Aging populations and global social media are due to influence legal, operational, safety and future cabin design for airlines. Flying Disabled founder, CHRISTOPHER WOOD* outlines progress in raising awareness for a growing number of passengers.
Modern air travel is not a good experience for disabled passengers. (Alamy)
When Alcock and Brown flew the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919 I doubt they envisaged what their great achievement would trigger. Fast-forward nearly a hundred years and there are thousands of commercial flights daily crossing the globe, reaching distant and nearby destinations. Depending on what you pay, you can travel and eat like royalty in first class, or in economy where you are packed tighter than sardines, so tight you can feel the perspiration on the passenger next to you.
For a wheelchair user, little has changed in a hundred years. Indeed, it is so bad most don’t even fly as it’s not only undignified but unsafe. The primitive conditions of those pioneers of 1919 still resonate inside an aircraft for the passenger who uses a wheelchair – and this cannot be right.
Boarding and alighting an aircraft is a hazardous military manoeuvre at the best of times, getting to the toilet (if you can) is an Olympic challenge and most wheelchair users will dehydrate before flying and take little or no fluids while in the air. The worst maybe yet to come, as a wheelchair is really someone’s legs and there is a high risk of it being broken while in the hold or even more regretfully, not actually arriving at the same destination – despite the best intentions of the airline. Power wheelchairs, for example, cost more than £15k and typically are bespoke for the user. It is thus impossible to simply replace it in an hour, a day or even a month if it goes missing or is damaged in transit.
The change that is needed is for those that live their life in a wheelchair to remain in it while travelling, as it aids their posture and support. The challenge is therefore set before the industry – how do we make air travel more inclusive in the 21st century?
A wheelchair is a passenger’s legs
The cabin of an aircraft remains the last bastion of accessibility.
Today, when things do go wrong, sub-standard travel experiences are well documented on a Google search. Younger, savvier wheelchair users have filmed or taken pictures on their smartphones and these have been uploaded on social media faster than a low-cost carrier can change its terms and conditions. Ironically, in this age of mass, cheap travel, both my young adults (that I still call children) are in wheelchairs and for them commercial flying has become more difficult. However, they want to travel and they want to spend money with airlines. Two years ago, I started researching why air travel for someone in a wheelchair was still stuck in a bygone era. Transport over land and sea have gradually adapted and reaped the financial rewards accordingly, yet the cabin of an aircraft remains the last bastion of accessibility – why?
It has become clear during this campaign that, for while for myself this issue was personally very close to home, others in the aviation industry, too, had noticed this and had decided that enough was enough.
Accordingly in September of 2017, with the support of Virgin Atlantic, Flying Disabled hosted the inaugural Wheelchair in the Cabin symposium at the airline HQ in Gatwick. The idea was to bring airlines, regulators, Government and stakeholders together to start exploring a solution.
Without these stakeholders onboard and engaged, it is this unlikely that a solution will happen. However, the response so far to Flying Disabled, which was only set up in 2016, has been extremely encouraging. Since the symposium, there is now a working group examining how to create a wheelchair that is ‘cabin safe’. This group will examine every detail from the battery on a power wheelchair to the screws that hold it together. The UK Government attended the event and is fully behind my campaign, as is the House of Lords. With the help of Airbus, an ‘International Working Group’ is also to be set up. It is crucial to make sure that the aviation industry is part of this process so that it is right for all concerned.
Skytrax accessibility award
The inaugural Flying Disabled symposium was held at Virgin Atlantic's HQ. (Via author)
Momentum is building further with an agreement to create a new category of awards from airline awards group Skytrax. It has agreed to work with Flying Disabled to bring a new category award for accessibility to both airlines and airports, to bring much needed accessibility data to this industry to understand the journey and recognise best practice and performers.
I believe the awards will be a first ever in air travel and will start a fresh growth in accessibility organically, thus allowing the industry to adjust accordingly. Awards like these will help the more progressive airlines attract new reduced mobility customers and hang on to loyal passengers that who, through old age, accident or illness have seen their mobility reduced.
Reaping the financial reward
In 2012, design house Priestman Goode revealed this concept, Air Access, for a detachable wheelchair that could be slid sideways and into a fixed frame aisle seat, allowing a reduced mobility passenger to stay in their chair without needing to be got out. (Priestman Goode)
In setting up Flying Disabled, I have learnt a lot about the aviation industry in the past two years and may understand that every millimetre and every ounce inside an aircraft is as sacred as a Wi-Fi connection to a teenager on Pay-As-You-Go. However, I also understand that airlines on average do not operate on full capacity 365 days of the year, with it being typically around 85% across the globe.
This 15% then gives a lot of wiggle room to bring in inclusion and reap the financial reward that offers. To those that think disabled people sit in lonely bedrooms watching back-to-back episodes of Jeremy Kyle, think again. They have family and friends who want to travel with them or visit. Indeed, on many routes, reduced mobility passengers may have a choice – high speed train networks are fighting the aviation industry on the ground and making serious headway.
Airlines and airports can no longer ignore the minority of reduced mobility passengers.
Apart from the financial rewards for airlines, why else should disabled passengers be targeted? In 2020 the Olympics and Paralympics roadshow arrives in Tokyo. In 1964 the Paralympics had just 375 athletes representing 21 nations. In 2020 the Paralympics will be hosting nearly 5,000 athletes representing over 159 nations. This just demonstrates how the world now embraces the world of disability and inclusion and the Paralympics is also now an integral part of our viewing experience. Additionally, due to medical science, we are all living longer, our aging population is growing, and boy, do they have money to spend. The industry has spent vast sums of money engaging with them over the years and most are very loyal. Yet there is no foundation to retain or facilitate these customers/families when their mobility status changes and they perhaps need more assistance.
Additionally, there are also ex-servicemen and women, veterans and the very people who secure our freedom over land, sea and, of course, our skies. Those that suffer physical life changing injuries in conflict zones have told me that air travel can be humiliating and does not really offer any provision for their needs – with many deciding not to fly anymore. Heroes and Invictus athletes surely deserve better treatment from our air transport system.
There are two other motivators for airlines to get this right – the ‘sticks’ to the ‘carrots’ of passenger loyalty. The first is social media shaming and corporate reputation – which can trash carefully honed brands and make share prices dive. The second (and allied to this) are the risk of lawsuits, passenger compensation in an extremely litigious society. The days when airlines and airports could ignore the minority of reduced mobility passengers without consequence are fast disappearing.
If you think that creating a wheelchair space in the cabin of an aircraft is unrealistic and cannot be done for weight, space, safety or engineering reasons, then go back to where I started this piece with Alcock and Brown in 1919. Imagine being in the room when they said; ‘we are going to fly nearly 2,000 miles across the Atlantic in nearly half a ton of aeroplane’. It is a challenge but one that the aviation industry can rise to together.
*Christopher Wood is a campaigner and lobbyist urging airlines to create a designated aircraft wheelchair space. He is the founder of Flying Disabled.