Date: Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Category: Member News
Standards Committee for Assistive Technology for Air Travel (ATAT) Chair
Earlier this year, RESNA published the new AT-1 Standard for Assistive Technology for Air Travel. This standard specifies requirements and test methods for efficient and safe handling and storage of many different types of assistive technologies (AT) for passengers with mobility impairments on aircraft. Section 4 of the AT-1 Standard provides design and labeling specifications that will make it easier to handle a mobility device during air travel and reduce its likelihood of damage.
We sat down with RESNA's Standards Committee for Assistive Technology for Air Travel (ATAT) Chair, Peter Axelson, to learn a bit more about the Standard and how it will improve air travel for wheelchair users.
What are the common challenges that air travel presents to those who use assistive technology?
There are multiple factors that make air travel extremely difficult for wheelchair (WC) and power wheelchair (PWC) users. Many of the issues are caused because the ADA’s jurisdiction in air travel only applies to the terminal. Outside of the terminal, all regulations are managed by the Department of Transportation. In 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) passed, prohibiting disability-based discrimination in air travel. Although the ACAA was a great victory for air travel accessibility, reform is still need to address many of the issues WC and PWC users experience today. For example:
Steep jetways and unstable boarding devices
The jetways provided by airlines are often steeper than a standard ramp and are hazardous to WCs and PWCs. Often the jetway becomes a slide slope when turning toward the aircraft. Due to this issues, there are numerous reports of falling over or falling out of a boarding device, which are already unstable.
Narrow aircraft aisles
The lack of standards for the minimum width of the aircraft aisle leads to narrower and narrower aisles. The minimum aisle width of 20 inches does not extend to the floor of the aircraft, rather below the armrest the aisle width standard is 15 inches. This change in width is not accounting for a person entering the aircraft while seated, which leads to many hip and arm injuries. The narrow aisle width also requires that boarding devices are narrow to fit down the 15 inch aisle and are often 13.5 inches wide or so. This leads to the instability of these devices.
Dangerous transfers in and out of boarding devices
Many passengers using a WC or PWC need to be transferred into their seat by an airline assistance provider. Injuries occur to the untrained assistance providers and to the passengers who can get scraped on the seat or dropped on the floor. Applying mechanical mobile lift devices would prevent injuries to passengers and assistance providers.
Because WC and PWCs need to be gate checked and stored in the cargo areas of an aircraft, the devices are at a high risk of being damaged or totally destroyed. Damage occurs to joystick controllers, wheels and casters, and cushions because the device is not properly folded or secured in the aircraft. Damage to a device is a largely sited reason why many people will no longer fly.
Passengers in WC and PWCs also struggle with a lack of lavatory access due to the size regulations on an aircraft; hazardous sitting pressures which require the passenger to travel with multiple cushions and postural supports to fit in an aircraft seat; and assistance from unexperienced aircraft staff.
How does the American National Standard for Assistive Technology for Air Travel address these challenges?
Volume 1 of the Standard addresses wheelchair stowage and handling issues that currently result in damage to wheelchairs. This scope is inclusive of powered and manual wheelchairs including scooters and power assist devices. While some sections are still in development, section 4 of the Standard addresses labeling and design requirements for mobility devices designed for stowage and transport in commercial aircrafts.
The standard includes manufacture requirements for creating air travel compliant wheelchairs, including:
- The ability to remove key items of the device without the use of tools (cushions, headrest, footrest, arm supports, joystick, etc.).
- Ability to adjust the height of a device. Reducing a device to 33 inches in height will allow the device to fit within the baggage area without having to be tipped.
- Instructions for securing the device on an aircraft and clearly marked lifting and securement locations.
- Clearly listing the weight of the device.
This section also requires an Air Travel Configuration Card. The cards provide step by step instructions on managing and securing a wheelchair or power wheelchair. The Standard even provides a template that users can create for their device and airlines could post on their website. Air carrier agents could use a sample air travel configuration card to ask all the right questions and to guide passengers on how to prepare their wheelchair or scooter for going into the baggage area of the aircraft.
As we continue to develop the Standard, we will be sharing more guidance on common terminology, how to prepare a mobility device for travel, and handling procedures.
More regulations are needed from the Department of Transportation to truly make air travel accessible by providing aisle widths that are 20 inches wide down to the floor and by providing accessible bathrooms.
Who is the target audience for the standard and how do you hope they will use the standard to improve inclusivity in travel?
We hope this standard is adopted universally by manufacturers and airlines, and that wheelchair users will purchase wheelchairs with the features in this Standard.
Manufactures will need to fully meet the requirements for their devices to meet the RESNA Assistive Technology for Air Travel Standard.
Airlines should implement the Air Travel Configuration Card within their practices for handling wheelchairs and power wheelchairs. This could save millions in lawsuits and damage claims.
Wheelchair and power wheelchair users should look for devices that follow these standards and create an Air Travel Configuration Card for their own device to encourage the best handling practices.
Why did you get involved with RESNA's Standards Committee for Assistive Technology for Air Travel?
I got involved in the RESNA's Wheelchair Standards Committee in 1980 because I was seeing first-hand the damage being done through air travel and wanted to learn more about wheelchairs specifically designed for air travel. Through my involvement with the committee, I have become an expert in wheelchair design and many areas that the Standard addresses.
If you are looking to build your expertise in a technology, join a RESNA Standard Committee and you will become an expert!