Back in October I went to Berlin for a week, which obviously involved flying. This was the first time I’d been on a plane for 10 years.  The last time was when I went Skiing in Sweden in 2005 (which you can read about here), and I was looking forward to seeing if anything had improved for disabled flyers in that time.  The short answer is no.

For those that are not familiar with the procedure for getting a wheelchair user on a plane, this is what you have to do. Up until boarding time it’s pretty much the same as for any other passenger, except when you are checking in your luggage you have to get a tag for the wheelchair as well, as it has to go in the cargo hold.

Basically, wheelchair users need to transfer into a seat on the plane. We can’t stay in our wheelchairs. Before I could get on the plane at Manchester airport I first needed to be lifted onto a portable aisle seat which is narrow enough to fit between the seats on the plane. I was then wheeled into the plane. Once we reached our seats on the plane I had to be lifted into them from the aisle seat by my carers.

My biggest problem with this is the fact that if wheelchair users cannot transfer themselves into the plane seats, then they have to be manually lifted by other people. This is dangerous as the people doing the lifting could easily break their back, or drop the person they are carrying.  There are no hoists available for transferring people into the plane seats or the aisle seat. This was the procedure 10 years ago in 2005 and it still is in 2015. There has been no improvement in that time.

So why can’t wheelchair users stay in their chairs on aeroplanes and get clamped down like in cars?

Well, I emailed the Civil Aviation Authority to ask them that question and this is what they said:
”Passenger seating is subject to stringent design requirements in order to ensure occupants will not suffer serious injury in an emergency landing as a result of inertia forces. This includes the incorporation of a safety belt and energy absorbing rest that will support the arms, shoulders, head and spine, or by a safety belt and shoulder harness intended to prevent injury to the head from striking objects.

Wheelchairs are not designed to meet such criteria and therefore in order to ensure the safety of the occupant, cannot be considered as passenger seating.”

I guess it would be difficult to crash test all the different types of existing wheelchairs for planes. But I think it is definitely possible to design a wheelchair that would meet safety standards. All they need to do is adapt the safety features of standard aeroplane seating for wheelchairs. Existing wheelchairs already have a certain amount of shock absorbing technology in them, but obviously not enough for a plane crash. Plus the addition of a harness shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to make.

I don’t expect them to start crash testing wheelchairs for planes any time soon as it would probably require a lot of investment from plane companies to redesign their aircraft. However it does make a lot of sense to do so as it will save people’s backs because they won’t have to lift us into the plane seats. Anywhere else it would be against health and safety regulations to physically lift someone out of their wheelchair. So why is it okay to do it on a plane?

I recently read an article that said EasyJet would be adapting all of their A320 planes with a wheelchair accessible toilet starting in 2016. This is great but we still need to be able to get from our seats to the toilet which is easier said than done. If wheelchairs could be clamped down on the plane then at cruising altitude they could simply be unclamped and wheeled around when the need arises. You can read about the new easyJet wheelchair toilets here.

If you have a disability let me know how you have got on with flying. Have you experienced any problems yourself?