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Investigating the challenges of air travel in the United States: a qualitative study of the lived experiences of wheelchair users with spinal cord injury or disorder


Study design

Qualitative exploratory study.


To understand the lived experiences of individuals with spinal cord injuries or disorders (SCI/D) who use wheelchairs during air travel in the United States (US), with a focus on the challenges and barriers to accessing this form of transportation.


Wheelchair users with SCI/D living in the community in the US.


Semi-structured interviews were used to collect data from six wheelchair users with SCI/D. Data were analyzed using a six-step thematic analysis.


Experiences of wheelchair users during air travel clustered into three themes; experiences interacting with the airport, experiences interacting with the airplane, and experiences across all stages of air travel. Barriers to airport accessibility were minimal. Physical barriers to airplane accessibility and damage to wheelchairs occurred when interacting with the airplane and airline staff. Undertrained staff and a shift in responsibility to the passenger with a disability impacted all stages of the experience.


Wheelchair users with SCI/D encounter challenges that can result in unsafe and inaccessible air travel within the US. Adverse consequences of air travel often impact the individual’s independence and quality of life during and after the flight. Participants provided recommendations to improve the air travel experience for wheelchair users, including the ability to remain in one’s wheelchair while onboard the airplane.

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Fig. 1: Diagram of thematic results.

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Data availability

The data generated and analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to the possibility of identifying information being present in the qualitative data. Datasets may be made available through direct requests to the corresponding author of this article.


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The authors thank the participants for their time and willingness to provide invaluable insights into this topic.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



JLP was responsible for designing the study protocol, recruiting participants, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, and writing, revising, and finalizing the manuscript. WB was responsible for recruiting participants and collecting and analyzing data. He contributed to the study design, interpreting results, and revising and finalizing the manuscript. PR provided feedback on the study design, giving methodological support, and co-writing the final report of the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julie L. Pfeiffer.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Ethics approval

This study was approved by the University of Kentucky Institutional Review Board. All participants provided written informed consent.

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Pfeiffer, J.L., Bower, W. & Rumrill, P. Investigating the challenges of air travel in the United States: a qualitative study of the lived experiences of wheelchair users with spinal cord injury or disorder. Spinal Cord Ser Cases 10, 25 (2024).

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