This week a vlog by Marc De Hondt was published on Facebook and was picked up by numerous newspapers and websites in the Netherlands. Marc flew four and half hours with Transavia to his holiday destination, but during this time was unable to use the toilet. The reason? There was no onboard wheelchair.

A paraplegic since 2002, the Dutch tv-presenter, writer and dramatist is quick to point out improvements in accessibility and tackle misconceptions regarding persons with disabilities. And now it was the turn of Transavia. And he has a point. A strong point, even though he paced his drinking and managed to avoid a wet seat.

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This is a situation I can relate to: Normally I can hold my bladder for two hours or so, depending on what I drink. I may push it to three or perhaps four, but then my mouth would be as dry as the sand in death valley; hardly commendable. So especially for flights over two hours, I need an onboard wheelchair. Initially the cabin-crew are hesitant, but after seeing me jump independently from seat to chair, and from chair to toilet, the trips becomes a breeze.

Following years off flying experience, often weekly and regularly intercontinental, I avoid low-cost carriers and charter airlines for the longer flights as they skimp so much on costs that inevitably the passengers suffer, and as a wheelchair user unable to walk, this usually means sirens and flashing lights. I’d rather pay extra (personally or at company expense) for reputed names and brands where I know the service will be better. If I am unsure, I will check their website for amenities and services, or contact them per mail to ensure my trip will fit purpose. But this is where a whole plethora of interpretations come to the fore. For example, KLM states clearly the availability of a foldable onboard wheelchair on board of all KLM and KLM Cityhopper aircraft and that there are wheelchair accessible toilets available on most flights.

157233715_2a3c2c044f_zOn the other hand, KLM daughter company Transavia lists the various handicaps to help a person identify them, lest he forget. Transavia further demand that all persons with a disability fly with an assistant, yet nothing is stated with regard to an onboard wheelchair. When pressed by De Hondt, the response was that the crew would ask other passengers to aid him to the toilet!

How can two interpretations of the same be so wide apart? To understand this, we must seek the original texts. In my blog Stuck in the dark ages: Flying for persons with reduced mobility from a year ago, I shared my opinion that flying for persons with reduced mobility is grossly outdated and lacks vision and innovation. And if we look at where some of these guidelines come from, I’m not surprised.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the trade association for the world’s airlines, representing some 275 airlines or 83% of total air traffic. Their Resolution 700 describes the Rules on transporting disabled passengers, but it stems from 2002. Section 5.2.3.2 states that “Members shall endeavour to have available onboard a special wheeled chair capable of carrying a handicapped passenger to enable them to use lavatory facilities.” The problem is the word ‘endeavour’, as all it means is best efforts. Hardly an obligation. 

IATA also include a Cabin Operations Safety Best Practices Guide 3rd Edition from 2017. Section 8.9.1.1 Onboard Wheelchairs states that Aircraft with accessible lavatory facilities should be equipped with an onboard wheelchair. An aircraft that is not equipped with accessible washrooms should carry an onboard wheelchair when a PRM requests one, subject to the aircraft having the capacity to stow and restrain such equipment. So again, hardly specific and hardly obligatory.

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The EU tried to clarify Resolution 700 with Regulation (EC) 1107/2006. In the regulation is written that airlines are required to provide assistance to enable a disabled passenger to get to the on-board toilet. The Regulation does not explicitly, however, require that on-board wheelchairs are provided, although the majority of airlines now do so. 

So given the above, it is no wonder that Transavia and many others don’t make the effort. As would be expected given the American Disabilities Act, in the US it is much better. There the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) is upheld. The latest ruling of 2009 states that all aircraft carrying more than 60 passengers must have an onboard wheelchair, regardless of accessible or inaccessible rest-rooms.

One of the European Union’s main goals is to promote human rights, both internally and around the world. In 2009, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights mentions the integration of persons with disabilities as part of equality. And yet, in order to offer equal working conditions and equal societal participation, equal accessibility and equal mobility are paramount. It is high time that the EU updates Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 to be more in line with today as this is an area where clearly the US trumps Europe.

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