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I'm disabled and am restricted to an electric wheelchair. I cannot walk at all, and cannot sit in any other chair. I use a ramp van to get around town. It's just a regular van with several seats replaced by floor tie-down points. I simply drive my chair in, then it gets tied down and I can start my journey.

Does something like this exist for air travel? I have found sources stating some airlines will put my chair in with the luggage, and some stating I could bring a manual chair in the cabin, but not an electric chair. And one source stating that I could bring the electric chair in the cabin, but I would still have to use a standard seat. None of these options are satisfactory.

Does anyone know of a service that would suit my needs? If not, what is the limiting factor?

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    These aircraft do exist, and they are operated by national or international air ambulance services. But that has nothing to do with commercial aviation, which seems to be what the OP is asking about. Such organizations can provide complete "hospital bed to hospital bed" transport packages, not just the OP's type of requirements. – alephzero Sep 22 at 0:58
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    @Harper I would be OK with either. I am trying to plan a vacation, and if I can't figure out a way to fly, I'll be driving for days. Most likely from Buffalo, NY to Los Angeles. I am fine with chartering a flight or going with a major airline. – Ryan_L Sep 22 at 23:06
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    Another option to consider, generally, is the train. I do not know precisely how well this would suit your needs, given the requirements you've outlined, but I do know that trains are generally more accessible than airplanes, and I expect that it would be possible to remain in your own wheelchair for the duration of the journey. It would not be nearly as quick as a plane, of course, but it might be preferable to a road trip in a van or bus. – phoog Sep 23 at 12:52
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    @CMaster I could be removed from my chair briefly, like if the TSA needed to take it apart to search it. But I couldn't be outside my chair for an entire trip. The issue is that I use special seating that conforms to my body and that I'm strapped into. Other seats would be very uncomfortable and I would struggle to keep my balance. – Ryan_L Sep 23 at 15:37
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    @phoog when it was on aviation.se, I was going to suggest the train and link this picture. Amtrak's new coaches, the 54-seat "Max 8". – Harper Sep 23 at 20:48
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At this stage, no. To my knowledge the only option currently is to be moved into a standard seat.

The main obstacle has been the so called "crashworthiness" requirements, where an aircraft seat carrying a person must be able to withstand a crash force of up to 16G without shifting or collapsing.

However, the organization All Wheels Up has developed a prototype solution to allow some wheelchair users to remain in their chairs, and is in the process of lobbying safety regulators and airlines.

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  • Air Canada - "Wheelchairs and Mobility Aids"

    There is no discrimination against you, but you should expect a large wheelchair to go into cargo; rather than becoming a projectile or having larger batteries leak during a crash. See also the second link above regarding "Cargo Door Size Restrictions" and (free) "Disassembly and Reassembly" (which can mean come early and leave late).

 

  • one Japanese airline - ANA - "Customers with Walking Disabilities"

    You check-in all wheelchair types and they provide you with the airport's wheelchair (and push you if preferred/needed). Upon your request, you can also use your own wheelchair close to the door of the aircraft. However, please understand that some airport facilities are not allowed to use your own wheelchair due to set conditions. Use of a stretcher is available for customers who are unable to sit upright in an aircraft seat.

 

  • U.S Dept. of Transportation - "Wheelchair and Guided Assistance"

    There's a lot to read on that webpage but some of the most relevant details seem to be:

    • If you travel with a battery-powered wheelchair, you must arrive at the airport 1 hour prior to the normal check-in time.

    • You are entitled to stay in your own wheelchair until you get to the gate. At the gate, your wheelchair will be taken from you. If you cannot walk, you will be transported to your aircraft seat in an aisle chair. Your wheelchair will be returned to you at the gate once you reach your destination.

    • If you need wheelchair assistance to get off of the aircraft, you should know that airlines generally provide this assistance after all other passengers have deplaned.

The website WheelchairTraveling.com provides some additional information about traveling, such as rugs can be more difficult to traverse as can some of the ramps. Also interesting is that your wheels can roll through something, and then when you get swabbed during screening you may not clear.

The simple answer is: everywhere is different and you need to phone each airline you plan to fly on and contact the airport for additional information about their procedures. Arrive early and expect to stay late.

... what is the limiting factor?

Every possible size of wheelchair can't be inspected and certified for flight and an interface made available to secure it. Even Unit Load Devices (aircraft luggage containers) have a fixed number of standard sizes.

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    Use of a stretcher is available for customers who are unable to sit upright in an aircraft seat. Where would a stretcher fit in an aircraft? Unless they are willing to remove seats, I'm having trouble envisioning where a stretcher could go and not block egress in an emergency. – Johnny Sep 21 at 23:52
  • @Johnny how about vertically behind galleys or between lavs? Compartment in the ceiling? – Harper Sep 22 at 22:43
  • There could potentially be issues if the battery is a lithium one. I've no idea what the regs are for lithium batteries on planes in the US. – SpacePhoenix Sep 23 at 2:40
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    @johnny Indeed, either seats can be removed or they can be folded down to accommodate the stretcher, depending on the aircraft. – MJeffryes Sep 23 at 9:23
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    @Johnny I've experienced patient transport a few times on regular flights. One or more seats are folded down and the stretcher is placed on top of it. You can find an image of such an arrangement here: indiamart.com/proddetail/commercial-stretcher-19488160533.html – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Sep 23 at 11:55
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Sleeper seats are surely more expensive than cramped economy class but some airlines do offer them. While you say you cannot sit on any other chair, I assume probably you can fly lying down. Some companies like Alitalia will allow you to travel in a stretcher.

Looks like you need a friend or two with you to help with moving between the seat and your wheel chair, and the best it would be if you can spend a short time in a normal seat while taking off and landing. If not, so some rules may exist to work around the requirement of sitting properly if there are medical reasons. May be worth asking.

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    would I be allowed to lie down during take-off and landing? I assume so, because I know some people being medivac'd must, so it's at least theoretically possible. – Ryan_L Sep 21 at 19:36
  • @Ryan_L That sounds like a decent separate question, unrelated to your particular situation. I've seen similar questions, but don't think I've ever seen one asked from the medivac angle. Consider posting it as a proper question. – a CVn Sep 22 at 19:22
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Other possible considerations beyond crashworthiness as outlined in Ben's answer:

Doors are made only as large as necessary; larger doors bring structural issues, the solutions to which almost inevitably add weight to the aircraft. Passenger doors typically have rounded corners (again, for structural reasons), which means the flat portion of the threshold may end up rather narrow, likely becoming a barrier for some wheelchairs.

There may be issues with the way jetways meet up with the doorway; it may just be due to the way the operator positioned it on a specific flight or intrinsic to the jetway's design. Regardless, there can be a step and/or narrow gap between jetway and cabin door threshold; I've seen it as a tripping hazard, I imagine such a situation might be problematic for a wheelchair to navigate safely.

Economics and profit motives drive airlines to fit as many passengers as possible into the available cabin volume and floor space of a given aircraft at the expense of passenger comfort and room to move around. Most aircraft therefore have very little floor space that isn't occupied by seating, lavatories, galleys, etc.. To offer better accessibility would require an airline to forgo the revenue equivalent of perhaps one or two seats per aircraft, a reversal of recent trends.

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    "To offer better accessibility would require an airline to forgo the revenue equivalent of perhaps one or two seats per aircraft, a reversal of recent trends." Also, how often would this capacity be used? I haven't flown commercially in a long time, but I did fly commercially pretty often some years back, and certainly don't recall people in wheelchairs being a common sight even in the airport terminal, let alone aboard the airplane. – a CVn Sep 22 at 19:17
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    @CVn That's my point; not only would accessible seating locations be much lower density when used, they may be vacant on most flights. Such accommodation would have to be mandated; no profit-seeking airline would voluntarily give up the revenue, especially when margins are so thin as to encourage over-booking to ensure every last seat is filled. – Anthony X Sep 22 at 21:16
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    "Perhaps one or two"? In my town, the buses have wheelchair positions. Parking a wheelchair there means folding up 2 front facing and 2 side facing seats, which would have been 6 seats if the bus was entirely bench seating (not equipped for wheelchairs at all). And it has 2 such spots, so 12 seats becomes 8, 4 or 0 depending on wheelchairs on board. Fold-up seats may not work for airliners, so now it's 9 seats permanently OOS. – Harper Sep 22 at 22:20
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    @Harper I wouldn't disagree with you, just took a conservative position in my answer not having any hard fact to point to. – Anthony X Sep 22 at 22:35
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    Rounded corners are a safety requirement. Note how every appreciable opening in the plane has rounded corners. The issue is metal fatigue--the de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jetliner, it's before the time of a lot of most of the people on here. It didn't have rounded openings--and started falling out of the sky because of that. Square corners collect stress and eventually fail. – Loren Pechtel Sep 23 at 5:01
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It is extremely technically difficult to make jetliners be "roll on, roll of" for power chairs. That is not likely to become possible to improve anytime soon, and it is why airlines are exempt from ADA.

Take the train

Amtrak is subsidized for a number of policy reasons. One is to enhance accessibility for folks like you.

If your location is Buffalo, you have reasonably good access to the national system. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are hard, but you have decent access to the East Coast and South, and the west is your oyster. In particular, going from Buffalo to Los Angeles,

  • you would be on the Lake Shore Limited, the east's fastest overnight train. Midnight departure out of Buffalo, sleep through northern Ohio, and a 9am arrival in Chicago. Spend the day shopping (you're blocks from the Loop).

  • Then a 3pm departure on the Southwest Chief, the fastest overnight train nationwide. It uses a mountain-avoiding straight-shot on the "Santa Fe Racetrack" route, so it is much faster than the southern, central or northern routes. The 43 hour night-day-night run puts you into L.A. between 8am and noon.

Accomodations exist both in coach and sleepers. The eastern trains have a high deck, and use either high or low level platforms. At low level platforms, they will use a "wheelchair lift" to get you to deck level. The corridors are too narrow to reach the whole car, but you will be able to get to the ADA sleeper compartment or a chair tiedown area in the coach, and a bathroom.

The western trains (and Auto Train, and Capitol Limited) use low-deck Superliners, which all use low-level platforms and a very simple ramp. You will be able to move about the lower deck of the car somewhat. The attendants will bring you diner meals or snacks from the cafe car.

In sleeper cars, dining car meals are included. Coach passengers can pay for dining car meals a-la-carte. Both can buy 7-11-tier microwave fare from the cafe car. The cafe is priced a bit above 7-11 and far below airlines. The dining car is priced like Applebee's.

Let me give you the standard speech about late running that I've been giving for 25 years. A very, very long train run has many opportunities for small delays, and all those delays stack because Amtrak doesn't build much recovery (sitting around) time into their schedule. You just have to plan for it, relax, and don't worry about it. If you can't settle for that, then Amtrak is not for you clearly, you haven't flown much in the last 10 years...

I travel Amtrak a lot, and have seen some whopping delays for wild (but reasonable) reasons. My worst, however, was actually on JetBlue.

In my experience, Amtrak often tries to work alternate transport during long delays. When there's a viable choice, I find it's usually wisest to stay with the train and wait it out. The railroads are very, very good at keeping their track open, and Amtrak trains are modular and single broken engines or coaches can be set out or simply carried along inoperative.

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