While Braeden gets super excited about getting on a plane, for many wheelchair users the thought of plane travel evokes fear. I’m all about sharing the positive can-do stories here because I want to encourage people to travel. Our reviews and stories are aimed at sharing ideas, tips and solutions for accessible travel. But the harsh reality is that many people do not fly because its uncomfortable or the conditions are simply impossible to navigate. I was chatting to one of our US readers this morning (a rare but delightful privilege) and she was telling me how impossible it is for her to travel with her son on a plane. Unfortunately, this story is not unique. So, are we getting closer to wheelchairs on planes? Is it still a dream or are we getting closer to it being a reality? Well, I have some positive news on the movement to get wheelchairs on planes.
Wheelchairs on planes – dream or soon to be reality?
Living in Australia it’s probably not surprising I hadn’t heard of Pete Buttigieg until this week. The reason Pete got my attention was I spotted a YouTube video of him delivering a speech to the Paralyzed Veterans of America where he vowed to work towards airlines allowing passengers to stay in their own wheelchairs when they fly. I can hear a collective round of applause from HWWT community members that are affected by the need to relinquish a wheelchair at the check in counter or at the door to the aircraft. Pete Buttigieg is the secretary of the Department of Transportation and in his speech, he said, “Practically everyone who uses a wheelchair and flies, including colleagues of mine here at the DOT, has a troubling story about an airline experience. Many have far more than one.”
While the Americans with Disability Act ensures accessibility in most situations for travellers he reminded his audience that, “No other form of transportation — trains, buses, boats — forces you to give up your mobility device when you board, and the same ought to be true of airlines.”
The most encouraging part of the speech was his promise, “So, in the months and years ahead, we plan to work toward a new rule that will allow passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs when they fly. We know this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work to fulfill.” Here’s hoping Pete has the backing of others to make this happen.
Several companies have floated ideas about how passengers can remain in their own wheelchairs but like many things it seems to get put into the too hard basket. There doesn’t seem to be the same kudos around making it possible for a wheelchair user to fly as there does to being the first airline to go to space. Do I sound somewhat cynical? Hmmm, perhaps that’s a fair call but I do get somewhat annoyed by the priorities of entrepreneurs who have the funds and vision to make things happen but don’t put it to what I think would be a good use. Imagine the millions of people worldwide who would have travel opened up to them. While I think it is the right thing to do to become an inclusive society, let’s look at it from an economic point of view and imagine the extra tourism dollars (or whatever currency) that could be captured by opening the world up to a whole new market of travellers.
All Wheels Up is currently the only organization in the world crash testing wheelchair tie downs and wheelchairs for commercial flights. I follow the work of the All Wheels Up, which is US based. It’s president Michele Erwin began her mission to make aircraft more accessible after trying to take her son Greyson, who is a wheelchair user, to Walt Disney World and having a nightmare experience. Michele, and the team at All Wheels Up, are doing amazing work creating awareness and applying pressure to bring about change.
As with anything, I hope that the varying needs of people with a disability are considered. While some people will be empowered and be able to travel if they can stay in their wheelchair, not everyone will want to do this. And while having the ability to remain in your wheelchair on a plane is a fantastic first step, the other obvious need is for all aircraft to have appropriate accessible bathroom facilities on board.
Being able to access air travel, and to then have a suitable bathroom available, are two basic human rights. I don’t see it as frivolous, I think it is called equality and inclusion. Perhaps society needs a shift in focus and priorities. Maybe this needs more air time than that Oscar’s slap that keeps resurfacing. Maybe the idea even needs the backing of the Hemsworth brothers to ensure it doesn’t become extinct. Just saying. (For our overseas friends, I’m referencing a news story that is doing the rounds today about the Hemsworth brothers.)
If wheelchairs were able to go on planes we could also do away with aisle chairs, there would be fewer damaged wheelchairs and a more efficient boarding process. People with a disability may no longer need to board first and disembark last.
Obviously, due to the variety of wheelchairs, differences in size and other considerations this isn’t a simple issue to solve, however, it would be nice to see an effort from the aviation industry to address this when designing aeroplanes.
Anyway, I shall step away from my soapbox (for now anyway) and hope that people get behind the All Wheels Up Organization and ensure that Pete is true to his word.
Let us know in comments here or over on Facebook whether being able to use your wheelchair on a plane would make it possible or easier for you to travel.
While we are waiting for Pete and All Wheels Up to change the way people with a disability can travel, you may find the blog below useful.