What to Expect When You Fly

[Editor’s note: Per the author, most of the changes highlighted in this article are driven by the FAA. However, some changes as noted may be unique to Northwest Airlines or the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. As the author suggests, it is best to check with specific carriers via e-mail or by phone if you have any particular questions.]

Travel for people with disabilities was not easy before September 11, and things are just a bit more challenging now. If you will be traveling by air any time soon, here are some things to keep in mind.

If you need assistance with getting checked in, getting to the gate, and/or boarding, arrive at the airport two hours in advance for domestic flights, and allow two and a half hours for international flights. While some curbside check-in may be available, confirm its availability by calling your chosen airline or going to their website before departing. You may also be able to get wheelchair assistance at curbside, but check with the airline first. Unattended vehicles parked curbside will be towed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

When going through security, expect to be searched even if you are a wheelchair user. Security personnel will use a wand and possibly a pat down search to facilitate the process. Policies have not changed with respect to service animals. However, you should carry documentation with you for the service animal at all times when traveling.

If you need assistance getting to the gate, you can ask at the ticket counter for a pass which will permit an individual (family member, friend, etc.) to assist you beyond security to your departure gate. The airlines do provide wheelchair assistance upon request.

If you are diabetic and need to bring syringes aboard, you will still be permitted to do so. Aerosols, in the form of inhalers, are still permitted on board the aircraft. Carry any medication you will need with you on board; while documentation for medication isn’t required, it is advisable to bring a doctor’s prescription and have medication clearly marked in case security personnel have questions. Oxygen is still provided upon request.

If you require metal utensils to facilitate eating, you will not be able to bring them on board, and only plastic utensils will be provided by the airline. Flight attendants may assist in the opening of packages and cutting of food, but are not required to assist an individual with a disability in eating. In fact, most in-flight food service has been discontinued by Northwest Airlines for flights under two hours. If you need food during a flight, it’s best to bring your own.

At any checkpoint, people with disabilities will be subject to the same degree of security search as non-disabled persons. However, no person with a disability will be required to undergo any greater level of security clearance than a non-disabled person. Auxiliary aids and appliances such as note takers for the blind, nebulizers, and so on, will be checked and examined accordingly.

Any individual who has a metal joint replacement, cochlear implant, or a pacemaker should alert the security personnel before going through the metal detector. A hand wand search can be provided, or if a person with a disability wishes a private security screening, it can be arranged upon request. To do this, contact the airline you are using in advance of your trip and make the request.

The following information pertains particularly to Northwest Airlines: if you are not able to stand for a long period of time, check with an airline employee at the ticketing counter or with staff wearing the red jackets; explain and they will assist you. Also, if you have additional concerns at the airport, Complaint Resolution Officials (CROs) are trained to resolve any questions or concerns that may arise. To find a CRO, ask any Northwest employee.

If you are traveling in the near future, we’d like to hear about any unusual experiences you may encounter. While increased security is important at this time, maintaining respectful treatment and personal dignity are equally important. New and inexperienced personnel may be staffing security checkpoints in particular, and you may encounter inconsistencies. It’s helpful to report these incidents to the airlines so they can further train security staff.

Lolly Lijewski is the Manager of the Advocacy Department at The Metropolitan Center For Independent Living. She can be reached at (651) 603-2022, voice, and (651) 603-2001, TTY.

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