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Reinventing the wheelchair

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.


"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."


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 manoeuvrability.


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 carbonfibre, 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. >>

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