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Flying Delta, Southwest, US Air, & United with a disability

Navigating Achilles surgery on our right ankle last August was a very tough experience because the rehabilitation moved very slowly.  But the experience of being disabled opened our eyes to the very serious lessons of what it would be like to not be able to walk and have to be so reliant on other people. It was very interesting to see how one is treated with a disability during everyday activities and especially during travel. Since we love to write about travel, we thought it would be helpful to share our experiences with different airlines.

Like the story of Achilles in Greek mythology, an injury to that tendon can render you helpless. Not being able to walk for three months was quite stressful especially with three children, work and a cross-country move to a new town. Luckily friends from across the country sent meals and neighbors helped us drive the children to activities. Friends even found a college student who could handle the morning routine and drive our children to and from school. After a month on bed rest with the right leg propped up, we decided to venture out in the world using a knee scooter.



The scooter ended up being a lifesaver. Not only did it give a good work out, but also it became constant entertainment for family and friends.  It could gain speed very quickly so the brakes had plenty of use.  We began to feel confident enough around town that we decided to begin traveling again.  The best part of traveling became packing more shoes than usual because we only needed one!!! Unfortunately, we did have a bit of an issue with a formal party when we accidentally packed only the right one. Black loafers with a cocktail dress attracted a few looks at the business school reunion.

Even though all airlines or airports may not accept it in advance, try calling a week before your flights to arrange help. Often the airlines will give you seats close to the front of the plane. If you are extra nice, sometimes they will book you in the comfort seats that have more room.  Some airlines even have a special chair that takes you to the bathroom.  In addition, the pre-arrangement of a wheel chair or golf cart within the terminal makes traveling with the family less stressful. The transport team will even help you through security, which can be very tricky handling a suitcase and a laptop when you can’t stand.

Overall, we had positive experiences with how most airlines handle disabilities. Listed below is our review of the airlines we flew this past year based upon our observations and analysis:

  • Southwest: leads the pack with the handling of customers with disabilities due to courteousness of the staff.  The attendants made the boarding and the flight very easy and comfortable.  Since it was our first time on Southwest, we closely watched the way customers line up by numbers in key groupings before boarding the plane. Since we were traveling with a disability via wheelchair, we boarded first and avoided the cattle call.  Southwest also gets big points for WIFI on all their flights.
  • Delta: scored a close second. The only airline that took down our disability concerns in advance, the Delta team cracked jokes and went above and beyond to meet our needs such as storing our luggage and helping us to the powder room.
  • US Air: required us to request assistance when we arrived the airport which took time. The staff was polite but a bit rushed.
  • United: ranked just okay. We rated the Denver crew higher than the teams on our flights to Buffalo and Los Angeles.  The differences in attendant’s moods might have been dictated by the size of our plane (bigger plane=nicer staff) and the delay issues with the 787 dreamliner.
Southwest airlines

Southwest airlines (Photo credit: Photographer Clayton)

We also must point out that New York City and Westchester County, NY make traveling with a disability very pleasant.  We braved the New York City sidewalks (very accessible ramps and crossing signals), Metro North, the Subway and the Waldorf Astoria on our knee scooter. Public servants, staff at the Waldorf and everyday citizens could not have been nicer! One very attractive city cop even helped us hop up a subway stairwell.  We don’t know why the big Apple gets a bad rap!

Park Avenue (west) elevation of the Waldorf=As...

Park Avenue (west) elevation of the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are very thankful that our disability was only short-lived and our prayers are with those who navigate issues on a daily basis. If we can ever do anything to support you, please let us know. Also, we would love to learn about your travel experiences. Please leave your comments below.

“It has been my philosophy of life that difficulties vanish when faced boldly.”
Isaac Asimov