The wheelchair Problem (well it’s not really)

Royal Aeronautical Society Magazine Piece

When Alcock and Brown flew the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919 I doubt they envisaged what their great achievement would trigger. Fast forward nearly a hundred years and there are thousands of commercial flights daily crossing the globe, reaching distant and nearby destinations. Depending on what you pay, you can travel and eat like royalty in first class, or in economy where you are packed tighter than a Columbian suitcase, so tight you can feel the perspiration on the passenger next to you – how did we ever sign up for that..!!

For a wheelchair user little has changed in a hundred years. Indeed, it is so bad most don’t even fly as it’s not only undignified but unsafe. The primitive conditions of those pioneers of 1919 still resonate inside an aircraft for the passenger who uses a wheelchair – and this cannot be right.

Boarding and alighting an aircraft is a hazardous military manoeuvre at the best of times, getting to the toilet (if you can) is an Olympic challenge, I know most wheelchair users will de-hydrate before flying and take little or no fluids whilst in the air. The worst is yet to come, a wheelchair is someone’s legs (honest they are) and there is a high risk of it being broken whilst in the hold or even more regretful not actually arriving at the same destination. The change that is needed is for those that simply live their life in a wheelchair to remain in it whilst travelling, it aids their posture and support. Power Wheelchairs cost north of £15k and typically are bespoke for the user, it is impossible to simply replace it in an hour, a day or even a month!  The challenge is therefore set before me – how do I bring inclusion to air travel.

“A Wheelchair Is a Passengers Legs”

The bad material is well documented on a google search and the young savvier wheelchair users have filmed or taken pictures on their smartphones, these are uploaded on social media faster than Ryan Air can change their terms and conditions. Both my young adults (that I still call children) are in wheelchairs, for them commercial flying has become more difficult – but they want to travel, they want to spend money with airlines. Two years ago, I started researching why air travel for someone in a wheelchair was still stuck in a bygone era. An era where the Berlin wall was still part of the landscape and shoulder pads and flares would not be deemed a security threat. Transport over land and sea have gradually adapted and reaped the financial rewards accordingly, yet the cabin of an aircraft remains the last bastion of accessibility – why?

It has become clear to me during this campaign that for some in the aviation industry enough was enough, the subject was becoming personally very close to home and needed to be addressed. In September of 2017 with the support of Virgin Atlantic I was offered to host the inaugural ‘Wheelchair in the Cabin’ symposium. The idea was to bring airlines, regulators, government and stakeholders together to start finding a solution. It’s all very well me campaigning to allow wheelchair users to access a cabin in their own chair, but if there is not a solution then it simply can’t be done. But then again, if no one in aviation is looking to evolve this then it will never happen. As I write this and because of the symposium I have a working group examining how to create a wheelchair that is ‘cabin safe’, the group will examine every detail from the battery on a power wheelchair to the screws that hold it together. The UK government attended the event and are fully behind my campaign as is the House of Lords. With the help of Airbus, we will be setting up an ‘international Working Group’ as I believe it is crucial to make sure the aviation industry is part of this process, I am here to support them establishing a fit and getting it right for all concerned – especially aviation.

“bring in inclusion and reap the financial reward”

I have learned a lot about aviation in two years. I understand that every millimetre inside an aircraft is as sacred as a Wi-Fi connection to a teenager on pay as you go, but I also understand that airlines do not have full capacity 365 days of the year, its typically around 85% globally, that’s a lot of wiggle room to bring in inclusion and reap the financial reward that offers. To those that think disabled people sit in lonely bedrooms watching back to back episodes of Jeremy Kyle, think again, they have family and friends who want to travel with them. High Speed train networks are fighting the aviation industry on the ground and making headway, my last weekend in Europe was on the Eurostar, it was more inviting than engaging in the online baggage war and the inevitable security processing.

“why should this be done”

Apart from the financial rewards, why should this be done: In 2020 the Olympics and Paralympics roadshow arrives in Tokyo. Back in 1964 the Tokyo Paralympics had just  375 athletes representing 21 nations, in 2020 the Paralympics will be hosting nearly 5000 athletes representing over 159 nations. This just demonstrates how the world now embraces the world of disability and inclusion, the Paralympics is also now an integral part of our viewing experience. Additionally, due to medical science we are all living longer, our aging population is growing, and boy do they have money to spend. The industry has spent vast sums of money engaging with them over the years and most are very loyal, yet there is no foundation to retain or facilitate these customers/families. Finally, and perhaps most important are our ex servicemen and women, our veterans, the very people who keep freedom over land sea and of course our skies. Those that suffer physical life changing injuries have told me that Air Travel is humiliating and not really offering any provision for their needs – most don’t fly anymore. These heroes and Invictus athletes surely deserve better.


Stephen Hawking put the physics into black holes and gave us more understanding of them, for that reason alone the airline industry owes him. In the future when the legacy carriers are flying passengers to Neptune and Uranus (I would have loved to be in the room when they named that planet) and the Low-Cost Carriers are flying to the Moon and Mars, his discoveries will save millions in potential compensation claims. If you think that creating a wheelchair space in the cabin of an aircraft is unrealistic then go back to where I started this piece with Alcock and Brown. Imagine being in the room when they said, ‘we are going to fly nearly 2000 miles across the Atlantic in nearly half a ton of aeroplane’. Just maybe it was the same room the named a planet that every schoolboy would chuckle about in a science class for years to come, I have just turned 56 and Uranus still makes me smile.

“Skytrax accessibility award”

The industry loves a conference, a dinner and a drink, however they love an award far more. I had a very recent meeting with the Airline awards group Skytrax, they have agreed to work with me to bring award categories for accessibility to both airlines and airports, bringing excellent data to this industry. I believe the awards will be a first ever in air travel, significantly the award in airlines will really start the growth in accessibility organically, thus allowing the industry to adjust accordingly. This will of course bring more customers, at the same time retaining those older loyal affluent customers who are currently drifting away with no access being created for them. What business wouldn’t like that model??

The Author: Christopher Wood is a campaigner, lobbyist urging airlines to create a designated aircraft wheelchair space. He is the founder of Flying Disabled. 

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