Airplane Travel Tips for Kids with Disabilities
For kids with disabilities and their families, air travel can be especially challenging. With the help of Team Undivided parents, we’ve crowdsourced some tips to help make airplane travel easier. If you have advice of your own to share, please let us know so we can add it!
Before the flight
Make sure your online reservation includes any additional needs like wheelchair assistance or dietary restrictions.
Reach out to TSA Cares two weeks prior to your travel; they can meet you curbside and escort you to your gate (no lines and streamlined TSA checkpoints!). They also provide cart service so that you can more easily reach accessible bathrooms and other areas farther from your gate. Some airports have sunflower lanyards available for travelers to signify that they may need extra support.
Consider applying for TSA PreCheck, which allows passengers to keep their shoes/belts/jackets on and access shorter lines. It’s currently $85 per person ($70 for online renewal), but that covers five years of priority lines at airports around the country.
Days before your trip, start reading Social Stories about traveling in an airplane, taking vacations, going through security, etc. Watch videos that take place on airplanes or in hotels.
If you can, make sure your kiddos get some physical exercise beforehand so they’ll be tired enough to sleep on the flight.
Check out airline clubs and lounges, which often have kids' rooms with cartoons, games, and soundproofing if you need a quiet place to relax in between going through security and boarding.
What to bring
Activities! Tablet, coloring or sticker books, sensory toys/fidgets, chewies, etc.
Comfortable headphones, noise-canceling headphones, or ear plugs (check out this list for ideas!)
More snacks than you think you need! You might want to hold the snacks until take-off and landing so the chewing/swallowing helps small or sensitive ears!
A small blanket in case your kiddo needs to “hide” in the seat or if you need a shield to change them behind. It’s also helpful if you want a clean area for your little one to play on the ground at the airport.
A change of clothes for everyone in a carry-on, including extra diapers if needed
Several types of masks to switch out
Baby wipes and Ziploc bags
Prepare for medical/behavioral Situations
Anything that can cause inflammation in the ears or nose can make flying difficult. Long time flight attendant Jason Brock recommends speaking to your child’s doctor before travel to discuss any medical issues or concerns that travel may aggravate. For example, many children have trouble clearing their ears on the ascent and descent. Your doctor may recommend your child preemptively take a decongestant and may advise having a fast acting nasal spray available to clear their ears rapidly, if needed. If your child has a lot of environmental allergies be sure to carry antihistamines as well.
Make a plan for toilet use during the flight. If your kid uses a special toilet seat, pack it and any wipes, diapers/inserts, extra clothes, etc. into a backpack that you can easily hang on the door and out of the way in that tiny airplane bathroom.
Take advantage of pre-boarding and talk to the flight attendants about your child, loud sounds, behaviors, medical issues, etc. before others get on the plane. Ask about accommodations such as boarding the plane before other passengers to help your child get acclimated or getting seated in a quiet area. (Note that airlines are typically required to allow families traveling with disabled passengers and/or small children to board first.) Airline policies and procedures typically don't take into account passengers with sensory needs, so it can help to have a conversation with the flight attendants before takeoff.
Parent Kelley Coleman suggests writing a note and handing it to the flight attendants to read aloud to passengers. Here’s what she wrote:
We want to welcome all of our passengers, especially the children on board, one of whom is a very enthusiastic little man with special needs. He might express his enthusiasm with noises that sound like loud screams, but not to worry — he’s just excited to reach our destination, just like everyone here. Thank you for your understanding and enjoy the flight.
“I thank people for their understanding rather than apologizing for my child,” Kelley says. “I never want him to feel like his disability is anything to be ashamed of. We celebrate him and do our best to welcome everyone else to his very loud and exuberant party.”
Protect your equipment and medications
Know your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. (Read more below.)
If using a wheelchair, talk to the airport personnel who takes it from you to ensure that it is handled safely. (According to this article, airlines commonly lose or damage wheelchairs — about 20 wheelchairs per day!)
Label your wheelchair or other checked equipment with your contact info along with basic instructions on how to push and lock it; keep parts that could easily come off in your carry-on bag.
If any of your equipment gets damaged, file a report with the airline before you leave the airport.
Keep medicine in your carry-on bag, and make sure it’s labeled so that there’s no question what it is.
If you have liquid medicine in a container bigger than 3.4 ounces, tell a TSA agent at the start of screening. You’re allowed to bring ice packs to keep it cool. (Remember that formula, breast milk, and juice are allowed in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces — just keep them separate from other liquids that have to comply with the 3.4 rule.)
Plan as though you know the plane will be delayed and your bags will be lost: Make sure you have what you need — plus a little extra.
What to know about mask protocols
Masks are optional for all passengers in U.S. airports and on domestic flights. (Some international airlines may still require them.) TSA is not enforcing any mask mandate.
If you have questions, contact the TSA Cares helpline at (855) 787-2227 about 72 hours prior to your flight.
The transportation agency in your county may have mask recommendations in place, so do a little research before your flight to make sure you're up to date.
What to know about flying with a service animal
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines are only required to accept service dogs that have been trained to perform tasks for an individual with an ADA-recognized disability. (You can learn more about the difference between service animals and other types of support animals in our service dog article.)
It's common for airlines to ask for documentation about the animal's health, so be sure to do your research about what your airline requires. For the full list of federal guidelines and tips for traveling with a service animal, see this page on transportation.gov.
Know your rights
You and your kiddos have a right to be treated with dignity and respect!
Know your rights under the new Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. It states that airlines can’t refuse transportation or other services because of a passenger’s disability, resulting appearance, or involuntary behavior. Here’s where parent Kelley Coleman’s suggestion of writing a note and handing it to the flight attendants to read aloud to passengers can come in!
Airlines also can’t require passengers with disabilities to accept special services or restrictions that don’t apply to other passengers.
You have a right to knowledge!
If requested, you must be provided with disability-specific information about the aircraft you’re flying, including any limitations it may have.
If you or your kiddos have any communication needs, make sure you express it to airline personnel. Personnel must be trained to use the most common methods for communicating with individuals who are blind, Deaf, or hard of hearing that are readily available, such as writing notes.
You have a right to have assistive devices and medications! This means:
You have the right to bring on board any medical devices and/or a personal amount of medication that you need.
Assistive devices won’t count against your carry-on limit.
Airlines must provide for the checking and timely return of assistive devices at the gate. If your wheelchair or other assistive device is lost, damaged, or destroyed, the airline must provide compensation in an amount up to the original purchase price of the wheelchair or device.
Remember: If you request assistance in advance of arriving at the airport, make sure to self-identify to airline personnel once you arrive at the airport or the gate to receive assistance.
You have a right to accessible seating and aircraft features. This includes:
A movable aisle armrest, a bulkhead seat, greater leg room, and an adjoining seat for a companion
Priority stowage space for wheelchairs
At least one accessible lavatory, if the aircraft has more than one aisle
An onboard wheelchair, if requested
You have the right to have your complaints handled quickly! Here are the steps:
If you need to file a report, the airline is required to have a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) available in a timely manner. The CRO should be trained in resolving disability-related issues and be able to resolve disability-related issues on the spot.
You can also file a complaint with the airline itself or the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838.
The airline must respond to your complaint in writing within 30 days. Be mindful that airlines aren’t required to address complaints sent more than 45 days after an incident unless the complaint is referred to the airline by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
If you have any questions about your rights, speak with the airline’s CRO. Airlines must have a CRO available at each airport they serve during all times the airline is operating at that airport.
Although families like ours are no stranger to confusion about travel requirements, concerns over mishandled equipment, and all the other stressors of flying, we're hopeful about stronger protections for our kids' rights and technological innovations that make it easier for passengers with disabilities to fly.