfortably also helps travelers overcome jet lag.

Lufthansa business class cabin interior.
Lufthansa business class cabin interior. | Photo courtesy Lufthansa.

Across airlines, no two business or first class seats are the same. The accessibility of premium cabin seats varies widely according to the seat manufacturer, airline and aircraft type. Some carriers have multiple seat designs across their fleets, so it is important to research prior to selecting an airline, aircraft type or route.

A Higher Level of Service?

First and business class passengers receive a number of other perks, including priority check-in, expedited security screening, early boarding and more.

For flights departing from or arriving to the United States, passengers with disabilities are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act. Violations of these rights occur frequently and can greatly inconvenience the traveler.

In the event something goes wrong, greater attention might be paid to your needs if you are ticketed in a premium class of service. Airlines typically make a significant effort to “recover” from a service failure affecting a high value passenger.

While the airline may (or may not) pay greater attention to your accessibility needs during travel, they will certainly give greater consideration if and when something goes wrong.

I plan to release a series of premium cabin travel reviews. The reviews will focus on individual flights (i.e.: American Airlines, Miami to London). My assessment will focus on the first or business class seat, airplane lavatories, airport lounge options and other information related to traveling with a disability on that particular airline and flight route. Here are a few reviews worth checking out:

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