Airlines break and lose chairs. The worst offender by far is American Airlines (which also recently tried to ban power chairs, then reversed the policy a month later).
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.
-Put an AirTag or Tile on it to track it. This way you can tell if your chair is being loaded onto the plane, and if it gets lost, where it is.
*Some manual chairs that fold or break down can be stored in a cubby on board the plane, which is the best option. I suggest tagging al parts of the chair with your contact info. Sometimes they store the parts in different places.
Take Everything Off That Can be Taken Off
This means your bags, your cupholder, possibly your cushion, your headrest, your controls if those detach- EVERYTHING that could come off or get damaged in flight! Have a bag ready to hold everything.
If you Have a Folding Manual Chair
They may be able to put it in a cupboard on the passenger level of the plane. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
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). If your chair doesn’t do this, I highly recommend getting the extra parts put on your chair to make it happen. This is the single most-damaged thing when left pointing out from the chair. On some chairs (like my folding Falcon) you can remove it and take it with you, in which case do.
- Remove most things 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. Take off your cushion and either sit on it on the plane or bring it with you too. 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 (super glue works) 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 six times in about 20- 30 flights. Once more severely (I think they dropped it from a height) and five times in more minor ways. Each time 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.