By Michele Erwin, president & founder of All Wheels Up
“Wait, what? There is no wheelchair spot on the plane for you?” Unfortunately, most people outside the wheelchair community don’t realize this is an issue until we make them aware of it.
When we stop and think about it, we might reflect on how far we’ve come so that we can put the next “steps” to accessibility in perspective.
Although not quite as old as humanity itself, wheelchairs appear to date as far back as the fourth century B.C.E., entering Europe possibly around the twelfth century. The idea of an electric wheelchair first arose in 1916 but was unsuccessful until 1952 and not ready for mass markets until 1956. The first wheelchair-accessible bus was invented in 1947 for veterans returning from WWII in Canada. In the 1970s, a team of students at Queen’s University in Ontario, invented the first wheelchair securement system. The earliest research into wheelchair securement introduced the concept that wheelchair users with reduced mobility have unique safety needs requiring unique safety solutions—hence the brand name Q’straint for wheelchair securement systems, or what we colloquially call tie-downs.
In 1966, Ralph Braun created the first wheelchair lift and personal wheelchair-accessible vehicle. In 1972, the Braun Corporation began to sell these accessible vans. With the passage of time, wheelchairs, wheelchair securement systems, and accessible travel have been modified to 21st century standards. They’ve been made faster, safer, and easier. The wheelchair community has embraced travel as part of everyday life in some shape or form for the last 40 years. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Americans in wheelchairs can use Amtrak, taxis, subways, ferries, and local buses to get out and about every day to travel, work, attend school, explore, shop, and meet friends. In other words, they can participate in life!
However, truly accessible air travel—that is, a designated in-cabin space for a wheelchair securement system—has not yet happened. Air travel is covered, not by the ADA but instead by the Air Carrier Access Act, which doesn’t require an in-cabin wheelchair spot—yet. Why not? Is it because we haven’t had a powerful protagonist push for this change? No. In 1942, the very first wheelchair accessible airplane was designed and modified for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). The plane, adapted for both the president’s political safety and personal dignity, was built with an elevator, with aisles wide enough to navigate in his wheelchair. Sadly, 1942 would be the last time a wheelchair user would be considered in the design of a plane.
Why were wheelchair users not taken into consideration during the 1960s, the golden age of commercial aviation? Rather than call out the industry for excluding the wheelchair community, let’s try instead to understand what is preventing wheelchair spots from being implemented. Today’s aviation engineers are empathetic to wheelchair users’ needs, and if given the opportunity to build an accessible airplane, these engineers would make it possible. However, the reason no one organization has taken on researching a wheelchair spot is the difficult nature of the solution: it can’t be created without involving many different groups and industries, and the cost of research is enormous.
The good news? All Wheels Up (AWU), established in 2011, has already brought the parties together to start the conversation. All Wheels Up is the first organization to take the steps to inquire about an in-cabin wheelchair spot. Our goal is not just advocate for a wheelchair spot, but to fund and conduct the research needed to prove the feasibility of wheelchair securement systems and wheelchairs for commercial flight. While there are many amazing advocacy groups that have taken on accessible air travel as a platform, no other organization is funding the research to make it happen.
In 2011, Q’straint tie-downs surpassed 20 G of force. (The FAA testing standard of airplanes seats is 16 G.) In 2016, AWU funded the construction of the first HYGE sled (a simulation platform for crash testing) that could hold a wheelchair, to study how wheelchairs might perform during important aeronautical situations such as turbulence, takeoff, and landing. Recently in one of these facilities, AWU conducted eight specific tests requested by the FAA—and the wheelchair securements all passed. The next step is creating a prototype for commercial use, for which more research and development is needed. AWU will be benchmarking wheelchairs—for future R&D of a FAA-approved wheelchair on January 28, 2019. The results will also be published in their feasibility study.
So, while a wheelchair spot on commercial planes is some 40 years behind the times, things are moving in the right direction. Keep in mind that back in 1947 when wheelchairs were first placed in buses—and even in 1970 when Ralph Braun created accessible vans—standards and regulations were not yet part of our daily lives. Wheelchair travelers can rest assured that once wheelchair securements are approved for airline travel, they will be safe and secure because of scientific testing.
Safety is one issue; economics is another. After all, airlines are a businesses. However, with about 4 million wheelchair users in the United States, the market is large and demanding. Airlines, airplane manufacturers, and governments are listening and they are listening to the consistent collaborative message from All Wheels Up. All Wheels Up is the only organization to conduct a working group with all Stake holders including Airlines, plane manufactures, and wheelchiar manufactures from all over the world.The United States is the only country to currently address a wheelchair spot in a signed bill of law. On October 5th, 2018, The FAA Re-Authorization Act, was signed by President Trump, which included the “feasibility study of wheelchairs for in-cabin use”. Our cause still needs your help, contact your representatives in Congress and the United States Access Board (access-board.gov), which was assigned the task of choosing the team that will continue the research for a wheelchair spot and tell them you support All Wheels Up and their work. As the only organization that has dedicated the last nine years to a wheelchair spot on planes, All Wheels Up remains the leader in the field. All Wheels Up is proud to be working toward true accessible air travel—on a global scale with all the parties involved. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay informed about our progress.