I’m going to start with a disclaimer. If you think I’m about to tell you of a simple and streamlined process for booking your special assistance or medical/mobility equipment on a flight, you’re going to be very disappointed. I’m sorry! However, I hope this blog post will help to clarify some of the procedures to follow, and what rights you have when it comes to air travel.
Special assistance services are available on almost any flight around the world, but the way you will receive that assistance really can vary and so it pays to do your research before you book. Flights within the European Union are subject to EU legislation (Regulation (EC) No 1107/2006, if you’re wondering), and flights to and from the United States are also subject to legislation (the Air Carrier Access Act). However, this legislation varies significantly and there are still many flights not covered by these – for that reason, this post is broken into EU flights, US flights, and other flights.
The EU regulations apply to all European air carriers whose flights depart from, or arrive, at an EU airport. For example, a flight with a European air carrier from Dublin to Amsterdam is subject to the regulations, as is a flight from Tokyo to Amsterdam even though only the destination airport is in the EU. Furthermore, non-European air carriers who arrive or depart from an EU airport are also expected to comply with this legislation. So, without further ado, here’s the low-down on special assistance on EU flights:
- You need to book special assistance at least 48 hours before your flight to ensure your legal entitlement to it. I typically book my assistance immediately after booking my ticket, just so I don’t forget! If you can’t book your assistance at least 48 hours before (for example, you’re taking an emergency flight) the airport should still make every reasonable effort to support you. You book your assistance with the airline, not the airport. Every airline should have information on their websites about their booking process. Some airlines, such as EasyJet, ask you during the booking process. Other airlines require you to call or email a dedicated centre and arrange this separate to your flight ticket booking. You also need to book in any mobility equipment you need to transport with you, such as your wheelchair. Have details of the size, weight, make and model, and if relevant the batteries with you when you book this in.
- Based on your assistance requirements, you’ll get a code – in an ideal world, you won’t need to know this, but I find it can be handy to speak the airline lingo for absolute clarity! For example, I’m a Sierra passenger – this means I can get to my seat, but I require assistance from the check-in desk to the top of the aircraft steps.
- Although you book your assistance with the airline, it’s actually the airport managing body that is responsible for providing you with the assistance you require. The majority of airports sub-contract this to a third party, but the ultimate responsibility for the provision of your assistance is with the airport.
- Plan to be at the check-in desk for your flight, or the airport special assistance desk, a minimum of two hours before your flight. In reality, it doesn’t matter which way around you do this as you’ll often need to visit both. In my case, I often go to the check-in desk to collect my boarding pass and have a tag attached to my wheelchair, and I ask them to call the special assistance team to meet me there.
- Now that you’re checked in and ready to fly, here’s a breakdown of what is the responsibility of your airline, and what is the responsibility of the airport:
|Responsibility of the airline||Responsibility of the airport|
|Carriage of assistance dogs.||Support you to move throughout the entirety of the terminal, including getting to check-in, through security, emigration and immigration, customs and to the aircraft.|
|Transporting up to two pieces of mobility equipment per passenger, including electric wheelchairs.||Provide appropriate equipment to help you board/disembark the aircraft – such as lifts and wheelchairs.|
|Assistance moving to the toilet facilities on board the aircraft.||Retrieve your luggage, and store hand luggage on the aircraft.|
|Reasonable efforts to provide the most appropriate seating for you (and your companion, if you have one).||Support the ground handling of any necessary mobility equipment you have with you.|
Top Tip: Book an assistance category higher than what you might require. For example, I’ll sometimes book assistance to the seat of the aircraft, if I know I’ll be tired and must board first. The airline will never want to get out an aisle chair to board you on a busy flight, so you’ll get pre-boarded. You can always downgrade the assistance you get, but it’s harder to upgrade.
Assistance is also provided on flights to and from the US, but there are some key differences to EU flights to be aware of when you travel.
- For flights to and from the US, you don’t usually need to declare your arrival in advance. There are only restricted cases where the airline can require an advance declaration of up to 48 hours – such as the carriage of an electric wheelchair on an aircraft with fewer than 60 seats, or if you require an on-board aisle chair for aircraft not mandated to carry them anyway. Of course, you are welcome to book your assistance in advance – this can be beneficial if you know you’ll be in a rush and can’t wait around for assistance to be organised on arrival; if you’re a nervous traveller and want the reassurance that everything is organised; or if you’re landing at a non-US airport, and want the reassurance that they have everything in place too.
- A key difference is that the airline is responsible for the assistance provision on flights to and from the US. The assistance they provide is much the same to that detailed in EU flights, but this is the responsibility of the airline and not the airport. However, assistance procedures differ for passengers going through TSA screening as part of their journey. More on that in another blog post.
- For the majority of flights, especially those from major airports, the airline must have the equipment to support your boarding.
- There are no limits on the number of required mobility devices you can bring with you. If you pre-board, you also have priority over storing your assistive devices in the closet over other passengers and these don’t count to your luggage allowance.
- Airlines must accept electric wheelchairs for carriage if they are safe to fly. These have priority in the baggage compartment over other items. If any part of the chair needs containing in hazardous materials packaging, this is the airline’s responsibility too.
Unfortunately, flights that aren’t subject to the relevant EU and/or US laws can be complicated. National legislation might guide how assistance should be provided, but this can vary significantly. I recommend reaching out to your airline to discuss your requirements and identify the best support for you.
Tell me about your experience of booking special assistance. Have you always got the support you require? Are there any top tips for getting special assistance on a flight? Tell me in the comments.