Stats on different airlines here.
If you can avoid smaller regional planes, do. They have to hand-lift the chair in, and in some cases (I have learned from the baggage handlers) they store it sideways to make it fit. Both things mean it is way more likely to break.
Before you leave home Make sure every single screw is tightened, and everything that needs to be locked down is locked down.
What I do for my power chairs:
- Pull the control panel around to the inside of the chair arm and tape it securely to the arm with packing tape. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. The guys who repair chairs the airlines break say this is the thing that breaks the most. It has never broken on mine (I always do this). On some chairs (like my folding Falcon) you can remove it and take it with you, in which case do.
- Take off the headrest and take it into the plane with you. If you have removable footrests bring them too. Ditto cupholders, bags, etc. For chairs with lithium batteries you remove the batteries and bring them in the cabin too. I suggest talking to the wheelchair manufacturer and airline before your first trip to check what to do with batteries. Bring an extra bag to hold all the things you remove. I use a lightweight duffle that folds into nothing.
- Pull non-removable footrests fully up and tape them that way.
- Write instructions and pleas to the handlers (preferably with photos) and attach them to the chair with packing tape. Be sure to include how to turn the battery on and off and how to move it (suggest using joystick but give non-power instructions). Also to tell them to make sure the wheels are not locked before they try to move it. I took pictures of parts of my chair and pointed to the relevant things with red arrows. Include your phone number in case they need to reach you when it gets on the ground and remember to turn your phone on as soon as you land.
- Leave speed setting on low if joystick is not removed.
- Use glue (suggest e6000) to secure the rubber joystick cover to the metal joystick if it is at all loose.
- Pray to any gods you have or cross all the things or whatever it is you do.
I have all of this ready to go so I don’t hold up the plane much doing it as I board.
Things that can go wrong and solves:
-They somehow lock the joystick and can’t move it Check your manual for the unlock sequence and post it with the notes on the chair.
-The crew putting it on the plane locks the wheels and the crew taking it off the plane doesn’t know how to unlock the wheels. Put in your note instructions for unlocking wheels before moving it.
-They then try to push it/drive it with the wheels locked and damage it. Put a note that wheels must be unlocked for moving.
-One crew turns it off, the other crew doesn’t know how to turn it on. Put instructions for how to turn it on and off in your notes.
-They drop it. No solve, but report damage immediately on landing. DO NOT LEAVE AIRPORT WITHOUT MAKING A REPORT.
-They press the leg rest button extension button with their hand while they are driving it until the leg rest falls off. Put a “be careful to not press any buttons while using joystick!” note in your notes.
-They leave it in a weird place in the airport (hopefully not the other side of security from you). Best to wait at the gate and make sure to have it brought to you there.
The instructions I post on my Perimobile M300
Include a phone number so the ground crew can call you if they are having trouble moving your chair back to you. This would have saved me hours of waiting if I had thought of it sooner.
What I attach to my Falcon Folding chair which has detachable joystick and easily removable batteries:
*For my folding Falcon chair the batteries are designed to be easily removable. The airlines require that you remove them and bring them into the cabin with you (which is really confusing given check-in instructions say no lithium ions batteries, but when you talk to the disability desk at the airline, that’s what they say).
If the airline breaks it they have to fix it and furnish you with a replacement in the meantime. Make sure they do. You need to file the complaint with the airline BEFORE you leave the airport or they are no longer responsible.
You should also file a complaint with the department of Transportation here
I fly with United and they have broken my chair twice in about 25-30 flights. Once more severely (I think they dropped it from a height) and once in a minor way. Both times they fixed it quickly and without issues and offered a loaner chair once I made the complaint. The chance of breaking it is a real thing, but being able to travel is worth it.