Reinventing the wheelchair: Making air travel more accessible to disabled passengers

Disabled passengers: cabins, aircraft

Pressure is growing on the aviation industry to make air travel more accessible to disabled passengers. But with space at a premium and strict safety regulations to adhere to, changing the status quo will require ingenuity, collaboration, and determination, as Kerry Reals reveals.

Campaigners are calling for alternatives to the current system of using collapsible wheelchairs to transfer passengers with reduced mobility (PRMs) down the aisle from the aircraft door and manually lifting them into a standard aircraft seat.

Ideas under discussion include a system involving a mobile chair that could be wheeled onboard and attached to a fixed-frame aisle seat, and the certification of passenger-owned wheelchairs for use in aircraft cabins, along with tie-downs to hold them in place.

Both options face steep challenges, not just on the safety regulation front but also in deciding who leads the charge when it comes to funding, development, and implementation. The question is whether the industry will voluntarily rise to the challenge before legislators bow to public pressure and demand change.

Chris Wood, founder of Flying Disabled – a group campaigning for the introduction of designated wheelchair spaces on commercial aircraft – hopes it will, but does not expect things to change overnight.

“It can be done – it won’t be tomorrow or the next day, but maybe in a couple of years we can start looking at a plane and develop a space for a wheelchair,” says Wood, who started his campaign two years ago after travelling to Mexico with his disabled daughter and finding the in-flight experience to be both undignified and uncomfortable.

Wood believes the airline industry could adopt a similar strategy to the London Underground network, where stations are slowly being made wheelchair accessible over time, rather than all at once.

“Realistically, the legacy airlines will do it first, on the bigger aircraft, and then it would transfer down to the low-cost carriers. You don’t necessarily have to adapt every single aircraft at first,” he says.

Aircraft cabins have become more accessible in recent years, through the introduction of wheelchair-friendly lavatories and there are signs that aircraft manufacturers are open to the possibility of doing more.

Disabled passengers, airlines, aircrafts, cabins
Accessibility is becoming easier for those with disabilities who wish to travel more frequently

“Airbus has been working for a long time on adequate solutions to make our aircraft more accessible for passengers with reduced mobility. For example, with the Space Flex module we have developed a prominent, space-efficient, full PRM lavatory for our A320 family without a need to remove seats,” says an Airbus spokesman.

“The idea of allowing personal wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin and attaching them to the floor was presented last year at the inaugural Wheelchair in the Cabin Symposium, hosted by Virgin Atlantic Airways. This event aimed to engage stakeholders in the aviation and accessibility world to discuss the possibility of creating a wheelchair space in a commercial aircraft.”

Airbus has remained ‘in contact’ with the event’s organisers, Flying Disabled and All Wheels Up. It also attended a working group in Florida in May to discuss in-cabin wheelchair securement, says the spokesman, and ‘more could come out of that’.

But while proponents of certifying passengers’ own wheelchairs for use in the cabin appear confident that this could become a reality, others remain unconvinced.

For instance, Brian Richards, inventor of the Airchair – a collapsible in-flight transit chair used by over a hundred airlines to help disabled passengers to board aircraft – believes the expense of certifying individual wheelchair models for in-cabin use makes it a ‘totally impractical’ option.

“No one wants to spend £100,000 to get their wheelchair certified and every time it goes in the air it would have to be checked,” says Richards. This would result in unwanted delays for the airlines, he argues. “I’m all for looking at new ideas, but they have to be based on the principles of aircraft design, and these have very stringent specifications.”

Aircraft seat manufacturer Recaro also points to the strict safety certification regulations to which its own standard seats must adhere, and says that “to transport wheelchair users safely in a wheelchair in the cabin, certainly more is required than simply creating enough space for the wheelchair”.

Recaro adds: “To anchor the wheelchair safely in the aircraft is one of the challenges. Designing a wheelchair structure that can endure the forces that occur in an emergency would certainly make the wheelchair heavy and bulky.”

Disabled passengers: airchair, airlines, aircrafts, cabins
Airchair is used by over a hundred airlines to help disabled passengers to board aircraft

Richards believes that the present system for transporting PRMs is ‘the best option’ because the collapsible aisle transit chair ‘can be used for one, 10 or 20 disabled passengers’. He says the Airchair has been designed to make the transit process for disabled passengers as comfortable as possible.

It features a folding back to enable carers and cabin crew to more easily slide the occupant from the chair to the aircraft seat, as well as four swivel castors to improve maneuverability. Airchair is available in three sizes for varying aisle widths and weighs 6kg. “On average, the chairs we’re providing offer a saving of 1,000 gallons of fuel per chair, per year,” says Richards.

But he admits that there is not much scope for further improvement: “There is not a lot more we can do within the costs that people could pay. People have asked if we could do carbon fibre, but that would add to the cost.” There is, however, more that airlines could do to improve the in-flight experience for PRMs, in Richards’ opinion.

“Ideally, airlines would provide two seats with more room around them, or let disabled people go in business class for an economy price, although I suspect they’d wince at that,” he says.

Geraldine Lundy, passenger accessibility manager at Virgin Atlantic, says it is “a really great step” that All Wheels Up is working on crash-testing tie-downs to attach personal wheelchairs to the cabin floor, but points out that tests are being carried out on a standard wheelchair frame, and ‘you would need an approved range of wheelchairs that pass crash tests’.

She adds that from an airline revenue perspective, once a disabled passenger has been transported to their destination, ‘you’ve got to figure out a way to put seats back in’ so they can be sold on the flight back. “The really good thing is that people are now working on this. I think it will happen, but there’s still a way to go,” says Lundy.

It is more likely, she believes, that a concept such as PriestmanGoode’s Air Access idea would become a reality before passengers could start using their own wheelchairs in the cabin.

Disabled passengers: wheelchairs, airlines, aircrafts, cabins
Wheelchair users will soon be able to overcome obstacles that may have gotten them stuck in the past

Air Access, which PriestmanGoode unveiled in 2012, consists of two elements: a detachable wheelchair which is used to transport passengers on to the aircraft, and a fixed-frame aisle seat on to which the wheelchair can be attached to create a regular aisle seat.

The design company envisions that the Air Access seat could be installed at every aircraft aisle seat. “In a widebody, this would be four seats per row, meaning dozens of PRMs could travel on any given flight. This is particularly useful when large groups of passengers with reduced mobility travel together, for example, Paralympic athletes,” says PriestmanGoode.

But despite being launched six years ago, Air Access has yet to progress beyond the concept stage. PriestmanGoode chairman Paul Priestman attributes this to a lack of joined-up thinking and willingness for different stakeholders from across the aviation industry to work together.

“We’d like to get some kind of funding to go off and do some more research, to find out why airlines are so resistant, if they are, what the barriers are for seat manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers and the user. Then we could try and come to some kind of common ground and challenge everyone to say, “who’s going to fund it? Who’s going to put their hand in their pocket?” says Priestman.

“To do some in-depth finding out of what would unblock the logjam would be the first step.” Priestman says it is ‘frustrating’ that things have not progressed further, noting that there is ‘lots of goodwill for this’ and questioning ‘why it has not happened yet’.

Wood of Flying Disabled suggests that his campaign is gathering momentum and attracting more publicity, but says: “I get the impression that whatever we do, whatever I propose, they [airline industry stakeholders] put silent barriers in front of it.”

Speaking on behalf of the airlines, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the safety and comfort of all passengers, including those with reduced mobility, is of ‘paramount importance’, but differing regulations across the world make it challenging to ensure consistency.

“As the business of freedom, we don’t want to hamper anyone’s freedom to fly. Overall, flight and ground crews do their utmost every day to care for passengers with reduced mobility – including those arriving in their own wheelchair – in the most respectful and attentive way possible,” says an IATA spokesman.

“A key challenge for airlines on this issue is that they are subject to a variety of differing regulations. IATA strives to work with governments to standardise regulations in this area, allowing for less confusion on the part of passengers, and smooth, efficient operations from an airline perspective.

“However, divergent regulations remain, creating a confusing patchwork for both the consumer and the industry. This is why IATA is a proponent of global standards.”

As an example, the spokesman says that IATA supports the requirement for pre-notification in the passenger record, to make airlines aware of any special needs prior to the passenger’s arrival.  “This is a critical element to a stress-free journey for passengers with reduced mobility,” he adds.

Airchair’s Richards agrees, noting: “We’ve seen in the press [examples of] airlines not providing wheelchairs and people having to wait. If there was a better programme for passengers to talk to airlines ahead of their flight, then the airlines could prepare.”

Campaigners point to a significant, untapped market that could be opened up to airlines if air travel became more accessible. Large numbers of disabled people avoid flying, they say, because they are concerned that their costly wheelchairs will be lost in transit or damaged in the cargo hold, or that the experience will be unpleasant.

According to UK Department forWork and Pensions figures, around 20 per cent of the UK population has some form of disability or mobile difficulty, but it is estimated that only 2 per cent of disabled people use air transport. “How many customers are dropping off a cliff that airlines don’t know about?” says Wood.

This has not gone unrecognised by the airlines. Virgin Atlantic’s Lundy points to the ‘low PRM penetration rate’ and acknowledges that there are ‘a lot of people who aren’t flying’. She also observes that PRMs often travel with a carer or companion, which means carriers can sell extra seats.

Another commercial selling point to airlines of the possibility of people bringing their own wheelchairs on board is its potential to cut the time it takes to store them in the cargo hold and the expense of compensating people in the event of loss or damage.

“It takes a long time to board a customer with a wheelchair and to put the very expensive wheelchair in the hold,” says Lundy, adding that bringing wheelchairs into the cabin would ‘save a lot of time’. But Priestman believes greater incentives may be needed to entice airlines to push for more accessibility.

He suggests adding a category to the Skytrax Airline Awards so that carriers are publicly judged on how accessible their aircraft are to PRMs.

“If you could start to get categories in the aviation awards to highlight accessibility, those points would add up to whether an airline has a five-star rating. This would really push the airlines,” he says. “Another route could be to go through the alliances, so the alliance [members] can do something together and share the cost.”

Priestman believes that if one airline leads the way and improves PRM accessibility, “everyone else will follow”. Wood says this could result in “a revolution in the cabin”, noting that wheelchair access “would be the first massive change in the cabin in a long, long time”.

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