Wheelchairs on planes should be no different to the rest of our public transport

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Sulaiman Khan sunny portrait_web

Trailblazer Sulaiman Khan blogs about why airline companies need to start including wheelchairs on airplanes

Our public transport network took some time to get together and have spaces for wheelchair users on busses, trains and in taxis.  Those spaces, which wheelchair users have priority over, have been the subject of much debate recently.  But one aspect of public transport has been left behind, largely forgotten in the realm of wheelchair accessibility – wheelchairs on planes.

I am 32 and have congenital muscular dystrophy.  I need advanced and complex postural support so that I can sit in my wheelchair comfortably.  It’s like a pair of shoes tailored just for me, but I literally could not get out of bed to work, socialise or look after my mental health if my postural support is not right.

Two years ago, I went on my first holiday in 16 years to Barcelona.  We had to use an extremely uncomfortable chest strap to keep me upright in the seat, and we found it very difficult to get me out of my wheelchair and into the seat.  The airline was not able to give me enough time to use the specialist mouldable seat inset they leant out to me before take-off because I was last on the plane, which is undignified and uncomfortable to be handled in front of the whole plane.

I was uncomfortable throughout the flight.  I needed to be repositioned and my legs would have gone dead if we had not brought the base seat from my wheelchair onto the flight to use.

There is a significant business case for disabled people to travel in the comfort and safety of their wheelchairs on an aeroplane.  Undoubtedly there are significant technical and safety barriers, but these are not insurmountable.  Disabled people themselves are resourceful, and working together with aeroplane engineers and design teams, as well as the other expertise required, I have no doubt that we can find a solution.

Currently, airlines are having to pay up compensation for broken wheelchairs, and possibly for delayed flights because of a delay in getting wheelchairs stored in the hold.  Disabled people regularly report broken wheelchairs and having to fork out the expense of a new one.  Wheelchairs are complex, specialist aids which can cost tens of thousands of pounds, depending on the needs of the individual, and can take many months to be built and delivered.  My current wheelchair I received in November 2016 cost £25,000, as this is the only wheelchair and seating that meets my needs due to the complexities of my disability

I am realistic.  This is not something which we can make happen overnight.

An event took place last week at Virgin Atlantic which will hopefully mark the first step in making designated wheelchair spaces on aircrafts a reality.  The Wheelchairs in the Cabin symposium, organised by Christopher Wood from Flying Disabled, included delegates such as Delta Airlines, All Wheels Up, Airbus and wheelchair restraint company Unwin. Trailblazers were also there to give feedback from our members.

Disabled passengers are, yet again, being treated like second class citizens.  I love to travel, but barriers stop me from following my wanderlust.  If I could travel in my chair, it would be simply incredible.  Even if a seat had to be made removable and replaceable so that airlines do not lose out, having wheelchair users on aircraft in their wheelchairs represents a good business opportunity, plus a world of opportunity for us disabled people.

What do you think about airlines allowing wheelchair users to travel in their wheelchairs? Would you like to see this happen? Share your views below!

  • conor hickey

    Eagle Passenger Lifters Will be installled at minimum 6 UK Airports by Christmas.

    • Michael Paterson

      I was told about this at Manchester and told they take too long to use.

    • Victoria Wright

      That’s good to know, thanks Conor.

  • Michael Paterson

    Hi have just been on a cruise around the Greek islands, but my transfers at Malta airport by the specialist assistance team was almost barbaric. Like you plane full of people while I was wrestled into and out of the seat. My worst ever flights. I suffer from Limb Girdle 2b muscular dystrophy and have a power chair which I cannot function without.

    • Victoria Wright

      I’m really sorry to hear that, Michael. Have you made a formal complaint?

    • Victoria Wright

      Also just to add that the Civil Aviation Authority are keen to hear feedback from disabled airline passengers. Their website states: ‘We want to make sure everyone has fair access to air travel. We work with industry to make this happen by promoting special assistance and improving the consistency of the service available. We also understand things can go wrong and we ask anyone who has a complaint relating to special assistance to call the CAA Passenger Advice and Complaints Team on 0330 022 1916. We respond to and review all complaints received and can use our enforcement powers if any patterns relating to non-compliance emerge.’ Best wishes, Victoria Wright (Muscular Dystrophy UK Campaigns and PR Officer)

  • Sulaiman makes points which are holding back wheelchair travellers. Expensive wheelchairs getting damaged should be a thing of the past. Providing wheelchair seating space for those who would otherwise be unable to travel has to make sense. In the meantime having an Eagle Passenger Lifter available at UK airports and here on Cyprus at Larnaca airport has, since it came into use in Nov ’16, made a huge difference to many of our wheelchair using guests. It’s high time air travel became fully accessible.

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