How to get assisted travel at airports

In the UK, if you travel by air and have a disability or mobility difficulties, you’re legally entitled to assistance from your airline and the airport to make your journey smoother and less stressful.

Kim Jones
Kim Jones
Updated 22 September 2022  | 3 mins read

Key points

  • People with a disability, or mobility issues, are entitled to free special assistance when travelling from a UK airport on any airline, or on a UK carrier from outside the UK
  • You can ask ahead for help with things like getting through your departure and destination airport, boarding, disembarking and transferring flights
  • You should ask for this type of assistance via your airline or tour operator rather than from the airport directly
  • Aim to give at least 48 hours’ notice before you travel to ask for assistance

What is ‘special assistance’ while travelling?

It’s special support provided to passengers who need help when they’re travelling by air.

That includes the elderly, passengers with physical disabilities, those who use wheelchairs and those with hidden disabilities like dementia or autism.

Assistance can be provided from the moment you arrive at the airport.

For example, you can ask for transport from the airport car park to the terminal building, an electric buggy or airport wheelchair, an escort to help you get to check-in and through security at your departure airport. As well as help with embarking and disembarking the aircraft, plus aid with transferring between flights.

Do I request assistance from my airline or the airport?

You should inform your airline directly (or via your tour operator or travel agent if you book your flight and trip through them) about the type of help you require.

Aim to do this as soon as you book, but at least 48 hours before you travel. Leave it later than this to inform them and you might experience a limited service.

Once you’ve told the airline, they’ll liaise with the airport operator and their assistance service provider to make arrangements for you.

If you’re booking flights on a website, there’s usually a link you can click through to ‘special assistance’. But you may need to telephone the airline or tour operator to notify them of the help you need, or if you want to confirm that assistance will be available.

You also need to let your airline know if you want to take your own mobility aid with you, like a wheelchair or scooter.

Most airports now also support the Sunflower lanyard scheme that lets airport staff know you have a hidden disability. You can ask about collecting a lanyard from assisted travel help desks at the airport.

What do I need to ask?

Some airlines have an accessibility team you can talk to for advice on travelling with a disability and the type of help you’ll require.

It’s a good idea to go onto the website of the airport you’ll be departing from, too, to check for things like walking distances to airport departure gates and if the airport uses steps to board aircrafts.

If you book a flight direct, you can sometimes request assisted travel at the point of booking. Though in other cases you may be required to call the airline reservations team before or after you’ve booked your flight.

At this point you can ask for assistance depending on your needs and circumstances including:

  • Help to get from the car park or bus stop to the terminal building
  • Use of an electric buggy or airport wheelchair to get to the departure gate
  • Assistance with getting through security and boarding
  • Requests for seats near the bathroom on the aircraft

How do I find out where the assistance stations are?

To plan ahead, you could visit your departure airport’s website and search for ‘special assistance’ advice. Here, you should find information about where assistance desks and stations are located at the airport.

For example, the Heathrow airport website has an interactive map where you can find all assistance point locations across all the terminals.

In general, there’ll be assistance stations at the airport’s drop-off points, like the bus terminal, train station or car parks, where you can telephone for help to get to the terminal building if there’s no-one there to help you.

Inside the airport terminal, you’ll also find the main special assistance desks as well as further assistance points throughout larger airports.

Is there a charge?

No, airports and airlines are legally obligated to provide this type of help and assistance for free.

Can I expect the same level of assistance at my destination?

It depends where you travel to. In the European Union (EU), you’re entitled to free special assistance much as you are in the UK. So, you can expect things like help with getting through immigration, customs and baggage reclaim, plus assistance with getting to car parks or train station drop-off points at any EU destination.

Countries like the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are also likely to offer this kind of assistance.

But these kinds of passenger rights may not be available in some parts of the world. Assistance may not be available at all, or you may have to pay a fee. So, it’s important that you check ahead with your airline or tour operator to ensure you’ll get the help you need at your destination.

Are there restrictions?

You can ask ahead for help from the cabin crew when you’re on board the aircraft with things like finding your seat, stowing your cabin luggage, helping you get to the toilets and opening packaging on your meal.

But, during the flight, you need to be able to see to your personal needs yourself. That includes using the bathroom, eating, drinking and taking any medication.

Additionally, in the interests of safety, if you need help getting in or out of your seat, unfastening your seat belt or fitting a life jacket, then you’d need to travel with a companion who can assist you.

Are assistance services available 24/7 at all UK airports?

Most airports don’t operate flights 24/7, so special assistance desks may not be open before a certain time, perhaps 4am. So if you arrive at the airport before this time, you’d have to wait for assistance. Check ahead with the airport you’re travelling from.

Does assisted travel affect my travel insurance?

You should have already declared your disability as a pre-existing condition to your travel insurance provider.

If you try to make a claim on your policy and haven’t disclosed this information beforehand, you might have your claim rejected.