June 25, 2024

Accessibility onboard: Fixing the broken journey

Stuart Forster interviews Chris Wood MBE, Aviation Accessibility Consultant at Flying Disabled.

Chris is also one-third of Air4all, a consortium delivering an aircraft seat that promises to provide a seamless, comfortable journey to users of power wheelchairs. Additionally, Chris is part of the #RightsOnFlights group campaigning for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to have more powers to issue fines relating to disabled travellers’ needs.

Stuart Forster (SF): What is it that you do and why do you do it? 

Chris Wood (CW): I used to be in retail – a family business in electrical goods. When the campaign started to take so much of my time I decided to let it go and dedicate my time to accessible aviation. It started after a couple of flights with my children, who are wheelchair users. 

I identified the problem in Mexico back in 2015 with my daughter. Strange men picked my daughter up and manhandled her into a passenger seat. I wondered why flying is so brutal, why it is so antiquated. Subsequently, I also had problems on a journey with my son out to the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.  

I set out to research the issues, I decided to go to aviation conferences and learn. AIX in Hamburg was one of the first. They said, “We need this subject in aviation.” I networked and talked about accessibility at conferences.  

I was untainted by previous experience in the industry. That meant I could come in and discuss what to do without being judged. 

People came up to me and gave me their business cards. They would say things like, “My niece has got MS [Multiple sclerosis]. She’s in a wheelchair. How airlines deal with disabled travel is embarrassing. I work for an airline and it’s brutal watching her on flights.”  

At the same time, the airlines’ business model is fine. We want cheap flights with cheap seats. I don’t want to spoil that. But balance is needed. If airlines carry on not being inclusive then they’re going to look more like pariahs. We must make improvements quickly. 

What I focused on was the people having the toughest air travel experiences, it was clear it was those who use power wheelchairs. Stephen Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, told me how bad his journeys were on commercial aircraft.

The whole journey on an airline is broken from the moment you enter an airport to the moment you come out the other side. Hopefully, we can get that right so that disabled travellers can experience a seamless journey. 

Chris Wood MBE, Aviation Accessibility Consultant at Flying Disabled

SF: How did you get to where you are now? 

CW: Trying to get an electric mobility device into an aircraft environment is not easy but we’ve got the right people to do it. As I’ve gone along on this journey, no one’s ever told me it can’t be done. 

Sunrise Medical Group, one of the biggest wheelchair manufacturers in the world, have been with me from the very beginning. They are very much part of what we’re doing.  

I worked in conjunction with the industrial designer Paul Priestman, of PriestmanGoode, and Nigel Smith, from SWS Certification Services, to design Air4All – a design that will allow power wheelchair users the ability to travel by air in their own postural bespoke chairs.

With both SWS and PristmanGoode, I was simply standing on the shoulders of giants. Air4All brings a credible solution to the aviation industry. Nothing compares to this for two reasons, the way we’ve done it, and secondly, the team behind it is very credible. And I think that’s crucial. It’s PriestmanGoode and SWS Certification and now Delta Flight Products. We’ve got a recipe that’s been made by proper chefs. 

We have solutions in the pipeline to fit different LOPA’s [Layers of Protection Analysis] and configurations, so as we move forward, organically we will grow to different areas of the aircraft. 

All aircraft seating has to go through certification. The seat itself is a fairly standard route, it’s the interaction with the chair that is crucial, we will be the first to do this – it’s like a modern-day moonshot.  

The wheelchair sits on a plinth or a palette whilst the seat is flipped up. Importantly, that means airlines do not lose a passenger space.

Seating at Delta Inflight Products stand during AIX. (Photo: Delta Inflight Products.)
Seating at Delta Flight Products stand during AIX. (Photo: Delta Flight Products.)

SF: Can Air4All users move about in the cabin, for example, to use the bathroom? 

CW: You have to think about toilets differently. My son will never use an onboard toilet. He has a catheter and hasn’t got the muscle strength or upper core body strength to hold himself on a toilet. For the sizable demographic who share that experience, it’s crucial to have a dignified journey.  

We’ve cracked the hardest nut – single-aisle aircraft such as the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737. Now we can take it onto the widebodies, which have got a lot more room. I think that’s easier than scaling down.  

SF: Can you outline the nature of the agreement between Air4All Systems and Delta Flight Products and how it came about? 

CW: Air4All worked on the concept. We have an animation of a wheelchair being secured online.

We were going to do a press release and send it out to every stakeholder when a friend of mine came in and said, “Chris, don’t do that, go and see Delta Fight Products, they are keen on innovations around accessibility.”  

I made contact with Rick Salanitri at Delta Flight Products. Rick then introduced me to his chief engineer, Mitch. Mitch said, “This has me hook, line and sinker because it doesn’t lose a passenger space…We want to work with you on this.” 

I brought user-led experience, but Delta Flight Products have the capability to manufacture and roll out.

Seating that can be used in conjunction with a power wheelchair was showcased at AIX in Hamburg at the Delta Inflight Products stand. (Photo: Delta Inflight Products.)
Seating that can be used in conjunction with a power wheelchair was showcased at AIX in Hamburg at the Delta Flight Products stand. (Photo: Delta Flight Products.)

SF: What is the timescale for the implementation of Air4Allseats aboard aircraft? 

CW: We are looking at the first quarter of 2025, maybe earlier. We think that the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], the regulators in America, and the US DoT [Department of Transport] are looking to get this done earlier. 

Nobody has ever put a wheelchair on an airline. We’re the first to do this first. We are changing the landscape of air travel.  

SF: What can people expect, boarding an aircraft when your solution is present?  

CW: It looks like a regular seat. But a wheelchair user such as the late Stephen Hawking would drive on in his wheelchair. Depending on the configuration, the user will reverse into the front-row seat and be secured into position.

The seat can be used by an able-bodied passenger if no wheelchair is there. But a passenger in a motorised wheelchair can be secured. 

We have patented it for use on trains and buses but their rules are very different because they legislate for accessibility. You can’t introduce a new train without having wheelchair access. In air travel that isn’t needed. 

There is something called a WC19, which is a voluntary industry standard for designing and testing motorised wheelchairs. 

We’ve been talking to cabin crew, to get their feedback. The general consensus of opinion is that it will be great for passengers. Members of the cabin crew are not carers. They don’t want to see passengers sitting in pain. That tends to be what happens at present with the demographic whose lives we’re trying better during air travel.

A powered wheelchair in position. (Photo: Delta Flight Products.)
A powered wheelchair in position. (Photo: Delta Flight Products.)

SF: What feedback have you had from the target audience of people who use powered wheelchairs? 

CW: The feedback has been extremely positive.  

SF: Is there anything else that you would like to say in relation to what you’ve done? 

CW: Personally, it’s been a hell of a journey and a very expensive one. I’m 61 now and I have incredible people around me from all sectors of stakeholders and community, helping and pushing me along. There are lots of things going on. 

I believe that we’ll see Air4All seats in use aboard aircraft soon. I decided to go into the aviation industry to lobby around the world to make it happen. 

SF: How have your children reacted Air4All’s evolution? 

CW: They’re great. They’re very aware of what’s going on. I talk to them all the time about it. 

Whilst I’m looking at infrastructure and changing that journey, there are other people trying to change legislation. 

For accessibility in the United Kingdom, we have the Equality Act. If you go to the Equality Act, aviation is not covered. It’s replaced by regulation 1107/2006 of the European Parliament, which is totally different. And in America, they have the Air Carriers Access Act.  

We have something that’s not harmonized. It’s two different systems, yet travel between the UK and America is massive.  

In many respects, I think what we’re trying to work with as a disabled community is a broken system. It’s not the ground handlers. It’s not the people that have to lift passengers into seats. It’s not, in many respects, even an airline’s fault.  

The whole journey on an airline is broken from the moment you enter an airport to the moment you come out the other side. Hopefully, we can get that right so that disabled travellers can experience a seamless journey.