James Fremantle, speaking on behalf of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, joined the debate over provision of on-board wheelchairs on UK airlines.
The CAA's senior Consumer Policy adviser shares the UK regulator's position on provision of on-board aisle chairs; the Civil Aviation Authority view is that “airlines should consider very carefully how they can modify their operation to enable on-board wheelchairs to be made available to passengers with physical limitations in flight.”
Specially designed wheelchairs capable of fitting down the narrow aisles of the airplane, on-board wheelchairs are assistive devices used to help people with mobility limitations enplane, deplane, and move about the aircraft cabin.
"Regulation (EC)1107/2006 is very clear in the issue of assistance on board aircraft. Air carriers need to provide assistance to passengers in moving to toilet facilities if required," EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told Reduced Mobility Rights last December. "In order to comply with these requirements and notably to avoid lifting the passenger manually, the use of on board wheelchairs is a recommended practice where this is possible."
However, the European Commission recommendation over on-board wheelchairs is not legally binding. A survey of UK and Irish airlines conducted on 16 January found that only four out of 11 offer on-board wheelchairs, while one offers them on request and subject to availability.
"The CAA is aware that a minority of UK airlines do not have on-board wheelchairs on their aircraft. We also know that these airlines have concerns about asking their crew to assist in lifting passengers, both in regard to the safety of their crew but also the passengers themselves," James Fremantle said. "Indeed, we consider that, even if crew help passengers up from their seats, there are a number of other potentially insurmountable obstacles to a crew member being able to help a PRM to move to the toilet; for example the confined space onboard aircraft, notably the width of the aisle and confined space around the toilet area. In addition, there is the potentially undignified (for all involved) spectacle of crew attempting to provide such assistance."
The Department for Transport Code of Practice on access to air travel for disabled persons and those with reduced mobility and European Commission Interpretative guidelines on Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 suggest that providing assistance without the use of an on-board wheelchair should be avoided unless airlines are able to overcome inherent health and safety concerns.
“The CAA's view is that Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 requires airlines to provide some form of assistance to help PRMs to and from the toilet; to do nothing would put an airline in non-compliance with the regulation and risk potential follow up action from the CAA. What this means in practice is that airlines either have to provide on-board wheelchairs (which is largely, but not solely, an issue of cost) or that their staff have to assist passengers manually (where the risks are related more to health and safety and the well-being of staff and passengers),” Fremantle explained. “The CAA does not see non-compliance with this provision as an option for airlines.”
The debate over provision of onboard wheelchairs will be gaining further momentum next week when the Scottish parliament debate the motion of Neil Findlay MSP (see motion here).