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If you've flown with a power mobility product, you know that there's some risk to your equipment. That is, handing your power wheelchair over to airline personnel for stowage can be a bit like a child's Easy-Bake Oven - what goes in may not be what comes out.

However, while we often hear consumer horror stories of mishandled or damaged power wheelchairs by seemingly careless airlines, we never hear the airlines' side of the story. And, it turns out that it's an intriguing story, indeed, as I recently learned via a stakeholders' meeting regarding airline transport of mobility products.

Designed for Baggage, Not Wheelchairs
The fact is, most commercial planes were designed well before the Americans with Disabilities Act - with many still in the air today that were literally flying before the ADA - with no provisions built-in to transport a power wheelchair. Cargo loading and stowage was designed around suitcases, not wheelchairs, resulting in narrow conveyor belts for loading, and cargo door openings as low as 34". What's more, there's no designated space or securement method for power wheelchairs within cargo compartments. And, on small, regional jets, the interior of the cargo compartment can be lower in height than the door opening, making it extremely difficult to stow a power wheelchair.

As a result, ground crews often must get creative, doing what they can to make a square peg fit in a round hole, so to speak. For example, if a power wheelchair exceeds the height needed to fit in a 34" cargo door opening, it must be laid on its side for clearance (most power wheelchairs are 23" to 28" tall when on their side, so they're substantially lower than when upright). Similarly, in cramped cargo holes, a power wheelchair may need to be transported on its side, as well. This may sound alarming to consumers, but it's often the only solution for transport if a power wheelchair is too tall.

Everyone Can't Know Everything
With countless power wheelchair models rolling around - and aspects like free-wheel releases vital to airline transport varying widely - it's impossible for everyone to know everything about every power wheelchair passing through the airport. What's more, the ground crew that loads a power wheelchair at one airport has no contact with the crew at the destination airport. Therefore, there's an obvious gap in knowledge as to what may have been done to the power wheelchair in preparation for stowage. In these ways, as well-meaning as airline ground crews are, they're still working with unfamiliar products, with no shared knowledge - and that leads to issues for everyone. Truly, those who load power wheelchairs are baggage handlers trying to make the best of loading, stowing, and unloading an unfamiliar device (and, by manually lifting heavy power wheelchairs, they're often violating OSHA regulations - yet they still do it). Under these circumstances, it's seen how easily components can get lost or accidentally damaged.

Airport Logistics
Just as airplanes weren't designed for wheelchair transport, neither were most major airports. To get a gate-checked power wheelchair from the boarded passenger, down to the tarmac for stowage, takes an average of 25-minutes at the major airports. The power wheelchair must be pushed (or driven), by a ground crew member up the jetway, through the terminal, to a service elevator, and back to the plane on the tarmac for stowing. Most major airports don't have terminal-to-tarmac elevators, so the route required to get a power wheelchair from the plane's entrance, down to the tarmac, is often quite long. The reverse process must be followed when landing, which explains why it can take so long to get one's wheelchair back after landing.

Making the Skies More Friendly
As expressed by the airlines, there are steps that both mobility product manufacturers and consumers can take to ensure power wheelchairs are made friendlier for flying. Clearly-marked free-wheel levers allow the ground crew to recognize how to disengage and brake the power wheelchair (and bright yellow levers have been becoming the industry standard). A folding backrest that lowers the power wheelchair's height to less than 34" allows it to fit in virtually all cargo door openings, without tipping the power wheelchair on its side. And, removing protruding components like legrests can reduce the likelihood of damage. These three steps alone, according to the airlines, can dramatically improve airline transport, ultimately benefiting all involved.

Behind the Curtain
Surely, when we roll up to board an airplane, all appears polished and composed, from sharply-dressed stewardesses to spotless cabins. However, behind the scenes, it's an all-out race to get the plane loaded and in the air as quickly as possible - and a power wheelchair adds to that process. The fact is, airplanes weren't designed to transport power wheelchairs, nor were baggage-handling procedures designed to load them. Yet, the airline industry, as well as power wheelchair manufacturers, have been making the best of a challenging circumstance, improvising protocols and optimizing products to make
transporting power wheelchairs as foolproof as possible - but it's still a work in progress.

Published 9/2011, Copyright 2011, WheelchairJunkie.com