Taking personal wheelchairs on-board aircrafts: the big debate

Over the years, there has been an increased awareness of people who live with disabilities and reduced mobility and this has been largely due to a growing number of initiatives and events including the Paralympics, Invictus Games, and the London Marathon. More than ever, growing numbers of people with disabilities are also travelling by aircraft and have the opportunity to experience the wonders of the world.

Whilst this is positive, the passenger experience for PRMs is unfortunately often uncomfortable and undignified and there have been many negative reports about the service received. As a result of this, there is a current debate about how the passenger experience can be improved and in a recent news report on the BBC 4 Today programme, Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson highlighted that the responsibility to deliver a good passenger experience is down to both airports and airlines.

One idea being explored about how the industry can achieve this is whether people will be able to use their personal wheelchairs on-board an aircraft in the future, as this currently isn’t an option for PRMs.

A government strategy

The government, in conjunction with the Department for Transport, has launched its Aviation Strategy that aims to identify ways airlines could improve the passenger experience, specifically exploring whether removing airline seats and making room for wheelchairs could become a possibility. Various campaign groups are also in support of this including Christopher Wood’s Flying Disabled campaign, which is working hard to change the legislation around passengers taking their own wheelchairs into the cabin of a plane in order to have a comfortable and dignified journey.

Although this solution may seem fairly straightforward, many industry professionals have been debating the logistics of this idea from both a financial and safety perspective and feel more needs to be considered in order to make this a  practical solution.


Various issues have been highlighted about airlines removing aisle chairs to make room for wheelchairs and in a report in Aviation Week, the International Air Transport Association has said that aircraft seats are specially designed in accordance to rigorous safety standards in order to ensure they can withstand the level of G-Force at the point of take-off, landing and in-case of an emergency.

This suggests that all wheelchairs will have to undergo the same testing to ensure the chairs can withstand the pressure and the passenger can remain safe during the flight. However, when aircraft seats are designed the manufacturers can expect costs of testing and approval to be around £100,000 due to the extreme testing methods. This significant cost and the rigorous testing process will also apply to private wheelchairs meaning manufacturers of land-based wheelchairs will need to factor this into production. What’s more, the materials, design, and weight of current wheelchairs aren’t currently suitable for aviation so this will need to be addressed.

There is also a debate surrounding the cost to airlines for removing seats and the extra time added onto journeys as a result of wheelchairs being tethered down to meet safety regulations. Currently, anything fixed onto an aircraft, including seating, must be handled by a trained engineer in accordance to strict aviation laws. This policy would apply to personal wheelchairs to ensure optimum safety throughout the journey, however, it has been highlighted that this could result in prolonged boarding times.

With the conversation widening about how airlines can improve the passenger experience for those living with reduced mobility, it raises the question: will there be a time when wheelchairs can be taken onto an aircraft? The Government’s Aviation Strategy findings will be published in early 2019.

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