Will Airline Bans on Solo Wheelchair Travel Lead to More Accessible Travel Restrictions?

On January 25, 22 year-old Shen Chengqing was supposed to take a Hong Kong Airlines flight to Tianjin in northeastern China at 8.40pm. However, after she arrived at the airport for the 3½-hour flight, Shen said airline staff refused to check her in as she could not walk and did not have a travel companion. In an audio recording Shen sent to the South China Morning Post, an employee of the city’s third-largest airline can be heard saying Shen had to be offloaded as she was unable to walk. “Because of this reason, we refused to let her board the plane alone,” the female employee told Shen’s friend, who was with her at the airport. While flight attendants can help wheelchair users move to and from their seats, the airline said employees would not help with personal care including using the toilet and taking medication, due to safety concerns. “For these needs, we recommend you travel with a personal care attendant,” the website reads. A spokeswoman for Hong Kong Airlines on Saturday said that when Shen went to check in on January 25, staff concluded after a detailed evaluation that she would have to take the flight with a companion.

These kinds of restrictions placed on solo wheelchair travelers by certain airlines are nothing new. Cathay Airlines states very clearly on its website, “It is a requirement that you travel with a safety assistant if you are unable to physically assist in your own evacuation.” On the Avianca website, it says, “A safety escort (assistant) may be required to travel with you, due to disability​​ [if] you have a mobility impairment so severe that you are unable to physically assist in your own evacuation of the aircraft.” Numerous other airlines have similar requirements, including requiring you to have a companion if you can’t give yourself medication, feed yourself, or attend to your own toileting needs.

I have traveled by myself to 43 countries as a wheelchair user, and most of those have required solo air travel. I’ve been asked about my ability to evacuate an aircraft in an emergency by myself four times. Each of those four times, I responded that in an emergency, I would be able to drag myself to the door of the aircraft. That seem to be an acceptable enough answer for the crew, and I have yet to get kicked off an airplane or denied boarding. This is why the whole thing is complete bullshit.

There are two types of plane crashes — those in which some people survive and those in which everyone dies. You can guess which type is more common. This policy for solo wheelchair travelers is strictly for liability purposes. Airplane crew members have a million things to tend to in an emergency, and don’t want to be saddled with the physical or legal responsibility for evacuating a passenger who can’t walk. This is totally based off the assumption that in a plane crash or other emergency, everyone else will easily be able to walk off plane.

Flying solo on Air New Zealand after they asked me if I could self-evacuate.

I don’t know if you’ve seen any plane crash videos recently, but there’s a good chance that in a plane crash with survivors, many of those people will probably not be able to walk off the plane either. If they didn’t start out as wheelchair users, they might end up that way. In a different kind of emergency where they are able to deploy the inflatable slides and everyone is able to calmly get off the plane, I’m not sure I can imagine a scenario where they would just leave me or another wheelchair user behind because we were taking too much time dragging ourselves to the slide. Even if I did have a companion, where’s the guarantee that my companion would be in good enough shape to physically pick me up and carried me off the plane? Having a companion on a flight is no guarantee whatsoever that they will be of any use in an emergency. For the record, there are zero physical requirements for that companion. But somehow, if I were bringing a 90 year-old lady with me who could still walk, that would be acceptable for certain airlines.

But let’s walk away from logic and reasoning for a minute to take a look at the broader implications of these policies aimed towards solo wheelchair travelers. In addition to flying by myself to all of these places, I stay in hotel rooms by myself. I can probably count on one hand the number of accessible hotel rooms I have slept in that are located on the ground floor. In Europe, there are rarely any hotel rooms on the ground floor because that is where the lobby and usually a restaurant are located. In the United States, I often stay in hotel rooms that are above the 10th floor. If there is a fire or earthquake, there is no way I am driving myself down 10 flights of stairs. I have to sit there and wait for the fire department to come and get me. However, not a single hotel manager has ever asked me in my three years of traveling as a wheelchair user if I was with a companion who could help evacuate me in an emergency. For many reasons, of course a companion would be more helpful than not, and I believe certainly more so in a hotel than in an airplane.

Traveling solo on Irish Rail.

So then, why do airlines require companions for emergency evacuation purposes and not hotels? And is there potential for hotels to start requiring this if more airlines demand that solo wheelchair travelers have a companion with them? Will bus companies start requiring a companion in case the bus is in a crash or the ramp to enter and exit the bus breaks? Will I be banned from subways or trains because I can’t self-evacuate after a derailment? Will I be denied boarding on my cruise ship because I can’t walk onto the lifeboat? Practically speaking, there is no way that just one person can help a wheelchair user in a 400 pound chair get off of a burning bus, and there’s no way that a woman who weighs 120 pounds can carry her 250-pound husband who is a wheelchair user down 10 flights of stairs. Yet, this magic companion is somehow able to satisfy corporations and their attorneys.

I treasure my independence as a wheelchair user more than anything, and it has allowed me to visit so many parts of the world in the way that I see fit. What bothers me even more than the policies themselves are the fact that the people who created the policies are most likely not wheelchair users and don’t understand how independent we are, despite the fact that we can’t walk. We know that we are taking certain risks when we travel alone, and we willingly accept those risks. I’m pretty sure that if I were to be denied boarding or told I was getting kicked off a flight, offering to sign a waiver would do me no good. I was hoping to fly alone to Ecuador this spring on Avianca, and something told me to check their policies for disabled travelers. I’m glad I did or else I would have wasted money on a ticket, just to be informed of the airport that I would be denied boarding.

Cruising solo on the Crown Princess.

I don’t know how to try to change these policies or help educate airline management on why they’re so ridiculous. I also know that I can’t afford to pay for someone to travel with me, and I don’t know anyone with the time or money to be my travel companion. This isn’t to mention the fact that, with only a few exceptions, I don’t like traveling with other people. I’m concerned these kinds of policies might spread to other parts of the travel sector and further restrict our ability to travel independently. For now, all we can do is read the rules to try and prevent any issues at the airport or on the aircraft, and spend our money on airlines and businesses that respect our independence and ability to travel solo as wheelchair users.

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  1. M

    Great article! Of course there are several ways of looking at this very discriminatory behaviour! I wholeheartedly agree with you that individuals should be able to exercise the right to travel solo (dignity of risk) without prejudice but it’s a a huge task to change the airlines practice…..dare I suggest that, in the meantime , a case could be made that if a carrier insists wheelies travel with a companion, then that companion travels FOC?

    1. Airlines have different policies about companions. I believe Air Canada lets them fly at a significantly reduced rate, and Qantas does as well. Other airlines say that if the flight is not full, they will allow the companion to fly for free but you have to wait until check-in. At that point, it might be too late and you might not be able to get a seat for your companion. If so, you have to pay full price at the last minute and they will probably not be able to sit with you, which goes against the whole point of a companion being with you in the first place.

    2. Richard Church

      The airline rules have always clearly stated that to fly solo you must be able to get yourself to an emergency exit if required feed yourself and look after yourself in the toilet – the crew are only able to push the transfer chair ( once you have transferred) to the door of the toilet and back again. If you cannot do any of the above you are required to travel with a carer/assistant who can assist throughout the flight. I feel that the article is somewhat scaremongering and should not put anyone off of travelling – in 40 years of travelling around the globe both for pleasure and business as a paraplegic I have not encountered any difficulties when travelling on my own. Would it not have been better positioned to inform people of airline travel requirements rather than the headline used ?

      1. Not every airline requires solo travelers to have a companion solely for evacuation purposes. I know this because I have traveled on dozens of airlines by myself, With only a few of them asking if I can evacuate on my own. What I’m asking with my post is, given the circumstances of emergencies associated with air travel, is this requirement for solo wheelchair travelers who can otherwise take care of themselves discriminatory? And in the age of CYA and liability, and lawsuits, will other sectors of the travel industry see these policies and start implementing their own? I think it’s a fair question.

  2. This is the first I’ve heard of such a discriminatory policy by certain airlines. Perhaps my organization can get involved. How so? Back in the early days of the ADA (1990’s), cruise ships out of Miami demanded blind travelers travel with a companion “so they wouldn’t fall off the ship!” Additionally, no ships were ADA accessible . We filed Federal ADA lawsuits. And the cruise ships immediately took the defense they are foreign flagged vessels, not subject to the American ADA law. Not so, ruled the Federal Judge. He ruled that once a “foreign flagged” cruise ship enter US Territorial waters, they are then “floating hotels”, and required to comply with the ADA. So you can thank me (and my associates) for todays accessible ships you sail on. Perhaps we can do this same thing for any foreign airlines that want to land in any US city? Bill Norkunas

    1. You can certainly try.

  3. Naomi

    I do generally fly with a companion – 3 in fact, my husband and two sons. But we have discussed in multiple occasions that if there was some kind of emergency, then my husband’s first priority should be to get himself and our children off the plane as safely as possible. No point leaving our sons with no parents when he could have possibly got off safely if he hadn’t been struggling to assist me.

    1. That is very honorable of you, Naomi. Although in the thick of things, emotions run high. I don’t think they could possibly think of leaving you behind.

  4. Cynthia L. Chamberland

    Very sobering and disturbing. You bring up many valid points regarding how ignorant airline restrictive policies can be. There is a real need to fight for our rights to be independent.

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