Flying with a SCI: What do you need to know?

As a person living with a spinal cord injury, what may have previously been straight forward requires plenty of pre-planning. This can relate to the most mundane of everyday tasks, as well as more tricky situations such as travelling – whether by car, by plane or by another form of public transport.

Although we recently covered the accessibility of hotels and accessible holidays – it doesn’t stop there. We’ve compiled some of the key information to help make flying with a disability run as smoothly as possible.

Pre-Flight Help at the Airport

Travelling with any type of disability can be a stressful situation for anyone. There are several specialist travel agencies, with experience in disabled travel – we’ve picked out a few to make booking your trip as stress-free as possible:

Often, even reaching the aircraft can be a complicated process. However, many airports offer blue badge parking close to terminals, designated arrival points, special assistance check in desks, and specialist facilities.

Travelling Companions

When it comes to flying with a disability, you must travel with a companion if you’re not self reliant. This includes having trouble feeding, breathing, using medication or using the toilet facilities.

In the news recently, Channel 4 Paralympics presenter Sophie Morgan was left unable to take medication during a British Airways flight – and has since called out airlines on their lack of care for disabled travellers. During her criticism of what she branded the ‘Russian roulette’ of flying with a disability, Sophie believes that companions for disabled people aboard flights should at least receive a concession during journeys.

She also stressed the point that it isn’t for airlines to make travelling companions compulsory, but instead understand that disabled people are footing the bill for a full priced ticket unnecessarily. Many times, the question has been raised: should personal care attendants fly for free?

Mobility Aids and Flying

This isn’t the first case of a disabled passenger being left helpless during a flight. In 2018, the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner was stuck on an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft at Heathrow airport for 100 minutes.

Alongside this, there are also criticisms of how airlines deal with wheelchairs and mobility aids. In a separate incident, Mr Gardner was flying with KLM between Amsterdam and Panama City where during a half-empty flight he asked if his wheelchair could be brought into the aircraft. The crew refused his request and Mr Gardner later found considerable damage to his wheelchair during transit.

Unfortunately for disabled travellers, flying involves relying heavily on airlines, giving up their independence and expecting needs to be met by cabin crew. In response to the incident, Mr Gardner stated: “Wheelchairs are not baggage, they are an extension of our bodies.”

If you’re travelling with a wheelchair and/or mobility aids, be sure to check with the airline beforehand regarding their size and storage.

Getting the Best Flight and Airport Experience

Flying as a wheelchair user can be hard. It’s no fault of passengers – it’s not even a design issue – it mostly comes down to a lack of education and poor staff training. It’s a process and service issue, one that can be addressed and resolved appropriately with time and training.

Getting a compassionate, helpful member of staff at each stage of your journey should be normal – but sadly, it’s not yet a given. It’s such a shame that we’re saying this in the 21st century. So, while we advocate and act for things to get better, we’ve got a few tips to help you get the best experience you can when travelling by air.

Research airlines, airports and attitudes

Reviews can be hard to navigate and can be highly subjective at the best of times – but the poor treatment of disabled passengers has to be taken seriously. Before booking, check reviews and forums for competence, attitude and accessibility, so – at the very least – you’ll know what to expect.

Request assistance when you book

Explain your needs and get all your options. You need to have informed the airline at least 48 hours prior to departure. In almost all cases, you can’t use your own wheelchair on a commercial flight or store it in the cabin.

Get your wheelchair insured

Yes, another expense – another tax on disability. But being stranded with no chair because it was damaged in flight can ruin what promised to be the trip of a lifetime. Specialist insurers can cover mobility aids and wheelchairs, at home and on holiday, and some can source parts for repair at your destination. Your standard cover might not be enough, so check before you travel.

Allow extra time

Get to the airport a little earlier than the recommended time, to avoid the additional stress of finding an accessible route to where you need to go.


Travelling alone? A suitcase that’s easy to move while in your wheelchair could be a big help. Try Phoenix Instinct for wheelchair compatible suitcases. Remember – you can travel with up to two items of mobility equipment free of charge, which doesn’t count as part of your baggage allowance.

We’re a Different Kind of Law Firm

Aspire Law is a specialist law firm, working for people with SCI. We help and support everyone affected by spinal cord injury. Want to talk about air travel? Get in touch: just give us a call on 0800 030 20 40.