How Spirit Airlines Is Leading The Way With Narrowbody Wheelchair Access

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Flying as a wheelchair user can be a daunting proposition. While airlines are required to assist in making it possible to fly, it’s often not a pleasant process. Slings, hoists, and slide boards make the whole experience rather undignified, and all too often can end up with wheelchairs becoming damaged or broken, or even the passenger getting hurt. However, one low-cost airline is shaking up the status quo; here’s how Spirit is going further for its disabled passengers.

Spirit Airlines, Department of Transportation
Spirit Airlines is leading the way in air travel accessibility. Photo: Airbus

The low-cost leader in aircraft accessibility

During our chat for the Simple Flying podcast, my conversation with the CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), Dr. Joe Leader, turned to the low-cost market. In particular, we spoke about what’s going on at Spirit Airlines.

While we talked in some depth about Spirit’s innovative approach to the middle seat issue, Dr. Leader raised another interesting point about the low-cost airline. He told me,

“[Spirit] has done a great job… it has one of the largest fleets of single aisle wheelchair accessible aircraft.”

Spirit Airlines has some of the widest aisles on any narrowbody aircraft, making it far easier to enter the plane. And it’s not just getting the wheelchair onto the aircraft that is being actively solved by Spirit. The airline is the only major US carrier to have installed wheelchair accessible lavatories on board most of its aircraft. Joe explained to me,

“One of the innovations that the US congress was talking about with APEX and Spirit as well, was at the back of the aircraft where they two restrooms. The unit is a duo, so when there is an individual with a wheelchair, a divider simply comes down between the two cubicles.”

The Airbus Space-Flex lavatories

The bathroom arrangement on Spirit Airlines’ narrowbody aircraft uses a product from Airbus called the Space-Flex lavatory. Two bathrooms situated next door to each other are connected by a foldable divider, which can be removed so that a person in a wheelchair can use the bathroom. The additional space afforded by this modification makes it possible for a wheelchair user to safely transfer themselves from chair to toilet in privacy.

The Airbus Space-Flex bathrooms. Photo: Airbus

Speaking at a congressional hearing before members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Matt Klein, executive vice-president, and chief commercial officer at Spirit Airlines, spoke about his investment in wheelchair accessible bathrooms, saying,

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“Half of our fleet went through a retrofit in order to put [Space-Flex] lavs into the aircraft a few years ago; every new [aircraft] delivery has an accessible lavatory.”

It’s a proactive step on behalf of Spirit and not one that is supported by law. The Department of Transport requires one accessible lavatory on all new widebody aircraft, but there is no such requirement for single-aisle planes. According to APEX, just 4.5% of narrowbody planes in the US currently have wheelchair-accessible lavatories.

A movable divider can make the bathrooms much bigger. Photo: Airbus

With aircraft like the Airbus A321XLR set to stimulate the number of long haul narrowbody flights on offer, its crucial airlines embrace the need for accessible toilets to ensure flying remains open to all.

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Innovations on the horizon

Both Airbus and Boeing offer accessible lavatory options for their aircraft, and third party designers are offering up new ideas too. Acumen Design Associates and ST Engineering have jointly developed ACCESS, an expanding aircraft lavatory that promises to improve the single-aisle flying experience of passengers with reduced mobility.

ACCESS is an expanding lavatory for people with reduced mobility. Photo: Acumen Design Associates

Designer Ciara Crawford has come up with a similarly innovative solution, which she calls Row-1. This product is a uniquely designed wheelchair, created to allow the passenger to travel from check-in to plane and off again, all while staying in the same wheelchair. The chair clips safely into the front row of seats, removing the problem of transferring people with reduced mobility between their chair and the airplane seat.

Row-1 from Irish designer Ciara Crawford could make a more comfortable experience for disabled travelers. Photo: Ciara Crawford

Dr. Leader is encouraging of these types of advances in aircraft accessibility and thinks it’s a win-win for the airlines too. He said,

“I think that innovations like that, if you as an airline can do something inexpensively serves the most passengers possible … I think it’s a great forward step that doesn’t cost much money.”

What’s your experience of using a wheelchair on board a flight? Do these innovations give you encouragement for the future? Let us know in the comments.

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