Whereas transport over land has alternatives, flying to faraway destinations does not. At least when considering the amount of time it takes. An aeroplane is the only way to get somewhere of great distance within a reasonable time-frame but it’s hardly convenient, especially not for someone in a wheelchair. This blog is by no means intended as a spew of dissatisfaction, but rather a piece to provoke some thought.

aislechair_ontwerp1_studiorotorEver since becoming a paraplegic in 1981, I’ve been flying around the world for business or sports and I can truly say that every flight tops my most disabling experience list. Flying is a fully able-bodied experience. Anything less is an afterthought.

To be fair, a lot has improved over the last 35 years. Long gone are the days that wheelchair tyres were deflated for fear of them exploding at lower air pressure. No more do I need to drag myself down the aisle on my rear to get to a toilet. And at least today there is some sense of being treated like a customer, and not some onerous animal in a virtual cage that can be left on the tarmac before someone decides to load you on board.

But the business man and economist in me remains aghast at the subservient organisation and subsequent costs involved to ‘ship’ persons with disabilities.

Allow me to explain…

Air travel has fundamentally changed little over the past 70-odd years. The essence remains to have as many people be moved from one destination to another with the given constraint of an aircraft’s dimensions. And that as efficiently as is possible. The plebs sit at the back and those that care to pay more sit in relative comfort at the front. Given that the elderly and disabled are statistically of lower income, one could reason that the majority of the minority sit at the back.

The paradox is that placing persons with disabilities in the least convenient seats is logistically challenging, putting undue pressure on efficiency and thus being economically questionable. Various companies such as Virgin Airlines ease this on short-haul flights by placing the persons requiring assistance at the front. Ryanair puts them at the front too, but also boards them last to save time, which incidentally I think is a good idea. This certainly reduces the abuse of assistance services by the many snowbirds who can miraculously run out of the plan once it has landed.

Though I understand airlines needing to know what they’re dealing with, the whole process is paired with enough ablism to increase the overall payload of the flight. Special forms, special assistant counters, special agents, special trucks, special aisle chairs and special seats. Seats that are either reserved at the bulk-head (which is useful) or all the way at the back (where you are out of sight and where the movable armrests are – sometimes).

94aff77c9a9d450e99e5292d03b9b244Depending on the aircraft and the airport, costs per passenger is around $35 per hour. Passenger Facilities Charge (PFC) per airport are capped at $4.50 in the US and included in the ticket price, but one would logically think that a passenger requiring assistance would cost many-fold. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) such passenger assistance is the responsibility of the airline. Yet, the PFC does not vary per passenger, so the overall PFC increases or the cost burden lies with the airport and the service becomes disassociated.

Resolution 700 states that a PRM (Person with Reduced Mobility) need not provide medical information if medical aid is not required. It is sufficient to provide the correct code 48 hours ahead of time, which in my case is WHCH (= Immobilised passenger requiring a wheelchair to move about and assistance from the time of arrival in the airport until the end of the flight, as well as to exit from the airport). However, and this is often where it goes wrong; I do not need assistance in the airport, but there is no code for this. My stated ‘incapacity’ or ‘complete immobility’ applies only in the aircraft, and that this is no fault of mine. To make matters potentially worse, section 1.3.2 allows exception of passage of incapacitated passengers solely on subjective opinion. This means that a captain can prevent you from boarding. Luckily I have never experienced refusal of passage, though I have had to discuss my way through it on several occasions. And I do know of examples where others were not so successful.

Usually the perceived problem is flying without accompaniment and therefore the perceived lack of assistance in case of emergency. For those unaware, my disability is not infantile and if a calamity were to happen then rest assured, even though I can’t use my legs, I will not wait for the disaster to consume me.

The EU recognises the subjectiveness of Resolution 700 and in 2008 published Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 which attempted to provide more clarity. Between 2-5% of passengers request assistance, which according to Aviapartner contribute $17.3B in annual revenue in the US alone. So the business value cannot be underestimated. And yet, there were more than 27,500 complaints by disabled travellers in the US to airlines in 2014. In the same year the Department Of Transportation (DOT) received over 700 complaints and as a consequence, airlines were fined more than $500,000.

Throughout my many years of experience, I’ve yet to meet a person unwilling to help. Despite pockets of ignorance, at no point will I criticise the on-board staff. They are doing their job to the best of their abilities. Granted, a little more training would help, but the same goes for the ground-staff, the quality of which are sometimes a mere reflection of their pay-check. As long as they all remember that we are paying customers too and that it is best to ask, rather than to assume.

I’m happy for the IETA and EU regulations as this allows me to travel. But surely the time has come to recognise the enormity of business that disabled passengers represent and the large cost if they don’t do it right. Airlines and airports need to stop pointing to the other and aircraft designers and owners must become more creative in providing improved efficiency and comfort. It’s time the industry takes a long, hard look in the mirror…