In the book ‘Black Box Thinking’ the author Mathew Syed describes how the turning point for the airline industry was the 1978 United Airlines crash in Portland Oregon. The Captain, Malburn McBroom, circled the city whilst radioing for guidance on how to repair the failed landing gear, as he was doing this the fuel was running low and he had suddenly run out of time, his skill in landing the aircraft meant he saved 179 lives, sadly 10 were lost. McBroom lost his licence, left the industry in disgrace, and died a few years later a broken man. The industry learned if you punish the pilot, lessons would never be learnt-only covered up.
The graph below shows that since the decline of the blame culture, fatalities have dropped. But what is even more astonishing is the rise of passenger numbers flying over the period.
So, what has all this got to do with accessible air travel? There have been no passenger fatalities involving the disabled community linked directly to an airline as far as I am aware, – although social media would offer a different opinion. However, given the rise in numbers of the disabled and elderly community flying, it does not take Nostradamus to figure out there will be one coming to an airspace near you very shortly.
The graph on the left from the CAA gives an indication of the growth of those flying with Electric Mobility Aids (EMA’s), this is predominantly powered wheelchairs. If you add to this manual wheelchair users, invisible disabilities etc.. the growth of PRM’S now flying is astronomical. So why is the safety of these passengers still stuck in 1978..??
Air industry regulators often seek harmonisation, yet Europe’s EC1107/2006 and Americas Part 382 are not harmonised, simply put, Europe relies on airports, in America it is the Airlines. Allowing for a year or two for the consultation and draft, that makes 1107 nearly 20 years old. The ECAC measurements suffer from that old saying ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure, it just distorts outcomes and behaviour’ – hence why airport practice up and down the country is inconsistent. In other words, hitting the targets simply misses the point. An accessibility cadre needs to be heavily involved in its review, but without innovative solutions there may well be an impasse.
When we look back at the learning of that United flight in 1978 and the impact it had on passenger safety, why are airlines not doing the same for those most vulnerable travelling by air. The media have been robust recently in its reporting of the plights of disabled air passengers – notably wheelchair users. But this has been a vicious cycle for decades and nothing has been done, its only getting worse. Our elderly less mobile passengers still want to fly in great numbers, but at what age will they decide this is no longer for them? Will one small bad incident sway their future travel plans? Anyone in marketing will tell you if you only acquire one customer it is the most expensive, the more they use your service (loyalty) the lower the cost of that customer, therefore our elderly demographic owe airlines nothing and airlines are making a fortune out of them, yet they are given nothing in return as they have aged.
Here is the contentious bit: There is a culture that harks back to 1978, I know of numerous wheelchair users who have been dropped on an airline floor, had limbs fractured/broken during that brutal airline transfer, they typically all receive compensation and of course a gagging clause (it’s as if it legally it never happened) – some would say ‘covered up’. How on earth is (any) industry expected to learn with the backdrop of this culture, the answer is of course they do not, as it is in effect covered up. There is accessible regulation for twin aisle aircraft, but the same does not apply for single aisle (now the most popular airline purchase), do regulators think the safety is different..?
For those in air travel that are trained to assist disabled people to access their aircraft seat, do not wake up wanting to drop people, break limbs or make their on-ward journey worse. They are not at fault; the system is broken. They should not be blamed or fired, they should stay, improve learn and teach.
There are innovations such as Air4All that could improve this dramatically, but (at times) it is like advocating in a graveyard – you know people are there, but no one is listening. The same policy that started the journey to create a safer passage for flyers from 1978, should by now (at least) have been scrutinised and adopted years ago for the disabled and elderly community. Space Invaders was first launched in 1978, that is how it feels as a disabled passenger when flying today!