Wheelchair Users' Flight Rights

The Air Carrier Access Act is a bit complicated. While it's easy to understand the general terms, it's more useful to see how the ACAA fits with each part of air travel. This article will walk you through the general components of the ACAA and will highlight where the Act protects your rights, in hope that you can ensure your rights are supported the next time you travel with a wheelchair. In addition to explaining your rights, this article offers useful tips for requesting that your rights are met and approaching issues that you may have during a trip.

A person who uses a wheelchair at an airport

Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act protects the rights of those with a disability from being discriminated against during air travel. This act applies to all United States flights, both those originating in the United States and those landing on U.S. soil.

There are several components to this Act, and it's important to understand each aspect in order to know your rights and where they should be supported. Generally speaking, this Act prohibits people with a disability from being refused service because of their disability, their specific needs, or accommodations.

The ACAA also protects your rights to accessibility while on a flight. Airplane accessibility is specific to how large each aircraft is, but generally you cannot be denied access to the bathroom with use of an on-board wheelchair, denied access to a specific seat that allows you to transfer to and from an on-board wheelchair, or denied assistance with baggage and seating throughout the process.

To review the ACAA in its original terms, visit the U.S. Department of Transportation's ACAA page.

Booking a Flight

Many people prefer to book a flight online, but this can be less accommodating, as many sites don't offer seat details that could make booking easier for wheelchair users. The best way to ensure your rights are upheld is to place a phone call to book the flight. This allows you to speak with a real person who can answer questions and provide insight into which flights and seats fit your needs.

The ACAA supports the following rights:

  • You cannot be refused a flight based on your disability
  • You cannot be denied a flight due to other passengers with disabilities already booked on the same flight
  • The airline cannot require a person with a disability to fly with another person unless that person is required per safety regulations. If requred, they cannot charge to transport the additional person


The best way to ensure your rights are upheld during pre-boarding is to speak with a representative at the gate to let them know you need priority boarding due to your disability. Speaking with someone as soon as you arrive at the gate is the fastest way to ensure you are boarded early in the process. You can also carry the ACAA with you to highlight your rights if you feel there may be push-back on your request.

The ACAA supports the following rights:

  • You have the right to board first
  • You have the right to assistance during the pre-boarding process

As a person who uses a wheelchair, you have the right to board first, not just in the early boarding classes, but in the very first group. It can take more time to board the plane, get situated in your seat, and stow your bags. Airlines are required to let you board before anyone else.

You also have the right to assistance during pre-boarding. This means that the airline is required to hlep you with boarding the plane, finding your seat, and stowing your bags. Specific seats on the aircraft have removable armrests to make transferring easier, and airlines are required to have aisle wheelchairs to help transport you from the door to your seat, as well as from your seat to the lavatory.

Checked and Carry-On Luggage

As a wheelchair user, you have the right to carry on any medical necessities without restriction. Each carry-on must contain necessities, like medication or supplies. The airline must also grant you priority in storage, both in the cabin and within the plane.

The best way to ensure these rights are upheld is to call ahead and discuss what your needs are, what your baggage situation will look like, and how to go about ensuring these bags are allows without an additional cost. Calling ahead and arriving to the airport early will give you time to sort out the situation at the desk during the check-in process, as well as during the boarding process.

The ACAA supports the following rights:

  • You have the right to carry on necessities
    • Assistive devices cannot be limited to a number of carry-on items
  • You have the right to space in the cabin for your baggage
    • Collapsible wheelchairs and other medical devices have priority storage in the cabin
    • Baggage has priority storage in the baggage compartments

Seating and During the Flight

Airlines are required to have seats with removable armrests to allow you to transfer to and from a wheelchair, and some aircraft are required to have accessible lavatories. They must provide an on-board wheelchair to give you access during the flight.

To ensure these rights are upheld, you may want to call ahead before your flight to confirm your seat assignment and that it fits your needs. If not, you can request an alternate seat, as something may have changed in the time since your booking. An ideal seat assignment for someone who uses a wheelchair is usually an aisle seat with a removable armrest, which makes it easier to transfer to an aisle wheelchair.

When inquiring about seating, it can be useful to have the ACAA on hand to reference specifically, especially if the airline isn't familiar with on-board wheelchairs, removable armrest seating, and the lavatory situation on your specific flight.

The ACAA supports the following rights:

  • The right to change seats if there is a better option that fulfills your needs
  • The right to have an on-board wheelchair to access the lavatory
  • The right to assistance throughout the flight


When your flight has arrived at its destination, the airline is required to deliver your wheelchair to the plane's door. This is one of the trickiest rights to uphold, as many airlines will tell you to pick up your wheelchair at baggage claim. You are allowed to request your wheelchair be delivered, but remember to be patient and clear with your request.

The best way to ensure your rights are upheld is to speak with someone before you board the flight and speak with a flight attendant before your flight lands to ensure your needs are known and can be met when you disembark. It's important to remember that if you need assistance, from leaving the plane to making a connecting flight or arriving at baggage claim, the attendant may have you wait until the plane is clear of passengers, to give the gate enough time to fulfill your requests and to ensure that they have the proper staff on hand to help you to your final destination.

The ACAA supports the following rights:

  • The right to have your personal mobility device delivered to the plane's door on arrival
  • The right to assistance getting off the plane
  • The right to assistance for making a connection or transportation to baggage claim

As a wheelchair user, you have rights throughout the flying process and it's important that you receive the assistance you need. The best way to ensure your rights are upheld, beyond the tips already provided, is to formally request these rights weeks before your upcoming trip.

You can submit a request via email to the airline outlining what you need, especially if a phone call wasn't helpful. Before your trip, it can be a good idea to read through the ACAA and highlight areas you may need to reference during your trip.

About the Author

Cory Lee

After being diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of two, Cory Lee's thirst for adventure never ceased. He went on many trips around the U.S. when he was younger, and then started taking things internationally when he turned 15. Since then, Cory has traveled to 21 countries across six continents, all while managing to start up his travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, where he shares his accessible, and sometimes not-so-accessible travel adventures with others. Cory is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). He has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, in a nationwide segment for CBS News, Lonely Planet, and many others. His blog won the 2017 Best Travel Blog Gold Lowell Thomas Award. He hopes to inspire other wheelchair users to roll out of their comfort zone and see all of the beauty that the world has to offer.

Cory Lee's ride is a Quickie QM-710.

Most of the stories here on LiveQuickie.com were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 8/6/2019 12:00:00 AM

Edith Williamson
My 43 year old daughter can’t sit up. She needs to stay in her chair. Can she fly?? We would like to go on a trip. But so far we can’t fly. What can we do?? Thank you
8/18/2019 5:44:41 PM

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