Still from “All Wheels Up’s Proposed Solution for Wheelchair Accessible Airplane Travel” video. Image via YouTube

APEX Insight: An ecosystem for disabled airline passengers is evolving, comprising stakeholders across the accessibility and aviation communities with representation from research organizations, disability charities, politicians, civil aviation regulators, the design community, public bodies and private investors. Its mission is to allow wheelchair users to travel in their own wheelchairs inside the cabin, and the first gathering, organized by Flying Disabled’s Chris Wood, recently took place at Virgin Atlantic’s headquarters near Gatwick Airport.

In June, APEX Media reported on Flying Disabled’s initiative, led by Chris Wood, to enable wheelchair users to fly in the cabin using their own wheelchairs, many of which are tailored to the individual medical and mobility needs of their owners, and are expensive and time-consuming to replace if lost or damaged. On Friday, September 22, the inaugural Wheelchair in the Cabin Symposium took place at Virgin Atlantic Airways’ (VAA) headquarters near Gatwick Airport. The event was supported by Virgin and the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for Disabled People (QEF) a national disability charity, complemented transatlantically by the research activities of All Wheels Up, and hosted by Geraldine Lundy, VAA’s Passenger Accessibility Manager.

Chris Wood, who chaired the symposium, kicked off by relating some of the challenges and personal experiences he’s witnessed whilst flying with his son and daughter, who both travel in wheelchairs. “I believe everybody should be able to travel to their destination in comfort and safety. The aim here is starting that road to create a designated wheelchair space on an aircraft, thus removing the indignity for what is, for some, a painful process just to get to an airplane seat,” he said. Wood went on to question why airlines haven’t kept pace with other travel sector accessibility improvements that are now mandated in hotels and across other modes of transport.

Representing the UK Government’s perspective, Member of Parliament Penny Mordaunt spoke (via video link) of the Government’s appointment of Michael Connolly as Sector Champion for Aviation to improve the quality of experience and access for disabled people. “Aviation trails other transport modes – we have dedicated wheelchair spaces in trains and buses but not on planes yet, and that’s got to change,” said Morduant. “We have to deliver a better service for disabled people. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do; it makes good business sense with the combined purchasing power of disabled people just in the UK being close to £250 billion”.

The symposium then heard from Graham Race, QEF’s Tryb4ufly Project Lead and designer of the award-winning MERU TravelChair, who presented the results of a survey sent to attendees before the event. The results showed that almost 70% of those respondents working in aviation believe that the challenge can be solved, while only 35% of those outside the industry believe that a solution is plausible. Half of disabled passengers said a wheelchair accessible cabin would be “life-changing” and another third described it as “significant”. Of all the obstacles ahead, the consensus was that the biggest barriers are “the cost to develop, test and implement a solution,” closely followed by “current international aviation accessibility law”.

Presenters included wheelchair users, like 22-year-old Nathan Mattick from Whizz-Kidz (a UK charity which supports children with disabilities), who has cerebral palsy, which restricts the use of his arms and legs. Nathan retold his story of having had his wheelchair thrown down a chute at check-in and finding it broken in two upon arrival in London. “I’d love to see in the future that you can actually put your wheelchair into the aircraft so that you know where it is and have no concerns,” he said. “Baggage handlers need to appreciate that the wheelchair is, for disabled passengers, their legs”.

Gilly Golesworthy spoke with passion about her daughter Roxy, and the support their family had received from Virgin Atlantic in flying Roxy to the USA to receive dolphin therapy. The airline removed seats to accommodate Roxy on a stretcher.

Entrepreneur Hardeep Rai of Kaleidoscope Investments, and parent of a disabled child, explained how his company supports disabled people to turn their creativity into proof of concepts which can gain traction amongst investors: “People with disabilities often have great business ideas but people aren’t listening to them. They might attract assistance from grants, competitions and charities – but not from the investment community”. He cited examples of wealthy business founders and leaders with some form of disability, including Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, Tommy Hilfiger and Richard Branson. “If you go through the private sector in addition to the public sector, you’re more likely to get results – people like buy-in from the private sector”. Rai said he would try to get his “results-driven” sponsors engaged in the debate around the vision of accommodating wheelchairs in the cabin.

Richard Duffy from NESTA, an innovation foundation which offers prizes to foster R&D and innovations that solve social challenges, discussed how enabling wheelchair use on board would be a good topic for an innovation prize. “Ultimately, airlines will have to participate and there may need to be regulatory change to get to any solution,” he said, highlighting that throughout aviation’s history, prizes have been instrumental in advancing aeronautical progression. Duffy set out the assessment criteria for an innovation prize which would require adaptable, safe, adoptable solutions for many types of different wheelchairs that could work across a number of different aircraft and involving wheelchair users throughout the design process. The prize itself, Duffy said, could take the form of “a procurement contract with an airline”.

Baroness Jane Campbell, Cross Bench Independent Member of the UK’s House of Lords, and campaigner on disability equality and human rights, recalled how she is invited to conferences all over the world but unless they are in Europe where she can take the ferry and drive, she won’t go, following two or three very bad experiences of flying: “You may have the prizes, you may have the techie people, you may have the airlines on board, but unless you get disabled people and the professionals together around the table as equal participants, you will never get the legislation that will work, and it’s proved to be that way in bus legislation” – where it took over 14 years of Private Members’ Bills to force bus companies to provide access for wheelchairs on buses.

Presenting a stateside view, Michele Erwin, president of New York-based All Wheels Up (AWU), whose mission is “to provide a wheelchair spot for people with a severe physical disabilities traveling on commercial and private airplanes.” The organization aims to achieve this through the crash-testing of restraint systems in conjunction with wheelchairs in a cabin environment. Erwin showed the example of how, in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew in the first ever modified wheelchair accessible plane (a Boeing 314 flying boat – the Air Force One of its day), going on to state that she doesn’t “think today’s engineers are any less talented or empathetic to create a wheelchair accessible airplane.” She also screened a short video clip of how a possible solution might appear in the cabin and spoke of how Q’Straint restraints, used in cars and buses actually exceed the FAA’s 16G seating certification requirements. Erwin also discussed the continuing dialogue she’s having with the FAA, the complexity of procuring funding and the transition of AWU from an advocacy group to a research organization, as well as the growing interest from universities and manufacturers in supporting the R&D of certifiable solutions.

But how might airlines be incentivized to become more involved in this cause?

PriestmanGoode’s chairman Paul Priestman suggested that industry design awards might persuade airlines to develop more products for disabled passengers, citing Skytrax as an example which could in future have a category for cabin disability design. Another solution could be through speaking to airline alliances (OneWorld, SkyTeam, Star Alliance) which might use their combined spending power to tackle the issue.

Graham Race of QEF said that “the biggest challenge is the coming together [of the right stakeholders], having a road map and a realistic period of time. I think we all buy into this. There are so many different skills that are required to bring this together but I think it’s doable”.

Virgin Atlantic’s Lundy pointed out that, what airlines procure is often determined by what’s available in the airframe manufacturer’s catalogue viewed in conjunction with their design centers for customized options, therefore getting these solutions into plane-makers’ catalogues would be key.

Wrapping up the event, Chris Wood accentuated his desire and aspiration that “this all can be done and the industry needs to get together and we need to move this forward”. The biggest challenge he sees is “probably education, everyone needs to travel everywhere and … the biggest target is to get someone on a plane in their own wheelchair.”