Can airlines fix their antiquated accessibility procedures?

LANSING — Airline travel can be stressful. You have to deal with long lines at security, missing or damaged luggage, even a delayed flight or two.

For Laura Hall, the program director at the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition in East Lansing, air travel can be even tougher.

Hall has cerebral palsy and uses a power chair to get around. She said she hasn’t had pleasant experiences while traveling by plane, and there were three instances where her chair was damaged.

Waiting for her chair at baggage claim can be panic-inducing, she said.

“It can feel like you are cut off from your lifeline” when her chair is damaged, Hall said.

Some organizations are looking at ways to improve air travel for wheelchair users.

When a wheelchair gets damaged, airlines give out loaner chairs. These chairs do not give the same amount of support that custom chairs have.

“My chair is custom fit for my body. It’s really difficult to use a loaner chair when it’s not your own chair,” Hall said.

Boarding the plane can also be a headache.

Hall doesn’t get out of her wheelchair until she is at the jet bridge.

She’s then transferred to a narrow aisle chair. Two people help her get onto the chair.

“One will grab me under the arms, one will grab me under my legs and put me into the seat,” she said.

She said that the transfer can be rough.

She tends to avoid air travel when possible. She sometimes opts for a 16-hour train ride over a two-hour flight because of the difficulties of flying.

In 2021, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine assessed whether accommodating people seated in their own wheelchairs was technically feasible.

The nonprofit organization says it provides independent, objective advice to inform policy decisions,

There are no attachment systems now to secure a wheelchair on scheduled flights.

As for other modes of transportation such as buses and trains, they allow individuals to board in their wheelchair, stay seated in their wheelchair for the whole trip and then deboard at their destination.

When it comes to commercial flights, however, this accommodation isn’t available. Passengers must fly in an airplane seat.

That leads to the question: What should airlines do to accommodate wheelchair users?

The committee suggested ways to accommodate wheelchair users:

They include modifying the plane’s interior to create a wheelchair attachment system at the front of the cabin and removing two successive rows of seats near the boarding door to provide room to secure wheelchairs.

That would allow enough room for wheelchairs to move in and out without infringe on the space of other passengers, the committee report said.

To do so, airlines would need to change their interior configurations, said Miriam Manary, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

She said aircraft doors are large enough for a wheelchair but the aisles are not.

“The wheelchair station would need to be adjacent to one of the aircraft doors and also near an accessible lavatory,” Manary said.

She said plane interiors are updated periodically and can be reconfigured.

Airlines usually put wheelchairs in the cargo hold but they can be heavy and difficult for baggage handlers to maneuver.

“It is very difficult to transport” wheelchairs, and they can get damaged in the process, said Perry Flint, the head of corporate communications at the International Air Transport Association in Montreal.

Modern wheelchairs “are not designed so they can fit into a cargo hold of a narrow body aircraft,” Flint said.

The association plans to improve handling of wheelchairs by introducing an electronic mobility aid tag to ensure they are properly taken care of throughout a trip.


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