From checking bags to getting through security and boarding, flying is difficult. However, flying is especially daunting for those traveling with a special-needs child.
With a proper understanding of airline procedures and proper preparation, you and your family can travel, regardless of your family’s special needs.
To help you in this process, we have put together this guide on traveling with a special-needs child. Whether you’re wondering, “What documents do children need to fly?”, or searching for tips for traveling with an autistic child, we want to make flying as easy as possible for you and your family.
Legal Rights for Special-Needs Passengers
First and foremost, you should understand your legal rights, either as a special-needs traveler or the guardian of one.
Your rights are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are many prohibited practices, along with regulations defining accessibility services that must be provided.
For example, if you are flying domestic, or the flight destination of an international flight is the United States, you cannot be charged a baggage fee for a wheelchair, whether it is electric or hand-powered. Furthermore, wheelchairs and assistive devices have onboard storage priority.
Other Legal Rights for Special Needs Passengers include:
- Airlines may not reject a passenger based on disability unless they can demonstrate in writing how carrying that passenger would put the safety of other passengers at risk.
- Airlines cannot implement advanced-notice regulations of travelers with disabilities, with the exception of requiring 48 hours’ notice for travelers who require logistical support.
- Airlines cannot force a person with special needs to travel with a companion unless the safety of the passenger requires an assistant.
- Airlines cannot limit seat availability to those with disabilities, except in exit rows in which passengers must be physically capable of performing certain tasks.
- Additionally, new aircraft with 30 or more seats must have movable armrests on at least half the aisle seats. There must be accessible bathrooms on new planes with twin aisles. New planes with 100 or more seats must have designated space for storing a foldable wheelchair in the cabin. All aircraft with 60 or more seats and an accessible bathroom must have a wheelchair onboard.
- Finally, those who need portable oxygen must be allowed to use it on board, as long as the container is FAA-approved.
How To Choose the Right Airline For Your Trip
While all airlines are bound by law to meet certain minimum requirements for providing services to travelers with special needs, the truth is that some airlines do a better job accommodating customers’ needs than others.
A good way to judge an airline’s policies and services towards special-needs passengers is to peruse their website. Airlines will often devote whole sections on their website to their special-needs accommodation policies. If an airline doesn’t supply information on their policies, it is likely because they don’t provide much beyond the legal minimum. However, if they put an emphasis on providing excellent service to those with special needs, they will highlight it on their website.
Furthermore, airlines that do go the extra mile will also make it easy for you to let them know what sort of extra accommodations will make flying more pleasant. While you are not legally required to inform the airline of special needs before flying, coordinating with the airline can make the logistics of flying much easier. An airline that wants to make logistics easier when booking your flight is more likely to do logistics well when you arrive at the airport.
At a minimum, when booking your flight, check the box that says “special services.” While the airline might not know exactly what needs you have if you do this, they will at least be aware a passenger requires extra assistance at the gate. In today’s climate, airlines are increasingly concerned about the quality of the interactions between their staff and their customers. If they know you are going to need some special attention ahead of time, you’ll have a better chance of getting assistance that goes above and beyond the norm.
Booking Your Flight
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when booking your flight.
Airlines have tried to maximize profits by up-charging for certain in-demand seats. While many consider this an annoyance, it does provide an advantage for a family traveling with special-needs children. For example, you can now select certain seats with extra leg room, usually for only a few dollars more. While exit-row seats will be unavailable, as occupants must be able to perform certain duties, other seats might make accommodating your child a little easier.
Even if you don’t select an extra-spacious seat, you may still want to strategize about the best place for your child’s needs. If your child is anxious in close spaces, an aisle seat will give him or her more space. However, if your child is active, a window seat will help you better contain his or her excitement while preventing accidents with other passengers or bumped beverage carts.
Secondly, you may want to prioritize the time of the flight. If you know when your child is most relaxed, schedule your flight accordingly. If the morning works best, also know morning flights are less likely to be delayed. A flight delay may trigger a child for whom unexpected changes can be alarming.
DIRECT FLIGHT OR LAYOVER?
Finally, consider how you think your child will react to a long flight — without a change of pace or scenery — versus a layover. If you think a break to do something other than sitting in a seat will be helpful, plan a layover into your itinerary. However, if you think your child will do best with as few changes as possible, opt for a direct flight.
In the end, you know your child best. The key is to consider all of the variables involved with flying and make a plan or leverage those variables in a way that makes flying easier for you and your family. You know what the airlines have to provide, but if you understand the smaller details, you can go beyond the bare minimum.
How To Prepare Your Special Needs Child For Your Flight
Of course, the best way to prepare your child for flying will depend on your child’s specific needs.
However, there are some general tips for parents of special-needs children that will help the whole family be more comfortable about flying for the first time.
Read about flying.
Try bringing stories about flying into your regular story-time routine. This will help demystify some of the issues associated with flying with a special-needs child. Plus, as with any story, it will be another way to help get closer to your child.
The sights and sounds of flying can be hard for people with certain conditions. For some, giving them familiarity with these sensations ahead of time can help.
However, be warned, many mainstream video sites aren’t a good source for flying videos. Unfortunately, because the content on such sites isn’t regulated, you are just as likely to find a video of a plane crash as one that documents the true experience of flying.
Instead, head to your local library and find a video on flying designed specifically for kids. And make sure to preview it first, as you know better than anyone the specific triggers that might affect your child.
Visit the airport.
Obviously, this only makes sense if you live near the departure airport. However, if you can take a preliminary trip to the airport before you are due to fly, that can help familiarize your child with some of the sights and sounds they will experience when you fly.
While your trip will be limited to the portion of the airport outside of the security checkpoint, it will also give you an opportunity to test-run some of the logistics of your trip. You can talk to clerks at the check-in counter while scoping out other parts of your trip.
If you can, find a spot with a good bay window where you can watch planes taking off and landing.
Take a mock flight.
Many U.S. airports provide mock flights especially aimed toward children with autism. Serving as a dress rehearsal, mock flights give kids the experience of checking their bags, going through security and boarding a plane. This is the best way to ease children with autism into the experience of flying. Unfortunately, not every airport provides this service, so inquire at your departure airport or another nearby airport to see if mock flights are available.
If your special-needs child has particular medical concerns, it’s important that you have a plan in place for dealing with them.
Talk with your child’s physician.
Make sure to consult your pediatrician about your travel plans. They will be able to give you advice on the best way to deal with particular situations. Further, they may have some techniques or even be able to give you a prescription to help your child relax through the experience.
Furthermore, if your child is already on maintenance meds, it’s important to have a contingency plan in place if you somehow lose medications in transit. Have your doctor send all prescriptions to a pharmacy in the area you are traveling to. Your doctor may also be able to give you recommendations for specialists in the area in case of an emergency.
Although it is ultimately up to your physician, your doctor may also give you their personal cell phone number so you can call or text in the event of an emergency.
Finally, have your doctor write a letter of description for your child’s condition. In the event the airline claims they do not need to cooperate with you or accommodate your child’s needs, a doctor’s letter is an important document for you to make your case. If a doctor says your child needs a particular accommodation, it’s unlikely an airline will refuse.
Pack extra meds and other necessities.
Even if you have the contact information of a pharmacy at your destination, you should still pack more meds than you need for your trip. Again, you want to do everything in your power to make sure you don’t get caught in a situation where you don’t have something you need. Even if it’s a non-medical necessity, like a toy or device that brings your child comfort when they’re stressed, make sure you have extras, if possible.
Also, always pack medications and other must-have items in your carry-on. That way, in the rare event the airline loses your luggage, you’ll still have necessities on hand.
Make copies of medical records.
In an emergency, first responders or other medical professionals unfamiliar with your child’s needs may need to make quick decisions. If you have easy-to-access medical records, it will be easier for responders to address your child’s special needs.
While you will obviously be diligent, travel is, unfortunately, a situation where things can change quickly and unexpectedly. If something unanticipated does happen, you want to make it as easy as possible for others to give your family the care it needs.
Make sure all medical equipment is FAA- and TSA-approved.
Finally, go through any necessary medical equipment you are planning to bring and check each piece against the TSA’s database on approved devices. If you have additional questions or can’t determine if your device is approved, contact the manufacturer.
You can also call both airports — your points of departure and arrival — to ask any clarifying questions. However, if you are confident your equipment is TSA-approved and the person you are talking to says otherwise, gather proper documentation, as it could be an indication you’ll need to convince a TSA agent of your rights when you arrive. However, this is unlikely, as the TSA has been working hard to make sure all agents are aware of the proper policies and regulations to avoid such uncomfortable situations.
In addition to coordinating with your airport, you should also take advantage of the TSA Cares program. This is a helpline specially dedicated to making sure passengers with special needs get the care and attention they deserve from the TSA.
TSA Cares recommends contacting them 72 hours before traveling. They will then coordinate with local TSA agents to make sure you receive the proper accommodations.
Make a Backup Plan
A lot of things that are outside of your control can go wrong while you travel. That’s why you always need to have a backup plan. Having a flight delayed or rerouted is hard for everyone, but it is especially hard for someone with special needs.
While parking may be at the bottom of your list, when you are balancing everything else, having the convenience of a prepaid parking arrangement can remove yet another variable.
If you are flying out of Logan International in Boston, join us at Park, Shuttle & Fly. Since 1975, we have been optimizing the process of arranging to park for our customers. Because we specialize in giving our customers individualized attention, we are perfectly suited to assisting those with special needs. We request that customers book a reservation and then send us an email at least 24 hours in advance with their reservation number to request wheelchair services. This way we can make sure we have staff available to take care of you upon arrival.