The Wheeler's Pre-flight Checklist--Don't Take Off Without One

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on June 22, 2017 # Travel

No pilot would consider climbing into the cockpit of a plane and taking off without first reviewing all of the items on a pre-flight checklist. It is too easy to overlook something important; in many larger airliners that checklist might be several pages in length and require review by multiple crew members. Even something as simple as a single switch turned to the wrong position on a panel that might contain dozens of switches could have serious consequences.

Similar pre-flight rituals are an important step for those of us whose daily mode of transportation is a mobility device of some kind. Without adequate preparation, what might seem like a simple trip that includes flying in the itinerary might turn out to be much less than enjoyable; in some circumstances that oversight might be putting the traveler's health at risk.

My life as a power chair user spans three decades, and in that time I have taken flight on scheduled airlines well over 100 times. I learned the hard way, early on, that my needs are too complex to trust my memory or the memory of others to remember everything that must happen prior to a trip. On one memorable trip my attendant ignored my checklist and neglected to put the container with my week's supply of medications into my backpack. I discovered it was missing when getting ready to go through the TSA checkpoint at the departure airport, which was 40 miles from my home. Fortunately the building manager retrieved the missing meds from my apartment and dispatched them via taxicab to the airport, where I was reunited with my pills just in time to make our flight.

My travel checklists now include everything from items of clothing to all of my durable medical supplies and even the items I might need if necessary to make minor repairs to my wheelchair while away from home. Luggage gets lost and flights get delayed, canceled or diverted so items I would need should I have to spend a night in an unexpected location are now stored in the backpack of my wheelchair and travel in the overhead bin above my seat.

Following are a few categories on the checklist that I use.

Reservations and tickets. Make reservations early, and advise if requiring specialized seating or priority for pre-boarding due to disability-related needs. Passengers requiring supplementary oxygen or using concentrators will need to make reservations and check in earlier than other passengers, according to the Air Carrier Access Act and airline regulations.

Remember that disability-related medical equipment is not subject to excess baggage fees, so check such devices or supplies along with your luggage at the ticket counter. On the day of the flight, arrive and check in early. We are entitled to pre-board, but need to be present for it to happen.

Warnings and labels. Print instructions for all airline personnel and contractors who will be handling your mobility devices so that they know how to move and load your equipment into the cargo hold without damage. Label everything on your wheelchair with your name in case something gets removed or lost in transit.

Medications. At least two days worth of medications should travel with the passenger, rather than in checked luggage.

Repair kit. I carry a small tool kit, bungee cords and black duct tape in case something on my wheelchair needs to be secured or repaired; airline mechanics and hotel engineering staff can provide larger tools if needed for more complex repairs during the trip.

Medical supplies. A multi-day trip will likely require the same type of supplies used in the home environment. It is much easier to bring them along rather than trying to shop for them in a distant city.

Documentation regarding mobility device batteries and air travel for people with disabilities. The letter from my wheelchair vendor, on their letterhead, states that my chair is equipped with gel cell batteries so they do not have to be removed during travel under any circumstances. I also bring along a copy of the pamphlet from the Department of Transportation about my rights as a traveler with a disability, just in case someone who thinks they know more about the law than I do needs to have their memory refreshed.

It pays to be as informed about, and prepared for, air travel as possible before we take to the skies. That is the first step in assuring that a dream vacation trip does not become a nightmare.

© 2017 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.