Industry reviews creative air travel accessibility solutions

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The number of passengers who will need special assistance traveling by air is expected to grow over the coming decades, and airlines face pressure to make air travel more accessible.

At the upcoming Aircraft Interiors Expo in Los Angeles, co-located with the APEX EXPO, Jetliner Cabins author and former airline industry executive, Jennifer Coutts Clay, will make a keynote presentation on accessibility, and lead a panel discussion about the challenges faced by disabled passengers and passengers with restricted mobility (PRMs).

The panelists slated to participate in this “Flying for All” discussion include PriestmanGoode head of project management Tom Lipscomb; American Airlines senior manager, customer experience, accessibility Gina Emrich; Molon Labe CEO Hank Scott; and Michele Erwin, who serves as president of nonprofit organization All Wheels Up.

In an interview with Runway Girl Network, Coutts Clay points out that there are an estimated one billion people living with disabilities, according to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). A growing aging population will also require help when traveling. Persons over the age of 60 reached 962 million in 2017, and that number is expected to double by 2050 to 2.1 billion.

“At the human level, accessibility is a moral imperative,” declares Coutts Clay. It is critical for airlines to ensure that their products and services are accessible, and she believes a key element of accessibility must be access to information. This includes raising awareness with travel managers about the 15 IATA assistance codes, to ensure that passengers receive the help they need. It also means giving passengers a reliable way to get help when something goes wrong.

“PRMs have been left helpless and abandoned, locked inside air-terminal buildings overnight,” notes Coutts Clay. “If the PRMs have cell phones, shouldn’t they have emergency contact numbers to call?”

Another solution, she says, might be to equip passengers with personal, wearable, electronic communications devices that could be connected to medical services on the ground. “This product development is already in use in the corporate aviation sector and would ensure professional medical monitoring of the health and well-being of passengers throughout the journey,” says Coutts Clay.

In the cabin, the aircraft interiors expert sees major opportunities to address the needs of passengers with limited mobility. For instance, Air Access is a concept designed by PriestmanGoode that facilitates air travel for PRMs by enabling an easier transition from gate to aircraft.

Introduced following the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, the Air Access seat design features an aisle-width wheelchair built into the passenger seat. It can be separated from the main seat structure with the pull of a lever and easily fitted back in place.

Another possibility, the Molon Labe Side-Slip seat, creates a wider aisle for full-sized wheelchairs to pass through. This – and indeed the PriestmanGoode idea – has been on the drawing board for a while, but has not yet been physically installed on aircraft.

Coutts Clay says airlines need to find the business case to install these seats. Some might argue that aircraft are already equipped with aisle-width wheelchairs stored in the closet, but it is time for airlines to consider these and other designs.

Disability advocates are eager to see change as well. But it’s important to understand the varying needs of PRMs. For instance, independent wheelchair users often travel alone, but power chair users might be less likely to travel solo. And there is a push among some PRMs to remain in their wheelchairs in the cabin rather than having to transition to an aircraft seat.

Flying Disabled founder and disability rights activist Chris Wood, who has advocated for PRMs to have this right, put the question to his following on Twitter. The answers are illuminating.

Accessible aviation consultant Mary Doyle, who weighed into the debate on Twitter, wants campaigners to be very careful when asking for provisions regarding the wheelchair in the cabin space “as I still want the passenger to have the absolute choice of staying in their wheelchair or transferring out into the paid for airline seat”, she tells Runway Girl Network.

“Power chair users are the most likely users of the wheelchair in the cabin space so they can remain in their custom seating solution. Manual chair users that I speak to want to transfer out into the airline chair, as this is more comfortable and safer for them personally. If we lose the choice I will have failed in accessible aviation and I will personally regret pushing for the wheelchair in the cabin space, which is why we have government involvement,” says Doyle, who runs Rocket Girl Coaching, which helps professional people navigate their lives when they identify a need for change.

“Also, I have seen some UK campaigners are pushing for a subsidized second airline ticket for their personal assistants, as a similar concession exists on trains and entrance fees for public venues. An unspoken rule is that by providing the concession the PA assumes responsibility for the disabled person to get them out in the event of an emergency. Whilst I appreciate this concession would be a breakthrough and make flight less expensive for many, there is a very real risk (as I see it) that airlines could insist all PRMs must travel with a PA, which would be a disaster for people like me who travel alone. This ruling would hinder more people than it helps.”


Broadly, Coutts Clay believes there are market incentives for airlines to take action to improve air travel accessibility, and suggests that PRMs and other disabled passengers are usually grateful for specialist care and attention, and are prepared to pay full market rate for professional services. “For travel organizations that develop programs to successfully accommodate [these passengers], there is great potential for airline ticket sales and future return business.”

Some important work has already been done. Coutts Clay shines a light on the illuminated shoulder-level handrail built into overhead bins as an example of accessible design that did take off.

“This product upgrade is of great benefit to PRMs, and to everyone during periods of air turbulence,” she says. “Subsequent aircraft roll-outs at both Airbus and Boeing have included shoulder-height handrails. But when the handrails are not illuminated, passengers often do not know that they exist – and ditto for flight attendants.”

In 1995, McDonnell Douglas launched the MD-95, featuring the first illuminated handrail at shoulder level, running from the front to the back of the cabin. This product feature helps PRMs get around the cabin, and serves as support for all occupants during air turbulence.

Other accessible designs that endure and are more evident include flip-up seat armrests, privacy curtains for lavatories, and support handles in aircraft lavatories. A number of airlines and their suppliers have also made advances in accessibility of inflight entertainment, ensuring that all passengers reap the benefits of the product they paid for. But there is still a lot of work ahead.

Curtains around lavatory doors provide privacy for PRMs and their helpers. Flip-up armrests ensure ease-of-movement for PRMs when transferring from a wheelchair to a seat row. Flip-up armrests were first introduced by Pan American in 1970, at the time of the launch of the Boeing B747, Coutts Clay explains.

Airlines need to urgently address the damage to passenger’s expensive mobility devices, which causes great distress to customers, exposes airlines to liability and damages airlines’ reputation. “Professional training for airport baggage loaders is absolutely essential,” notes Coutts Clay.

Additionally, airlines need to work closely with ground handlers and airports to ensure a consistency of service. She suggests airlines might even set standards for their alliances, so that customers can count on good service when they connect with a partner. “This passenger segment deserves full coverage and careful attention by all airlines and their associated companies.”

Additional reporting by Mary Kirby

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