Multi-coloured silhouttes of men, women and children, with a wheelchair in the middle of the group, against the backdrop of a world map

Does flying with a disability and keeping your dignity have to be mutually exclusive?

Back in 2019, the Passenger Experience Conference hosted a discussion, called Flying for All, to examine how an onboard experience could be created that works for every passenger, including those with mobility, visual or hearing impairments. It was one of the most impassioned sessions ever held at PEC, with speakers and audience alike keen to share ideas and experiences.

Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has catalysed major social and economic changes, including the culture around flying. Yet the goal of making the journey safe, dignified and enjoyable for everyone seems just as intractable. This is not from lack of individual innovations and initiatives, but the broad mindsets within aviation could benefit from some introspection. It is self-evident that implementing systemic changes for passengers with disabilities will require a highly collaborative approach and the setting of new industry standards.

Leisure travellers are widely expected to spearhead the return to air travel following the recent crisis. It will be important that the cabin experience is fully accessible to them all. Concerns about provisions for passengers with disabilities are not just a barrier to flying for those individuals, but also to their associated family members and companions. Research by advocate organisations Flying Disabled and ableMove suggests that 80% of passengers who use a wheelchair fly with at least two or more people in their group.

The potential economic contribution of travellers with disabilities is one that should not be underestimated. More than 27 million Americans with disabilities took 81 million trips in the two year period 2018-19, spending $58.7 billion on their own travel alone, according to the Open Doors Organization in its 2020 Market Study on Adult Travelers with Disabilities. Almost 15 million people with disabilities took 29.6 million trips by air in the survey period, generating $11 billion in spending (up from $9 billion in 2015).

Deploying narrow body aircraft on longer routes is an increasingly attractive strategy for airlines seeking greater business flexibility. With space at a premium, whatever cabin class you travel in, lavatory configuration and a single aisle are critical design issues, both in terms of onboard access and process.

Challenges for wheelchair users

A broad spectrum of health issues, physical and mental impairments can make air travel a challenging and stressful experience for many people. A vivid snapshot of what this means for one group of travellers is outlined in the Survey on Air Travel for Wheelchair Customers, published by Flying Disabled and ableMove in April 2021. The overwhelming majority of wheelchair users say they do not feel very safe in the aisle chair. Over two thirds suffered the stress and indignity of being taken onto the aircraft during or after other passengers had started boarding and more than half had their own wheelchair damaged in transit. Some three quarters of those surveyed would fly more frequently if they could stay in their own wheelchair for short haul flights. Only one in four rated their flying experience as good or better than good.

Christopher Wood, Aviation Accessibility Consultant at Flying Disabled says: “If we ignore airports and focus on the aircraft cabin itself, then facilitation is the biggest area. Weighed down by the burden of the revenue model, innovation can be stifled and blinkered.”

With less people flying during the pandemic, the additional space in the cabin has been a bonus for the small number of passengers from the disability community. But as airlines have taken measures to reduce physical contact and make the passenger experience as touchless as possible, Wood points out that wheelchair users still have to be manhandled from their own chair to an aisle or airport wheelchair.

Then add into the mix the risk that personal wheelchairs, which can cost many thousands of dollars and are not trivial to replace, being lost or damaged in transit. The number of lost or damaged chairs in the USA amounted to 10,250 in 2019, according to the Department of Transport.

Initiatives to enable wheelchairs in the cabin

Efforts to enable passengers to sit on their own wheelchair in the cabin are ongoing. In October 2021, a consortium of designers PriestmanGoode, Flying Disabled and certification experts SWS Certification unveiled the Air 4 All system to enable powered wheelchair users to remain in their own wheelchair for the flight – without reducing the seat count for airlines.

Front row of single aircraft cabin seats demonstrating Air 4A ll accessibility system to accept and secure powered wheelchair

Images: PriestmanGoode. Air 4 All will enable powered wheelchair users to remain in their wheelchair – without reducing the seat count for airlines

Initially designed for a narrow body 2+2 configuration, Air 4 All converts the front row seats and installs a wheelchair guidance and locking system in the aircraft cabin to allow up to two wheelchairs per row to travel on a single flight. Paul Priestman, designer and Chairman of PriestmanGoode says: “The biggest barrier in the past has been that giving greater space to passengers in wheelchairs would have reduced seat count and resulted in a loss of revenue for airlines. Air 4 All solves this problem and has the added benefit of enabling airlines to retain the design of their cabin on every seat, ensuring brand consistency and a cohesive brand experience for all passengers.”

He adds that for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM), “Air 4 All will facilitate a smoother boarding and disembarking experience…and will also significantly reduce the number of wheelchairs that are damaged through poor handling.”

In summer 2021 Molon Labe Seating undertook in-cabin testing of its Freedom Seat prototype with the help of Boeing, focused on manoeuvring in and around the cabin. The design work has been based on the company’s Side-Slip Seat and Freedom is a two-seat configuration in which the aisle seat slides over the window seat to provide space for a wheelchair, which is then secured in place via a docking system. “Our focus has always been to offer a design that doesn’t cost the airlines any more time or surrender revenue,” says CEO Hank Scott.

More effort needed on regulations

A key obstacle will be securing regulatory approval for the wheelchairs themselves. Scott explains: “Most powered wheelchairs are customised by their owners, even the location of the docking system mounts changes between chairs. That to me is the toughest challenge, and we are hoping that people with restricted mobility would not have to purchase another chair specifically approved for flying as that is an expensive option for them.” This problem suggests a need to specify flight-enabled wheelchair design guidance. And, as Scott acknowledges, the Freedom Seat is just one element of the solution: airline policies will also have to evolve and “best practices may take years to arrive at”.

Picking up the baton, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, published in September, recommends the US DoT and Federal Aviation Administration establish a research programme to determine whether wheelchairs approved for motor vehicle transportation will satisfy FAA crash performance standards that apply to the seats in airplane cabins.

The report, Technical Feasibility of a Wheelchair Securement Concept for Airline Travel: A Preliminary Assessment, notes that most US passenger airplanes could accommodate secured wheelchairs, but follow-on safety feasibility assessments are needed. It also calls for a road map — ideally led by the DoT —that defines and prioritises decisions and follow-on work related to system engineering and design, standards and regulation development, and airline service personnel training.

Accessible lavatories are critical

Lavatory design is arguably an even more critical issue. New twin aisle aircraft must have accessible lavatories under DoT rules. There is currently a move to amend the Air Carrier Access Act to require airlines to meet defined accessibility standards. But meanwhile for passengers on single aisle aircraft – particularly on longer flights – the experience can be bleak.

The Flying Disabled ableMove study reveals that 62% of wheelchair users dehydrated or starved themselves before flying in order to avoid using the onboard lavatory. Wood says: “Campaigners around the world are crying out for an accessible toilet on these aircraft, many would argue it’s a civil right to have access to a toilet.” He observes that although Airbus offers the Space-Flex convertible PRM lavatory for its narrow bodies, cabin crew often do not know how to prepare it and passengers with disabilities do not always know of its existence.

Several interiors specialists have developed accessible lavatory solutions for narrow bodies that work without impacting business models. In 2020, Acumen Design Associates and ST Engineering partnered on ‘Access’, which features a moving wall that expands the interior space by 40% from the standard footprint with no reduction in seat count or galley space.

Another is LAV4ALL, a retrofit solution for the A320 aircraft family developed by FACC. The door opens at a right angle, blocking off the aisle and providing more privacy and ease of access when entering. Once the door is closed the galley can be entered again as normal.

Taking a human-centric approach

The team took a human-centric approach, using focus groups and workshops to identify the needs. Rene Adam, who heads up Research and Technology at FACC explains: “Most of the engineers…are trained to think in solutions for a specific problem, which they know how to solve…But our challenge was to find solutions for a problem we don’t know.”

Partial view of a man sitting in a wheelchair opening the door to the LAV4All accessible lavatory

Image: FACC. LAV4ALL’s door opens at a right angle, blocking off the aisle and offering more privacy and ease of access when entering

LAV4ALL, which was shortlisted in the 2021 Crystal Cabin Judges’ Choice Award, also takes account of the needs of passengers who have poor eye sight or hearing difficulties. Operating elements and handle bars are aligned for better use, and accentuated by colour and high contrast labelling. “We deliberately choose not to use digital solutions because our research showed that they are difficult to use for people with disabilities,” explains Adam. “The full understanding of human needs will affect future cabin designs in a significant way.”

The issues around accessible lavatory design are a microcosm of the greater problem. The challenges that confront passengers with a visible disability may be the starting point for change, but there is a much wider cohort who also feel a loss of dignity from the inflight lavatory process and, as a result, are stressed even before they start their journey. This wider problem needs to be understood and addressed by a willingly collaborative community across aviation.

The need to collectively change mindsets is being flagged up in other sectors. A survey for London’s Heathrow Airport, OPEN TO ALL: Improving air travel for passengers who require support, published in January, makes the point that the diversity of personal circumstance impacting needs is complex and “challenges industry conventions around the way PRMs are thought and talked about” and is “potentially holding the industry back from embracing the scale of the issue”.

The final word, and the suggestion of an approach to increase progress, goes to this report, which says: “Working with the breadth of the community to develop solutions that span the passenger journey, based on evidence rather than on assumptions, could lead to great leaps forward in delivering a great experience for all passengers.”


Featured image credit: Gert Altmann from Pixabay

The original version of this article was published on the Aircraft Interiors Expo content hub on 29 June 2021. This version was updated on 19 November 2021.

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