Paralympian Outlines The Harsh Reality Of Flying With A Wheelchair

Across most of society, from shops to theaters, sports venues to restaurants, accessibility is guaranteed. Legislation means the pathway for wheelchair users gets easier with every passing year – except in aviation. Nico Langmann, a Paralympic athlete who recently returned from Tokyo, has shed some light on just how difficult it remains for a wheelchair user to travel in 2021.

Wheelchair aircraft flying travel
A professional wheelchair tennis player has revealed the harsh reality of traveling. Photo: Getty Images

Nico Langmann

Nico Langmann is a professional wheelchair tennis player from Austria. At 24 years of age, he is the Austrian number one in men’s wheelchair tennis, and has recently returned from his second Olympic Games in Tokyo. Born in Vienna, he has been playing competitive tennis from a young age, a career that frequently requires him to travel to tournaments all over the world.

Speaking on a panel to discuss accessibility in aviation at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) yesterday, Nico played down his experiences, saying,

“I’m probably the non-expert on this panel.”

Wheelchair aircraft flying travel
Nico takes around 60 flights a year to attend tennis tournaments. Photo: Getty Images

But Nico is an expert. Nico is a frequent flyer – often flying more than 60 times a year – who has to contend with all the trials that come with traveling as a wheelchair user. While the non-disabled are often the ones making the decisions about accessibility on aircraft and in airports, it is only the traveling disabled who can really give us the inside track on what the challenges are.

The problems begin at check-in

For travelers like Nico, the difficulties start when they get to the airport. While every airport is different, Nico has had plenty of less-than-optimal experiences in all his years of flying. He said,

“When you want to check in, you have to go to Special Assistance. That often takes way more time, way more effort … people treat you in a very weird way … I feel like the person who has to check me in gets like a small heart attack because they don’t know what to do with me.”

Wheelchair aircraft flying travel
Wheelchair users will often have a special route to check-in. Photo: Heathrow Airport

Forward-thinking airports like London Heathrow are taking bold steps to ensure disabled passengers can get the assistance that is right for them. Sara Marchant, Services Manager for Passengers Requiring Support at London Heathrow, explained that the important thing for airports is to give people a choice to ask for help, not to force help upon them. She said,

“Whatever we do, we try to put processes in place that help as many people as we possibly can, but firmly in the back of our mind is about giving people that choice whether they want to interact with somebody or whether they want to be independent.”

The toilet is a huge barrier

For many disabled passengers, the thought of trying to use the airplane toilet is enough to put them off traveling altogether. Speaking about his flight to Tokyo, Nico said,

“It was 12 hours in the plane. And as soon as you step into the plane, you give away your chair, and you give away all your flexibility and all your ability to move around by yourself. So then you depend on the crew to do basic stuff like going to the toilet. We [the Paralympic team] discussed it and thought, maybe if I don’t drink for a few hours before the plane takes off, then maybe I don’t even have to go to the toilet. One of us did it, and then he arrived with a bladder infection. Very bad.”

Suffering dehydration in a bid to avoid having to use the toilet is not uncommon in people with disabilities. Most widebody aircraft have a requirement to provide at least one accessible toilet, but even this is not usable without assistance. Cabin crew will need to help the person out of their aisle chair, and often use curtains to attempt to give the person some dignity. It’s not ideal.

Wheelchair aircraft flying travel
Widebody aircraft usually have an accessible toilet onboard, but narrowbodies rarely do. Photo: KLM

In narrowbody aircraft, there is no requirement (yet) for airlines to provide accessible lavatories. The DOT has been talking about it for some time, but nothing has been implemented yet. In the past, this was not such an issue, as single-aisle aircraft rarely flew for more than two to three hours. But now, with the rise in long-haul narrowbody flights, wheelchair users could well find themselves on an aircraft where it is literally impossible for them to get into the bathroom.

Wheelchair damage

Arriving at the other end of the journey, every wheelchair user has to hold their breath until their chair arrives in one piece. While the vast majority of wheelchairs do arrive unscathed, thousands every year become damaged in transit.

Airlines have been required to report wheelchair damage to the DOT since 2018. Since then, 15,425 wheelchairs or mobility scooters have been lost or damaged while in the care of the airline, airport, or ground handling company. Those figures would likely be much higher if the pandemic hadn’t grounded so many travelers in 2020.

“Every single wheelchair that breaks is one too many, because it just takes way all the independence of the person. At the Paralympics we had marvelous facilities for repairs, but on normal trips, there’s not a whole staff of repair men there.”

The ideal solution would be for the wheelchair user to not have to give away their chair at all. Various concepts have been floated in the past to allow wheelchair users to stay in their chair during a flight, ‘docking’ in some way with the seats in the passenger cabin. Until such cabin facilities become a reality, the next most attractive solution would be to bring the wheelchair on as hand baggage.

Paralympian Outlines The Harsh Reality Of Flying With A Wheelchair
Concepts to allow passengers to stay in their wheelchairs during the flight are yet to make it onto the plane. Photo: Ciara Crawford

“That would be the dream scenario,” said Nico. “I can take the wheels off my wheelchair immediately; I take it in my car every day. It’s my small passenger next to me, so it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Although wheelchairs do fold down small, at present, there is no airline allowing passengers to take them onboard as hand luggage. It would be an easy(ish) change to make, and one that could prevent the heartache of a person having their entire quality of life disrupted by a damaged chair.

Airport wheelchair
Airport wheelchairs often require the assistance of another person, making them an impractical replacement for a damaged personal chair. Photo: Getty Images

A missed opportunity

The World Health Organization estimates that around 75 million people need a wheelchair on a daily basis. That’s around 1% of the world’s population and twice the population of the whole of Canada. According to a report published in Disability Horizons, 43% of wheelchair users who had previously flown are now choosing not to fly anymore because of the challenges they face.

Of those who had previously flown but had decided to stop, 56% were worried about using the restroom. 49% feared their wheelchair would be lost or damaged, while 46% said they suffered a personal injury or other unpleasant experience while being transferred. More than half of these people used to fly between one and five times per year.

Airport wheelchair
Good work is being done to make flying accessible to all, but there’s still a long way to go. Photo: Lufthansa

While the market is not huge, there is a clear missed opportunity for airlines in not providing better means of transport for this section of society. Profits aside, being able to travel is a basic human right, and it is the responsibility of the aviation industry to step up and make it easy for everyone to enjoy freedom of movement. Nico summed it up, saying,

“Every travel, every journey you take that makes it less comfortable, that makes it less enjoyable, it makes it for some people not worth the effort to take the journey at all. They’d rather use another form of travel or not travel at all.”

While some aviation businesses are making great strides in creating an accessible environment for all, the industry still has a very long way to go.