The 3 Best Airlines for Disabled Travelers
Which airline is best for disabled passengers? While air travel can be overwhelmingly inaccessible for many, a few airlines are working to prioritize the needs of those with disabilities.
The first time my wheelchair was damaged by an airline, I was 10 years old and heading on a two-week family vacation to Hawaii. I remember gleaming with excitement thinking about all the things I’d experience on this getaway of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the trip would mark the beginning of a lifelong battle with inaccessibility while flying, as well as a heightened understanding of which airline is best for disabled passengers.
Our itinerary included a stopover in Dallas, where we waited on board the plane for my wheelchair to be brought to our gate. Looking through the window, we watched as baggage handlers unloaded everyone’s luggage, piling it high on large trolleys. Amidst the flurry of bags, however, we noticed something alarming—my sparkly purple wheelchair, the lifeline that allowed me to navigate the world, was carelessly hurtling down the conveyor belt. It was treated no differently than a bag filled with beachwear.
My parents and I watched in horror. This wasn’t just mishandled baggage or bad customer service. How could it get any worse? Then one of the employees jumped in my wheelchair and gleefully zoomed around the area as if it were a toy race car. My parents banged on the plane window, desperately trying to get their attention. Equally stunned flight attendants scrambled to radio down and caution them to be careful. But the damage was already done. When my wheelchair arrived, both back tires were punctured, the armrests were broken off and the joystick was hanging by a thread. I was robbed of my mobility for the duration of our two-week paradise retreat.
Challenges of flying as a disabled person
Unfortunately, not much has changed since that incident. Air travel remains overwhelmingly inaccessible for disabled individuals. It not only requires meticulous planning, but disabled travelers must also accept more risks and endure more discomfort than other passengers. Consider this:
- Wheelchairs may not be used on flights. Unlike when traveling by bus, train or virtually any other mode of transit, disabled people are not permitted to stay seated in their wheelchairs during flights. Instead, they must be transferred into a seat. The risk of injury while being transferred into the aircraft is significant, and many individuals also become increasingly susceptible to pressure sores from being out of their specialized seating.
- Airplane bathrooms are rarely accessible. And they are rarely large enough to accommodate a caregiver if required. Disabled people may be forced to hold their bladder or resort to uncomfortable methods like catheters or diapers.
- Crews may not authorize the transportation of necessary items. While every airline has different policies, it is not uncommon for airline crews to give disabled passengers a hard time regarding the transportation of medications, specialized medical equipment or service animals. And often, a burdensome amount of paperwork is required for prior authorization.
- Thousands of wheelchairs and mobility aids are broken every year by U.S. airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report. Damaged wheelchairs may be caused by crews physically lifting them onto conveyors, leaving motorized vehicles out in adverse weather or not securing them in cargo holds. This mishandling leaves disabled people without mobility, independence and dignity.
Which airlines are best for disabled passengers?
WheelchairTravel.org recently conducted a ranking of the best and worst airlines for disabled passengers using the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report, which collected data from November 2021 to October 2022. The evaluation focused on various factors, including mishandled wheelchairs, disability complaints, on-time arrivals, canceled flights and extreme delays.
While Spirit and JetBlue are popular budget airlines, they were ranked as the worst airlines for disabled passengers, primarily due to their high rates of mishandled wheelchairs. Both airlines mishandled wheelchairs more than 5% of the time (the industry average is 1.55%).
Unfortunately, JetBlue’s performance in 2023 hasn’t improved. On April 17, Colleen Flanagan, an employee of the Boston mayor’s disability commission, flew with JetBlue from Boston to Washington, D.C., during which her wheelchair was completely demolished after allegedly falling out of the cargo door. According to USA Today, the airline gave her a loaner chair while they worked on getting it fixed, but because Flanagan has osteogenesis imperfecta, she can easily break bones and relies on her highly specialized motorized wheelchair to safely navigate her everyday life. Her community involvement has been heavily impacted as a result of JetBlue’s negligence.
Thankfully, there are airlines that have a better reputation for transporting passengers with disabilities—and their mobility aids. Which airline is best for disabled passengers? Here’s the list.
United Airlines came in third place in WheelchairTravel.org’s rankings of the best airlines for disabled passengers. In fact, United ranked third in every major category that affects disabled passengers—mishandled wheelchairs, disability complaints, on-time arrivals and canceled flights.
Jody Schwartz, a recent passenger on United, shared that she had a very positive experience with the airline. Although her mobility scooter experienced minor damage in transit, the airline’s insurance company was extremely quick to rectify the issue and even replaced the mobility aid with a brand-new one, she says. Despite the original mishap, Schwartz felt that she was treated very fairly.
Southwest took the second-place prize on this list, living up to its ranking as one of the best airlines for disabled passengers. It’s one of the best airlines when it comes to disability and general passenger complaints, according to the DOT’s Summary of Disability-Related Complaint Data. This data considers disability-related security issues, refusing to board a passenger, failure to provide assistance, seating accommodations and service animal problems. But while Southwest seems to outweigh its competitors in those important areas, the airline does rank low (No. 6) for mishandled wheelchairs. As such, disabled passengers without mobility aids might be best suited for this airline.
Which airline is best for disabled passengers? Delta Airlines. Delta knocked it out of the park, scoring best or second best in almost every category. Most important, Delta had a relatively low incident rate of mishandled wheelchairs, at 0.83%. (Keep in mind, though, that even this small percentage means that more than 1,600 mobility devices were damaged in one year—about 134 per month, or four per day.) While Delta fares better than its competitors, these statistics are still far from commendable.
With that being said, Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, has revealed a working prototype for a new wheelchair-friendly cabin. Designed in collaboration with U.K.-based organization Air4All, the concept allows disabled passengers to remain in their own wheelchairs throughout the flight. This design seamlessly converts a standard airplane seat to accommodate a wheelchair, and notably, no structural modifications are required. The airline hopes to obtain approval for commercial use within 18 months, pending successful testing. I’m grateful to see Delta addressing the inequalities in air travel for the disabled community and actively working toward improvement.
Air travel will likely never be entirely easy or risk-free for individuals like me, even if we know the best Google Flights hacks, how to book the best flights, how to get the best airfare or how to use flight price trackers. But knowing which airlines are best for disabled passengers (and which actually prioritize our needs) before booking that next flight can help alleviate some of the associated anxiety.
- CNN: “‘Unbelievably excited’ – wheelchair users react to new Delta airplane seat design”
- WheelchairTravel.org: “Ranking the Best and Worst U.S. Airlines of 2022 for Wheelchair Users”
- Travel Weekly: “Poor handling of wheelchairs continues to plague airlines”
- U.S. Department of Transportation: “Summary of Disability-Related Complaint Data”
- USA Today: “‘This was violent’: Wheelchair damage leaves traveler mostly stuck at home”