Navigating the Airport Wheelchair System

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Wheelchair provider companies at most large airports have no competition, so they don’t have to try … and it shows. When Dad first needed a wheelchair, I used to drop him off at the “wheelchair area.”  I’d make sure his name was in the book with his flight time. Then I would leave. Big mistake — basically, wheelchair-dependent travelers are at the mercy of strangers. It’s as if they are cows in a pen being led to slaughter. Too many times, a person is forgotten and is raced to the gate in a cart. Think of how stressed you are when you might miss your flight and double that for a senior who has no control and is dependent on others.

Part of the issue is that the workforce, such as wheelchair drivers, are paid minimum wage.  Their work model is to transport as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. I remember a scene I created when the wheelchair driver left my father alone to retrieve other passengers from other terminals nowhere near his gate. This meant Dad would have sat in a chair by himself for 20 to 30 minutes. Luckily, I was still nearby and prevented it. However, this type of service is the norm.

Here are some tips on how to navigate the airport wheelchair system:

  • Ensure that you have $5.00 bills, $10.00 bills, and $20.00 bills in your pocket or wallet.
  • Get a pass from the airline to escort your loved one to their gate.
  • If you’re a member of an airline club, have the wheelchair attendant transport your loved one to the club($10.00 tip). Once there, discuss transportation and flight times with the club’s guest services driver. Once you feel confident enough to leave, that person also receives a $10.00 tip after assuring you that your loved one will arrive at the gate in plenty of time to board. I’ve done this often and was never disappointed.
  • If you’re not a member of a club, escort the wheelchair and the attendant to the gate and tip the attendant well. The tip is based on the length of transport.- the more distant the gate, the larger the tip. Give your family member the $5.00 bill and tell the attendant that it’s for them after they take the family member to the door of the airplane. If not, they’ll leave your loved one and hope a gate agent will do it.

Yes, this costs more money, but it’s worth it. Our loved ones are precious cargo. It already hurts that I have to see them in a wheelchair, why not make that journey as painless as possible? And remember, one day this could be you.

If you are a caretaker of an elderly parent or loved one and find yourself struggling for guidance or answers, reach out to me at Parent Your Parents in Miami, Florida. I offer inspirational articles, videos, and resources for families with aging parents. Whether you live in Florida or not, I am a senior advocate who helps point you in the right direction. Contact me, Frances Reaves, for a free consultation and elder law support for multiple senior concerns all in one place. If you prefer, you can call 786-418-3303 or email me at