Flight, Accessibility, and All Wheels Up

Flying can be nightmarish for everyone.  Between getting through security and hoping your bags don’t get lost along the way, everyone has a story they tell.  As much of a hassle as it is, flying allows for easier travel and lets people travel the world. However, as it stands now, airplanes are not easy — and sometimes impossible — for people in wheelchairs to navigate.  Why is that? What kinds of things are keeping flight from being accessible to people with disabilities? Who’s leading the charge in making flights accessible? Today, we’re going to discuss the current situation with disability and flight, and introduce you to a wonderful organization called All Wheels Up who is working to make flights wheelchair accessible.

Flying with a Wheelchair

As it currently stands, wheelchair users can’t sit in their own wheelchair during flight.  This alone makes it impossible for a lot of wheelchair users to fly, because wheelchair seats are usually designed with the person’s body in mind.  Some wheelchair users aren’t able to sit up by themselves, without the aid of their modified chair’s cushion and straps to support them. If they were to want/need to fly, the most they could do is take the cushion off their chair and sit it on the airplane’s seat, and have someone flying with them hold them steady the entire flight.  


Flight attendants help people with disabilities board on and off the plane, but they are not trained to lift.  People with disabilities each need to be lifted a certain way. Not doing it properly can lead to injuries to both the attendant and the person being lifted.   You can’t lift one person the same as another, because our disabilities affect us all differently.  

That’s not even to mention the wheelchair itself — precious cargo. The chair is stowed away along with everyone’s bags, often carelessly, and you have to pray it doesn’t get broken during the flight.  Unlike a lost or damaged suitcase, a disable person cannot run to the local store to buy a new chair to hold them over during their trip. In 2008, one airline spent upwards of $1.5 million on wheelchair repair/replacement. Since then, it’s only gone up.  Wheelchairs are not cheap, and they are vital for independence for many people.  

What about the ADA and other Disability Rights Laws?

This can’t be right, can it?  Airlines should be accessible!  We’ve talked about the ADA. Surely they’ve stepped in to make air travel more accessible, right?  Unfortunately, at least here in America, airlines don’t fall under the ADA’s jurisdiction. The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) was written four years prior to the ADA, and supersedes it.  

All Wheels Up

The last time I was on a plane was 2002, and I know that as it stands today that I would not be able to fly now.  Sitting up unassisted is impossible, as is having someone hold me steady enough for a whole flight. It felt like all hope of me ever flying again was lost.  Until a few years ago, when I heard about a non-profit called All Wheels Up.  

All Wheels Up is not just an advocate for people with disabilities who want to be able to fly. They are the only organization funding research to make it possible for wheelchair users to remaine in their chairs during the flight.  Founded in 2011 by Michele Erwin, All Wheels Up has already done multiple crash tests, one in 2016 and one in 2019, to show it is possible to let passengers fly in their own wheelchair. Erwin first encountered these problems when she experienced these difficulties first hand, attempting to arrange a trip with her son who is a wheelchair user with SMA.  

All Wheels Up proposes using similar restraints to the ones that are used in other forms of public transportation, as many of those already exceed FAA regulations.  The problems they are currently facing is funding and awareness. The airlines are unaware of how much money they could save by allowing wheelchair users to stay in their chairs, and All Wheels Up needs funding to do their research.

How Can I Help?

This organization is great!  Flying should be accessible to everyone!  How can you help? In our interview, I asked Erwin, and she said that while there aren’t any big things needed at this exact moment, following their social media is key.  Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  They also have a newsletter to keep you informed on any big news that may come up.  They also accept donations, because they need funding for research.

Flight should be accessible.  After over 100 years, it’s time for a change.  All Wheels Up is leading the charge, so let’s give them the help they need to achieve this goal.

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