Airplane inaccessibility: Unjust or a safety measure?

I was alerted to a petition today written by a spirited man with a spinal cord injury. In it, he argues why commercial airplanes should be made fully accessible to power wheelchairs. And in case you didn’t know, they’re not right now.

If you’re like me and use a power wheelchair and you have plans to fly, here’s what you’ll have to do: Get to the terminal early (you need to get checked-in first), and this is where you will get out of your wheelchair and transfer into an airline wheelchair. Say adios to your wheelchair, it’s going in the belly of the plane for the remainder of your adventure (there’s no room for 300 pound wheelchairs in the cabin unfortunately).

And then you will be rolled onto the plane and transferred into a regular airplane seat. They’ll strap you in, and that’s it. This is where you’ll remain until you arrive at your destination. If you need to use the bathroom, using the aisle chair is a possibility, but more times than not you need to be able to stand up to use the bathroom. It can be tricky (or blatantly inaccessible depending on your mood).

So why have airlines been able to get away with this for so long, despite the ADA governing public spaces? The FAA stands firm that it’s dangerous for someone to be in a wheelchair while the plane is in flight. Apparently, we are at risk (?). But the question I have is if people can stand up and walk to the bathroom when there’s no turbulence, why can’t we roll?

In the petition that I saw today here, the 20-something man with a spinal cord injury explains almost every side of the situation on why it’s important for planes to fully accommodate power wheelchairs in the cabin: Skin issues and why we need to remain in our seating during long flights, the extra time it can take to get our power chair back, which isn’t fair if we’re in a situation where we’re transferring flights within an hour (nearly impossible without holding up the plane, pissing off the other passengers) to being just uncomfortable.

The one thing he doesn’t bring up, or maybe he doesn’t realize however, is that being in your powerchair when the plane is taking off and landing is not safe; it’s a very steep incline and decline And this is especially unsafe for people sitting high up in a power chair. You know how crazy some takeoffs can be. The airplane seats need to sit at the right level and angle for the utmost safety.

Is there a possible solution to make each party happy in this situation? I don’t think so, not unless a brand new type of airplane is invented; maybe one that took off more like a helicopter (now that would be a pretty awesome sight). But until then, this is our reality, and it’s for our own safety.

I won’t argue that it’s demeaning, risky (9 times out of 10 your chair will get broken by the handlers below) and not fair whatsoever, but there’s no way of getting around the safety needs of an airplane (or maybe I’m mistaken…any airplane experts out there are reading this, chime in). I too wish I could just roll right on and be done with it. Maybe by 2077 that will be a reality.

Is it safe or unsafe for people to stay in their power wheelchairs while an airplane is in flight? Or do you think they’re just worried about liability concerns? Please share your thoughts below.

Photo courtesy of Kris Krug

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2 replies
  1. Matthew Smith
    Matthew Smith says:

    Perhaps the reason why airlines have not bothered to accommodate wheelchair users (as well as a number of other categories of disabled travellers) is because they have not been forced to. They are organisations which operate across borders and they are governed by international treaties, which is why there are special rules for what happens if they break your property in transit (the short version is, they are not liable). The usual victims are musicians and wheelchair users.

    Surely they should be able to find some way of anchoring a wheelchair down so that it becomes safe for someone to be in the cabin in their powerchair rather than an unsuitable aisle chair – they haven’t found the way because they haven’t been made to. The ‘necessity’ of packing in as many seats as possible means setting aside room for wheelchairs (as there is on every other modern mode of transport) is considered uneconomical.

    Health and safety is also a common excuse to refuse disabled people the use of services on the grounds that they are in the way or might require the staff to do a bit more work or give them a bit of help. In the UK a blind couple were recently refused passage on a flight because they could not put on a lifejacket unaided – of course, a bit of practice would have meant they could, and maybe the staff could have given them a bit of help. The vast majority of flights are uneventful, and flight is much safer than any other form of travel, but it is the most restrictive in this area.

    The short version is that airlines are a law unto themselves. Until they are brought into line with every other form of transport, they will continue to discriminate.

  2. wjpeace
    wjpeace says:

    No airplane will ever be configured so that a person can remain in their wheelchair. The airline industry profit margin is narrow and this accounts for decades long institutional bias against disabled people. We take up too much space and represent extra labor. We are in short an economic drain. Abuse is rampant and I see no reason that will change any time soon. A petition of this sort, though well meaning, will be used as an example of how unreasonable people with a disability are within the airline industry.

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