Disabled passengers say they want to stay in wheelchairs on flights

When James Glasbergen boarded an Air Transat flight from Toronto to London on June 30, he was thrilled to begin his journey to see the Rolling Stones perform live in Europe.

What the 46-year-old quadriplegic man from Kitchener, Ont., wasn’t looking forward to was getting out of his custom-made electric wheelchair and into an airplane seat, as required. federal law.

His concerns proved justified after airline staff helping transfer Glasbergen to his seat dropped him in the aisle, sparking a more than three minutes of struggling to lift the 200+ pound man off the ground and back to his feet.

“There wasn’t enough room for them to fit me in the seat, and they dropped me,” said Glasbergen, a former travel agent who is paralyzed from the chest down due to injuries he sustained. in a car accident in 1992.

“All of a sudden, my body hit the ground with a loud thud.”

A video Glasbergen posted to YouTube captured the moments right after he fell. It shows him wedged between the seat and a wheelchair as two men struggle to lift him over an armrest and into a seat.

WATCH | Glasbergen’s struggle to sit down:

Paralyzed passenger abandoned by airline staff while being transferred from a wheelchair to a seat

James Glasbergen, who is paralyzed from the chest down, was dropped off by airline staff who were helping him transfer from a wheelchair to an airplane seat on an Air Transat flight to Toronto on 30 June.

After two failed attempts, a flight attendant and another passenger step in to help and the group manages to get him to sit down.

“It went beyond frustration and shock. Now I’m just angry,” Glasbergen said, adding it wasn’t the first time he’d been let down.

“There is absolutely no dignity for people with disabilities who need help getting around.”

Glasbergen is calling on airlines and regulators to find a way to allow wheelchair users to remain seated in their personal mobility devices when traveling, as they can on buses and trains.

Between hassles, potential injuries and damage to wheelchairs stowed next to luggage, people who rely on wheelchairs to get around, advocates and the US Secretary of Transportation, say it’s time to make road trips back aircraft more accessible so people with disabilities have a more equitable flight experience.

“If they can figure out how to fly a helicopter on Mars, they can figure out how to get wheelchair users to sit in their wheelchairs safely,” Glasbergen said.

“It’s not something that’s going to take weeks or days because obviously some reconfiguration of the cabin might have to be done… I just want to see progress.”

Transfer problems, damaged wheelchairs

In an email statement to CBC Toronto, Air Transat apologized and said it was in touch with Glasbergen to discuss how to improve future travel experiences.

“Field transfer services are operated by a third-party contractor and we are actively investigating this incident to prevent it from happening again,” spokeswoman Marie-Christine Pouliot wrote.

Toronto resident Melissa Graham, who lives with a motor disability, says sitting in an airplane seat is hard on her body.

But the negative experiences passengers like Graham and Glasbergen face when flying go beyond being forced to sit in a seat.

Graham says her wheelchair was damaged twice on the same WestJet trip from Toronto to Winnipeg over Canada Day weekend.

A smiling woman is sitting in a wheelchair
Toronto resident Melissa Graham says flying is a stressful experience for her because she has to leave the comfort of her wheelchair and sit in an airplane seat, but also because her wheelchair has been damaged several times in the past. (Submitted by Erin Panjer)

According to Graham, she noticed upon arriving in Winnipeg that one of the mud flaps that covered the wheels of her electric wheelchair had broken off, while the backrest she leans on for support and balance was damaged on return flight.

WestJet confirmed Graham had an “open claim” for damages, saying her service provider would contact her to resolve it.

“It’s incredibly frustrating. It makes flying in general very stressful,” Graham said.

“I’ve flown six times since last December, and haven’t had a single flight where I felt completely comfortable.”

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), the federal air travel regulator, says it has received 247 complaints related to aerial wheelchair accessibility over the past five years. Eighteen involved damage to wheelchairs, while 214 involved assistance to wheelchairs.

But this data only includes complaints made to the regulator and not those where a passenger has dealt directly with an airline.

Although data specific to Canada is not available, the largest airlines in the United States lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters between the end of 2018 and June 2021, according to the Washington Post. reported last yearciting data from the US Department of Transportation.

Two close-ups, side by side, of damaged parts of an electric wheelchair.
Graham says the mud flap on his wheelchair broke on a WestJet flight from Toronto to Winnipeg earlier this summer, while the backrest was damaged on the flight home. (Submitted by Melissa Graham)

Aviation safety standards

For safety reasons, federal regulations currently require passengers in wheelchairs to sit in airplane seats, and most mobility devices must be stowed in the cargo hold with travelers’ baggage.

Regulations require airlines to ensure that properly trained staff perform wheelchair transfers and reimburse passengers for the cost of repairing or replacing mobility devices damaged in transit.

According to the CTA, no aircraft or mobility aid design that would allow people to remain in their wheelchairs has been fully tested and certified to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aviation safety standards. United States – which Canada follows.

“If wheelchairs and a wheelchair restraint system for use in the cabin were to receive certification, we would consider whether a regulatory change is appropriate,” the CTA said in a statement.

A man speaks at a desk, flanked by aides.
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, pictured here in May, said his department was working on a rule that would allow wheelchair users to remain in their wheelchairs while flying. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Progress in the United States

Movement on the issue may soon come from south of the border.

Just last week, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department was working on a rule “in the coming months and years” that would allow passengers to remain in their wheelchairs during their flight.

“We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something we have to work towards,” Buttigieg said at an event on Tuesday.

Last September, a committee of experts convened by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the United States concluded a preliminary study in systems that use straps similar to a seat belt or other mechanism to secure a wheelchair to the floor of an aircraft.

He found that most airliners in service have a main gate wide enough for most personal wheelchairs, and that the interiors of the most common models – the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 – do not would require only “modest” modifications to create an area where a wheelchair could be secured.

“The committee did not identify any issues,” the study says, which “call into question the technical feasibility of an in-cabin wheelchair securing system.”

The CTA says it is aware of the study and is monitoring the matter, but further research is needed.

Michele Erwin, founder and president of Texas-based nonprofit All Wheels Up, said her organization is working with the airline industry and the US government to prove that wheelchairs and wheelchair systems current market lashing can meet the same safety standards. as airplane seats.

Erwin said All Wheels Up conducted initial crash tests of various wheelchair restraint systems manufactured by Q’Straint, a leading manufacturer of wheelchair restraint systems for motor vehicles and trains, which all succeeded.

“What we learned from our crash tests is that a wheelchair space is technically feasible,” Erwin said.

In the wake of the TRB study, Erwin said the airline industry has been developing wheelchair seating concepts, some of which include a replaceable seat in the front row of an aircraft that can be removed and repositioned. seat depending on whether a passenger on the flight requires wheelchair accommodation.

For wheelchair users like Glasbergen, turning concepts into reality can’t come soon enough.

“It’s no longer enough to say it’s a security issue,” he said.

“Things have to change – it’s 2022.”

A close up of a woman in a home office.
Michele Erwin, founder and president of Texas-based nonprofit All Wheels Up, says her organization has crash-tested wheelchairs and tie-down systems in a bid to prove they can respond US aviation safety standards. (Radio Canada)

Comments are closed.