I have noted that all the airports I have visited have had "attendant-propelled" manual wheelchairs that may only be moved by an attendant:

attendant-propelled manual wheelchair source: Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than the more traditional manual wheelchair, that can be propelled by the user or an attendant:

manual wheelchair source Wikimedia Commons.

I've not had personal experience with needing a wheelchair (in an airport or otherwise) but it seems to me this would be incredibly frustrating. To be completely dependent on another (be they an airport employee, or a friend/family member) to move, seems utterly awful.

While not needing to self propel between gates makes sense (and is obviously often required) not being able to direct your own movement without asking someone else (for those who normally can), during a six hour gap between connecting flights seems really problematic. Not being able to go into the bar or slowly browse the duty free on your own to kill time.

So why not have the manual chairs that can be attendant or self propelled? Is it a matter of cost?

Which seems off given that airports are such a high expense area/luxury anyway.

It is a matter of design?

Perhaps difficulties in make a user propelled chair narrow enough to get through aisles?

Or maybe difficulties in making the transfer to/from the wheelchair to the plane's seating when using a normal "big wheel" chair?

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    The first wheelchair there is small enough to fit down the aisle of a plane.
    – Calchas
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 8:55
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    The answer is completely obvious, as correctly mentioned by @Calchas.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 8:58
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    Neither is that the obvious, nor the correct answer, in the least; it only shows that the question has not be read or understood. The OP explicitely asks about the time between flights; the "leisure time", maybe many hours, where people normally go to the bar, the duty free shop etc. to kill time.
    – AnoE
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 14:53
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    isn't a normal wheelchair too wide to get inside the plane? Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 16:09
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    My comment is about the "The answer is completely obvious" (implicitely because) "small enough to fit down the aisle". The question is, as is shown by the diverse real answers, quite more interesting.
    – AnoE
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 18:33

6 Answers 6


Lots of airports have traditional style wheelchairs. The first one you show is specific for boarding an aircraft.

But they restrict use primarily to airport personel. One it controls where chairs are staged , two it limits liability.

I had to avail myself to chair service once and was glad to be pushed. Not being used wheeling myself around, traversing a big airport like Atlanta,Tokyo, etc would have brutal. And the attendant was fine taking me to a lounge, then returning later to wheel me to the gate.

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    So during a long stop it is possible to switch to a traditional wheel chair, for some independence in the shopping area? and the first one shown are only for getting onto and off-of planes? Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 9:11
  • I have seen the first primarily used for boarding and disembarking. But the standard wheelchairs are usually attendent driven, not something you self propel in.
    – user13044
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 9:36
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    Aren't they also using them for elderly people or people with injuries that can walk themselves in general too if requested?
    – simbabque
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 12:27
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    @DDM in many jurisdictions, if you supply something for someone to use and they injure themselves while using it, you could be on the hook for that liability - and your insurers will put requirements into place restrictions designed to limit that liability exposure. Bear in mind also that many (most?) people who use this service are not normal wheelchair users, just people who are normally unfirm on their feet but would walk with a cane etc.
    – user29788
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 12:42
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    Many airports do not restrict wheelchair operation to airport staff. As a non-medical escort (working for an insurance company), I have operated dozens of wheelchairs for passengers in airports around the world; only very few places have I been informed that the wheelchair must be operated by airport staff. I’ve also seen passengers propelling themselves in airport wheelchairs (though less commonly). Even aisle chairs may—though uncommonly—be operated by escorts, rather than airport staff. They may not be operated by the passenger, though: by IATA rules WCHC requires an escort to operate it. Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 18:50

The simplest way to answer this is to look at who would need that wheelchair and why.

Typically planes don't have space for a wheelchair down the aisles, so disabled passengers have to use a special wheelchair on the plane, pushed by attendants. There isn't an alternative to this (unless you use a stretcher instead, but then you have a whole new set of problems).

In the airport building itself, many airports allow the use of your own wheelchair up to the point of board, when you have to change over and your own wheelchair is put in the hold. In that case someone with a permanent disability won't need an airport wheelchair in the terminal. Only people with a temporary disability/injury or people who are physically frail would need an airport wheelchair then - and both of them will need someone pushing them, because a manual wheelchair is something that you need to build up sport-specific muscles for.

If the airport needs your chair put in hold luggage immediately, then of course you're stuck with the airport chair all the way through the terminal. As before though, this is only an issue for permanently-disabled people who are regular users of a manual chair - everyone else would always need an attendant anyway. Typically this is the situation for smaller airports or airports in countries which are less well-equipped for disabled passengers. In that case, putting the responsibility for getting you around directly onto an airport employee (who has to stay with you for the duration) makes life very much easier for the passenger.

Since my GF broke her hip last year, I can personally testify that the loss of independence is a very big deal for people in wheelchairs! But it's essential to be practical to adjust to the new situation, and part of that is the wheelchair user accepting that some things may in fact be impossible without assistance. I'm not saying this is something anyone should enjoy, or that it isn't frustrating! Just that it is the physical reality that needs to be lived with. (Of course it's also a physical reality which able-bodied people should be aware of, so if someone's coming through in a wheelchair then give them room - they've got enough crap to deal with already, without you getting in the way.)

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    But if your GF had had to go on a long flight, with a several hour layover in the airport, she'd have wanted a self-driven wheelchair surely? Or are you saying that she couldn't have moved a self-driven wheelchair at all (which I would find very hard to believe). Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 14:45
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    @MartinBonner As someone who has spend a full year being dependent on a wheel-chair (lower-spine injury after an accident) I can assure you that self-propelling a normal wheel-chair as in your 2nd picture is VERY tiring, even if you are otherwise a fit athlete. I was very grateful when I could move to a light-weight sports-wheelchair after several months. Someone NOT used to prolonged self-propelling would be very grateful to be pushed by someone else in less than 30 minutes.
    – Tonny
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:00
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    @MartinBonner Seconding Tonny's comment, long distances in a manual chair are hard. There's a very big gap between "couldn't have moved it at all" and "could have happily used it continuously for several hours". That strength/endurance difference is why you don't want to arm-wrestle a regular wheelchair user! :) The gap between long-duration ability and short-duration ability is also why elderly/frail/injured/disabled people may not need a wheelchair in their everyday life, if they mostly just potter round the house, but may need one for travelling a couple of miles round an airport.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 16:06
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    @MartinBonner It isn't until you've got mobility problems (or you're with someone who's got them) that you appreciate just how hard "pottering around" can be. Ditto the distances involved in getting around an airport - that brisk 10-minute walk to the gate might actually take you half an hour under your own steam. Ironically having someone pushing you around can give you more freedom because you're not restricted by your own physical limitations.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 18:06
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    You make an important distinction between people who use wheelchairs most/all of the time and those who don't generally use one but get one at the airport because of the long distances/short timeframes/heavy bags/etc... involved. Permanent wheelchair users typically advocate well for themselves and are likely to have a strategy that works best for them, which may well involve bringing their own chair and moving around independently. People in the latter category are more likely to want and need an attendant. Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 0:57

There are two types of wheelchairs provided at most airports. The traditional self-propelled ones you mention are often used by those passengers that need assistance walking long distances but are able to walk for short periods of time.

For example, my mom uses these all the time at large airports because of her knee surgery she cannot walk at a normal pace so she requests wheelchair assistance, and they always bring this normal one for her.

The second type (attendant only) is used for those people that have very little mobility and it is specifically designed to be used on board aircraft - as its reduced width allows it to be wheeled down the aisle.

My mom doesn't need these as once she arrives at the airplane door, she can walk down the aisle to her seat.

In either case - the wheelchairs are accompanied by an attendant from the airport services (very rarely is the attendant from the airline). Even if someone else is pushing the wheelchair, the attendant always accompanies the passenger to expedite them through security / immigration and place them at the appropriate area of the gate for priority boarding.

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    Only if you bring your own wheelchair. The attendant comes with the wheelchair; and you'll be given priority anyway if you are in a wheelchair (attendant or not) simply because it will take you longer to board. Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 3:08
  • @pnuts It's surprisingly easy to overbalance a wheelchair, especially if you also have luggage you're trying to move around. It's also surprisingly hard to stop once you're moving, especially on a ramp. In most countries, the airport would be directly liable for any injuries you suffer, because they've supplied you with equipment with known and foreseeable hazards without giving you the training to use it. Health and safety legislation in any country which takes it seriously would require the airport to put in rules about this.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 10:45

Really a comment but it won't fit:

I have had a bit of experience with airports and wheelchairs after my wife was injured on a trip.

The chair in the first picture is intended only for boarding and on-board use. Note how narrow it is--there are definite stability issues with it, especially if faced with any bumps. The transfer between a normal wheelchair and the airplane chair is made at the end of the jetway, the last space where there is reasonable room to work. Stability is not an issue once you are on board, there's no way it's going to tip over when you are between the seats.

The regular chair is used to get around the airport. I do not know how it works everywhere but in Los Angeles apparently those regular chairs were assigned to the attendants--and it took raising a stink to get him to find another chair for her rather than leave her effectively immobile at the gate for the 5+ hours of our connection. (I don't think anything would have been done had she simply refused to get out of the chair until a replacement was found.) While for the most part she did not want to move (the problem was a soft-tissue injury, any movement of her lower back was quite painful) that's a little long to leave someone without access to the restroom!


I once made an airplane trip where I used a standard wheelchair in the airport at either end. It was my only time using a wheelchair; navigating the airport on foot would have been very difficult, and operating the wheelchair myself would likely have been almost as hard. (I was able to walk through the security gates with a wooden cane lent to me by the TSA, and to slowly walk down the aisle of the plane once I had been wheeled to the door, so I can't speak to the aisle chair pictured.)

I assumed that the wheelchair was supplied with an attendant due to liability issues. (I had someone travelling with me who was able to push the chair when we did not have the attendant. Not everyone is so fortunate.) (The attendant claimed that he was not paid and working only for tips; I don't know whether that was true.)

An airport would be a terrible place to learn to operate a powered wheelchair!


Quite simply, those wheelchairs are provided by the airport and airline to assist:

  • Lower mobility passengers.
  • Passengers who checked their own wheelchair/mobility device.

They are operated (pushed) as part of that service.*

You can request this service at booking or usually at checking, depending on availability.

The first image is typically called an Aisle Chair and is used onboard the aircraft for passengers who cannot walk. This is a specialized equipment that actually required an operator for practical reasons.

The second is a standard commercial wheelchair.

There really is nothing more to this. There is no restriction on using your own wheelchair in the airport terminal but since they cannot be gate checked unless collapsible, they must be handled as cargo.

*Answering the question of why this is a complete service requires some speculation, but if someone wants to contact every ground services company operating today, that would be great. The most likely reason a chair and attendant is dispatched is because the chair has to get to the passenger somehow and the chair has to be returned somehow. Eventually, we may see automated chairs, but until the, a person has to move the chair to the various points in the terminal.

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    -1 because you don't answer the question. The question is why are they pushed by attendants and your answer is just "because they are." Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:16
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    WHY are they operated (pushed) as part of that service? That is the whole question. Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:18
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    I'm using "why" in its usual sense in the English language. For what reason does the service include being compulsorily pushed by an attendant with no option of wheeling oneself? Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:24
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    WHY is it a complete service, wheelchair and attendant? Flight attendants serve drinks because it is impractical for the passengers to all go to the galley. Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 15:46
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    The impossibility of contacting every GS operator to quote their specific policy is a total strawman. Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 16:23

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