What services are available to travellers with a disability?

Travelling with my son, who is a wheelchair user, can be a challenge. It’s encouraging to see an increasing number of travel services becoming available to make it easier. Unfortunately, information about these services is often difficult to find, so I’m sharing a few tips.

Julie Jones, Travel Without Limits

Discounted airfares

FLIGHTS are more expensive than ever, so any help with this cost is appreciated. That’s especially true for people with a disability requiring the assistance of someone to be able to travel. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia offer a discount on domestic flights. When I travel with my son, I receive a 50% discount on my airfare as it’s not possible for him to travel on his own.

Airline special handling department

IDEALLY, it’s best to speak to the airline’s special handling department to provide additional information that may make a disabled traveller’s experience smoother.

Services that can be requested include:

An upper body torso harness – this provides support to someone who is unable to sit well when out of their wheelchair. This needs to be booked as it attaches to an anchor point, similar to a child’s car seat, and is only available in certain rows of the aircraft. 

The Eagle Passenger Lifter – a hoist which assists a passenger to transfer from an aisle chair (aircraft wheelchair) to the aircraft seat. This is used for a traveller who cannot stand to transfer to the seat. It’s available at many airports around the world but needs to be requested. You can check for availability online –

Using a wheelchair to the aircraft door – full time wheelchair users have scripted wheelchairs which are built to their requirements. Airline wheelchairs don’t offer sufficient support, so most travellers prefer, or require, the use of their own wheelchair to the plane. A gate tag, different to a bag tag, is attached to the wheelchair, which should signal to baggage handlers to bring the wheelchair to the door of the aircraft on arrival at a destination.

Hidden disabilities program

WHILE my son’s disability is evident, people with hidden disabilities are at a disadvantage when they travel. Many airports have recognised the needs of these travellers by implementing a program that assists travellers with hidden disabilities, including autism, dementia and anxiety. A sunflower lanyard or pin is available for these travellers, signalling to trained airport staff that a little more time and consideration may be needed. At some airports an assistance lane, marked with the sunflower symbol, will provide assistance and shorter wait times, which is particularly helpful to travellers with autism or intellectual disabilities. 

Changing Places bathrooms

IT’S an uncomfortable topic for many, but using the bathroom prior to a flight is something most of us do. That’s even more important for travellers with a disability when an aircraft doesn’t offer the facilities they need. Many Australian airports now offer a Changing Places bathroom, which includes a hoist (essential for many wheelchair users to transfer from their wheelchair to the toilet) and an adult-size change table (some travellers with a disability are not continent and need a height-adjustable table to enable them to be changed). 

On long-haul flights, we book an airline that offers an oversized bathroom on their aircraft to ensure we are able to assist our son in the bathroom. 

No two people with a disability are the same. Asking what a person needs is the first step towards providing them with a good travel experience. 

Julie Jones began her career in the travel industry as a travel consultant, working for almost 20 years for a specialty agency. She is the creator of the award-winning website Have Wheelchair Will Travel and co-founder and editor of Travel Without Limits magazine, Australia’s first disability-specific travel magazine. Julie is also mother to Braeden who lives with cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user.

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