5 Ways Air Travel for Wheelchair Users Can Be Improved

Airplane Gate

As a seasoned traveler in an electric wheelchair, I find myself on a plane at least once a month.  Although I have had many very positive experiences with individual gate agents, grounds crew and flight attendants, the system as a whole for the wheelchair air traveler can be vastly improved.  If the air industry is interested in improving service in this area, and attracting an aging disability clientele, the following five ways to improve air travel for wheelchair users are a good place to begin.

1.  Get Input From Experts

Hire accessibility consultants in wheelchairs who are frequent travelers to advise you.  Have them participate in strategic planning of operations and marketing, and give active input in all areas relating to disability and accessibility.

Build partnerships with regional, national or international disability advocacy groups, depending on the scope of the air travel provided.  This will present the opportunity to go beyond protocol mandated by law and international agreements – and attract loyal customers with exceptional service.

2.  Train Staff

Conduct in-depth training with grounds crew, gate agents and flight attendants.  Even if these positions are governed by a union or are third party contractors, airports and airlines are responsible for their interactions with clients.

The two current main gaps in air travel training are: engaging clients with disabilities and handling the technical aspects of mobility equipment.

Some clients with disabilities want and require a lot of assistance.  Others require very little.  Generally, the passenger will know exactly what help he or she needs and will direct staff what to do.  Staff must be comfortable in these types of situations – reassured beforehand in the self-expertise that almost all passengers with disabilities have.

Although mobility equipment, like wheelchairs, walkers and scooters, vary widely and are complex, broad trends are present.  A wheelchair supplier can easily train grounds crew on how to safely handle all types of mobility equipment.  An accessibility consultant can facilitate this.

3.  Build a strong relationship between airlines and airports

Often, I will wait around one hour after a plane has landed before my wheelchair is brought to the gate and I can be on my way.  The flight attendants are always apologetic, and the grounds crew always flushed – having tried their best to bring it up in time.  My wheelchair weighs 300 lbs and must be brought up the nearest elevator from the tarmac.  When I ask: “is there any way that I can schedule my arrivals near an elevator?” the answer is always: “we have no control over that – the airport does.”

Airlines should build a relationship with airports that allows them to schedule the arrival of flights containing wheelchair passengers at gates near elevators.

4.  Use Innovative Design

Design aircraft with areas where at least two wheelchairs can be brought on board and secured – so the passenger can stay in his or her wheelchair during the flight.  This solution creates less work for staff, and less hassle for passengers.
Also, in many European airports, catering lifts are used to bring wheelchairs up and down to cabin level.  All airports should design and implement similar portable power elevation solutions.

5.  Have Great Booking Systems

Create robust booking systems that anticipate when passengers in wheelchairs will be flying.  This system will prevent passengers in wheelchairs from being booked on planes with cargo holds that are too small, and will allow additional staff to be available when a large number of wheelchair users are booked on a single flight.  Booking systems are also the backbone of ensuring that aircraft arrive at gates near elevators, when necessary.

I wrote most of this on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Montreal, and sure enough, when we landed, we waited for an hour and fifteen minutes before having my chair brought up to the gate.

Sport Development in Bermuda

As I reflect on my past year, I thought I would share an opportunity I had this summer to demonstrate Boccia, and meet some amazing up and coming athletes with disabilities – in warm and beautiful Bermuda.

Windreach, an amazing facility, on the relatively small island of Bermuda exposes people with disabilities to all sorts of recreation – including competitive sport. A beautiful farm property, it is host to Equestrian events, community programs, an integrated camp experience and adapted sport opportunities.

I was invited to demonstrate Boccia and hold a recreational tournament at the 2009 Adapted Sports Program Expo and later, a local group home for people with disabilities.

I love giving back to a sport system, no matter what country it is in, that has given me so much. Paralympians Darda Geiger, Jessica Matassa and Anjali Forber-Pratt were also invited by Windreach to demonstrate their respective sports of Swimming and Wheelchair Athletics.

Paralympians at Windreach in Bermuda

Local athletes competed in swimming, wheelchair racing, wheelchair archery, para-equestrian and boccia. It was an amazing experience, and I think we four international athletes came away quite inspired by the up and coming athletes of Bermuda, in whom we saw a little bit of ourselves.

The entire island loves sport, and especially Paralympic sport. I stayed after the Expo for a few days and was enjoying a weekly street festival full of Bermuda arts and food – many people recognised me from a profile in the local newspaper. A reporter from the Bermuda Sports Network who had been covering the Expo recognized me too, and we did this interview on the spot:

This event combined my passion for sport, empowering people with disabilities, and international co-operation. I also made many great new friends from across the world.

A success, I would say.