• Rehab Medical

Wheelchairs On Planes: Why Can't Passengers Use Their Own Onboard?

By Michael Schulson | NPR.org

When Shane Burcaw flies on an airplane, he brings along a customized gel cushion, a car seat and about 10 pieces of memory foam. The whole arsenal costs around $1,000, but for Burcaw it's a necessity.

The 27-year-old author and speaker — who, alongside his fiancée, Hannah Aylward, is one-half of the YouTube duo Squirmy and Grubs — has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects motor neurons and causes muscle wasting and weakness. The disorder contorted his limbs and he has used a wheelchair for mobility since he was 2 years old.

Today, he uses a motorized wheelchair custom-fitted to his diminutive, 65-pound frame, but to board an airplane, he is required to give it up. Instead, Aylward must carry Burcaw onto the plane, and from there, transfer him into a child's car seat, which provides limited support and does not fit his body (thus, the foam).

"When you hear about the injuries and the discomfort and the embarrassment that wheelchair users have faced when flying," Burcaw says, "it becomes pretty obvious that they're not being treated in a very humane way with these rules."

Indeed, regulations prohibit passengers from sitting in their own wheelchairs on planes. As a result, 29 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which dramatically increased American wheelchair users' access to buses, trains and other essential 21st century infrastructure, airplanes remain stubbornly inaccessible. For many wheelchair users, the experience of flying is stressful, painful and sometimes humiliating. For some, it is simply impossible.

Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, writer and public speaker, does deep-breathing exercises to manage her anxiety as airport staff takes her wheelchair away. She likens the experience to watching someone walk off with her legs. Things aren't much better onboard.

"Airplane seats are designed for the quote-unquote average person," Ladau says. "I'm nowhere near the quote-unquote average person." At 4 feet, 6 inches, she does not fit the seat easily. Her legs dangle. She cannot align her posture. "It's very uncomfortable," she says.

The explicit rationale behind the regulations involves safety. Last year, in response to questions about wheelchair access, a major airline industry group told Aviation Week that "aircraft seats are constructed to meet rigorous safety regulations that include survivability at several times the force of gravity. So at the present time, these certified aircraft seats are the only permissible seating for all passengers."

The group went on to explain that such certification is not imposed on other modes of transport. "This is why trains or buses, for instance," the group said, "can accommodate a wider range of options."

A complicated story for airlines

But a closer look at the history and science of airplane — and wheelchair — safety tells a more complicated story. It is true that airplane seats can withstand forces several times the force of gravity. But so can wheelchair restraint systems — and in many cases, they are tested to a more exacting standard than your typical airplane seat.

That discrepancy, along with a growing chorus of advocates arguing that the experiences of wheelchair users like Landau and Burcaw are unacceptable, has spurred a new push to finally make air travel more fair and accessible. Whether and how soon that might happen, however, is difficult to say.

The ADA, after all, specifically excludes air travel from the accommodations it prescribes for other forms of public transit. And in any event, carving out a place for wheelchairs on commercial aircraft depends on the same complex blend of economics, politics and physics that underlies every square inch of airplane design.

For disability advocates, however, change cannot come soon enough.

"You're basically giving disabled people yet another reason to feel like society wants us shut into our homes and doesn't want us going anywhere," says Ladau, adding: "It's time to quit shutting us out of such a ubiquitous mode of travel."

The compromise between safety and cost

Airplane safety standards have a long, fractious history in the United States. Those narrow, reclining seats have been subject to decades of fierce debate among industry players, regulatory bodies and experts in crash survivability, all arguing over what design, exactly, best balances the competing needs of cost, weight and safety.

Horrific crashes may capture the public imagination, but the majority of airplane accidents are, in fact, survivable.

"Most people think, 'If I'm in an airplane crash, I'm going to die.' And nothing could be further from the truth," says Dennis Shanahan, a surgeon, pilot and air crash survivability expert with decades of military and private sector experience. Shanahan estimates that 85% of crashes are "quite survivable," including crash landings, tarmac incidents and lower-speed crashes during takeoff and landing.

When a plane makes impact with the ground or the water, the curved aluminum alloy of the fuselage helps protect occupants from the blow. But the rapid deceleration also produces tremendous forces inside the plane, warping and tearing up seats, slinging loose luggage around the cabin, and throwing occupants forward, like so many eggs knocking together.

To limit that damage, in the 1950s regulators began requiring commercial airplanes to have seats that could withstand forces nine times greater than the force of gravity, or 9 Gs. But by the 1970s, the National Transportation Safety Board had begun to express concerns that these seats were performing poorly.

In 1987, Congress charged the Department of Transportation with exploring seat safety, and the next year, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule requiring all newly designed airplanes to incorporate 16 G seats. On top of that, the FAA floated two provisional rules — one that would require all newly manufactured planes, even using old designs, to use 16 G seats, and another requiring airlines to retrofit their existing planes with the upgraded seats.

The aviation industry responded with dismay, particularly around the perceived difficulty of meeting new head-impact safety standards. The new seats would also be more expensive and heavier to carry, increasing fuel costs in an industry that often runs on small profit margins. In the face of industry backlash, the FAA announced that it would delay the provisional rules.

To justify the safety benefits of 16 G seats, the FAA commissioned RGW Cherry & Associates, a British aerospace engineering consulting firm, to produce an independent estimate of whether or not 16 G seats would save many lives. The Cherry team did an exhaustive database search looking for serious crashes that had been deemed survivable and that involved U.S.-regulated planes lacking 16 G seats. The consultants identified 25 crashes to analyze between the years of 1984 and 1998.

Most of the requirements for an airline seat, in terms of its strength and crash response, are less stringent than for vehicle seats.

The resulting report, released in 2000, documents in forensic detail how seats buckled and warped under pressure, crushing passengers' legs and cracking their vertebrae. An upgrade to 16 G seats, the researchers estimated, would have saved between 41 and 83 lives and prevented between 34 and 97 serious injuries.

In delicate language, the FAA converted those lives saved and injuries averted into a dollar value and then balanced that final total against the cost of upgrading the country's aviation fleet with 16 G seats. The analysis came out in favor of an upgrade.

According to FAA records, industry leaders — especially Boeing — vigorously contested the findings. Representatives of Boeing argued that the cost-benefit analysis was inaccurate because plane travel had grown safer overall and that the Cherry report was mostly "guesswork." (Today, a post on the company's website lists 16 G seats among the safety features that define modern aviation.)