Air travel with a wheelchair

Wheelchair users can stay in their powered wheelchair in taxis, trains and buses, but not in aircraft. Every wheelchair user takes a deep breath and hopes their wheelchair will come through the flight without damage. The risk of personal injury in wheelchair to seat transfers is also a worry. The other inconveniences and indignities just add to air travel with a wheelchair.

Currently, people are potentially put on a flight in a seat that is not appropriate for them. Travellers and airlines risk injury in transfer and in flight. It also risks serious damage to their wheelchair which is set up for their individual requirements.

Close up of a row of aircraft seats which are bright blue with grey backs.

Preliminary research from the US Transport Research Board (TRB) found no major design or engineering challenges stand in the way of securing personal power wheelchairs in commercial aircraft. The TRB concluded that installing wheelchair securements is a win-win for wheelchair users, airlines, and everyone else involved in transporting wheelchair users. Consequently, that means it is up to the willingness of airlines to make the necessary changes.

No major design or engineering challenges stand in the way of securing power wheelchairs in commercial aircraft.

Transport Research Board.
Photo credit Heike Fabig (in Daily Mail)
A 12 year old girl is distressed in an aircraft aisle chair after her power wheelchair was taken away.

Airport experience begins arrival kerbside

While there are mandates for minimum standards for the built environment, airport layout design make life difficult for people with disability and older people. Many airports were designed decades ago when traveller comforts were not considered. Arriving kerbside or at the drop-off is where the problems begin.

Assistance is not available outside the terminal entrance which becomes the first hurdle to overcome. In many instances, help is not available until check-in processes are complete. A kerbside or drop-off check-in would solve that. Or at least provide a means for travellers to contact service staff to help them from the kerbside point.

The US Airport Cooperative Research Program has a detailed report that identifies the issues and provides solutions. The title of the report is, Assessing Airport Programs for Travelers with Disabilities and Older Adults. The aim is to assist airport designers and airline operators to make their places and services accessible and inclusive. There are 8 chapters to the report.

Airport facilities

Chapter 7 of the report is about Facility Accessibility. It begins with access on arrival at the airport and the provision of accessible ground transportation. The advice for the design of terminals is to adopt a universal, inclusive approach. That includes addressing long distances between the key points for travellers who don’t use a mobility device.

Self-service kiosks, elevators, power outlets, seating and lighting, along with catering for people with a diversity of cognitive conditions are covered in detail. Case studies provide information about restrooms, adult sanitary change facilities, provisions for assistance animals, and quiet rooms.

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