Navigating Airline Baggage Restrictions

Photo by Rick Peterson / 2008
by Donna G. Albrecht on September 1, 2007 - 10:29am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5

Recent headlines about airlines instituting expensive restrictions on the size, weight and number of items you can check for free present a special concern for travelers who have disabilities. Will taking along that extra battery, BiPAP or other awkward piece of equipment mean that you end up paying more in luggage surcharges than you paid for your ticket?

That's what I was afraid of for my daughter, Abby, who flies at least once a year. She uses an extra-large suitcase to hold her clothes and parts of her collapsed bath chair - which also makes the case extra-heavy. In the past, she's checked the suitcase and the separate folded frame with no trouble. At check-in they would slap a "heavy" sticker on the case, and away everything went. Now we needed to know what the new regulations would mean to her and others with disabilities.

Recent regulations by the airlines not only limit travelers in the number of checked and carry-on bags, but also impose tighter size-and-weight-per-piece restrictions. When checked luggage exceeds those limits, passengers must pay penalties - sometimes more than $50. Fortunately, federal guidelines require that airline policies allow people with disabilities to bring their necessary medical supplies and equipment without being penalized - for the most part.

“Normally airlines cannot charge for devices needed by people who have disabilities unless they are extremely bulky or burdensome for the airline,” says Bill Mosley, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Sometimes,” he admits, “it comes down to a case-by-case ruling by the airline.”

Some special considerations may include the size of the aircraft and the size of the equipment you want to check. He’s referring to situations like checking hundreds of boxes of supplies for an extended trip. However, the practical limitation can refer to one large object, such as the handicapped-equipped van one person wanted to have at his destination; he tried (and failed) to check his van as luggage!

But Mosley says travelers with disabilities shouldn’t be charged for items of “reasonable size.”

Federal protection

Mosley suggests travelers review Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Title 14, Part 382 — Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel. These regulations give specific instructions to spell out the rights of disabled travelers on U.S. airlines within the United States, regarding issues including equipment storage, seating and even service animals. You can find the federal policy, unchanged since 1999, at

Each area of concern has its own section. For example, you’ll find Treatment of Mobility Aids and Assistive Devices; Provision of Services and Equipment; and Stowage of Personal Equipment. Service animals are discussed in the Miscellaneous Provisions section.

Stowage of Personal Equipment states that carriers shall permit passengers with disabilities to bring wheelchairs, canes, respirators and batteries either as carry-on or checked baggage, depending on the aircraft’s capacity.

One brief but important section, Charges for Accommodations Prohibited, states, “Carriers shall not impose charges for providing facilities, equipment, or services that are required by this part to be provided to qualified individuals with a disability.”

The federal policy doesn’t spell out requirements for other kinds of equipment; whether you can check your bath chair, elevated toilet seat or folding ramp at no cost depends on the airline.

While everything is likely to go well when you check in, Mosley suggests you keep a copy of this and other regulations that apply to your situation with you for the possibility that an airline employee isn’t familiar with them. Every airline is required to have a Resolution Official available at the airport, who can help solve problems in getting your equipment on board.

If you don’t have access to a computer, your local librarian can help you find copies of the relevant regulations.

Your special needs

When you make your flight reservation, you’re required to note your special needs for the record. Advance notice also helps ensure that you’ll get the service you require. An airline’s Web page can be a big help in understanding its restrictions and permissions.

For example, your airline’s Web page may include its requirements for handling wheelchair batteries. (Gel cell batteries are generally easier to deal with than wet cells.) Wheelchairs may be checked as baggage or gate-checked and stowed on the plane, if space is available.

Even though you’ve given the airline all the information about your checked and carry-on baggage requirements when you made your reservations, call again 24 to 48 hours before your flight to reconfirm and ensure they’re prepared to accommodate your special needs.

Be sure to ask for in-airport transportation between gates and to the luggage area. The service is free, but the drivers usually expect tips.

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