Disabled travellers - a guide for airline operators
This information has been adapted from a presentation by Jane Buckley - Director of medical services, Australian Paralympic Team.
Disabled passengers have different needs to the 'average' traveller. The result could easily be a journey which is stressful for all concerned. It can also be a trip that is rewarding for staff, relaxing for the passengers concerned and enhances the airline's image for all those involved. The difference is mostly in the preparation.
If a passenger is travelling independently, allow them to tell you how it is best to assist them. There are several different ways of helping. Passengers may just want assistance with moving their legs during a transfer from their wheelchair to their seat. Lifting can be quite dangerous if done incorrectly.
When dealing with disabled people, airline staff need to be aware that some disabilities are not obvious. Patronising or speaking louder is not appreciated. The majority are not deaf or stupid. People with disabilities are becoming more aware of their rights.
Booking the flight and checking in
Emphasise to passengers that they should get there early. Inform them about baggage allowances. It may be necessary to ask groups such as athletes to deliver excess baggage early to ensure it is ready for them at their destination.
There are regulations in force under national and international laws governing the carriage of dangerous goods by passengers.
Identify any specific needs well in advance of check-in. Passengers with severe disabilities should be accompanied by their own carer or assistant. Large groups will need co-ordinated planning by the airline and group organisers.
Passengers should be able to take their own wheelchairs to the gate. They should not be expected to surrender their chair at check in and have it substituted with an uncomfortable and often dangerous chair until they board the plane. Its a bit like expecting an able bodied person to surrender their legs until their journey was over. As well as being uncomfortable and inconvenient, it makes it difficult to do last minute things like shopping and going to the toilet.
Passengers like wheelchair athletes will have multiple wheelchairs. Their 'day chair' should be taken to the gate, tagged appropriately, and available at the gate on arrival at their destination. Day chairs belonging to passengers should NEVER be offloaded as excess baggage. Many "ambulant" passengers also use day chairs.
Battery-powered wheelchairs and mobility aids
For reasons of safety the carriage by airlines of battery-powered wheelchairs and mobility aids is regulated under national and international laws.
In general terms, Civil Aviation Regulation (1988) 256A (1) provides for the operator of an aircraft to permit a dog to be carried, in an aircraft cabin, providing the dog is assisting a person who is visually or hearing impaired. CASA may issue permission for the carriage of an animal (dog) assisting a person, who is other than visually or hearing impaired, on a case by case basis.
Experienced travellers will have made arrangements for the physical aspects of boarding. Less experienced passengers will let the airline staff do the work. Cabin crew need to be familiar with the use of an aisle chair.
Take care when assisting. Ensure the passenger is lifted well clear of the armrests. Knocking them against the armrests can cause pressure areas.
Pressure area management is usually unique to paraplegics and tetraplegics. These passengers may want to sit on their own pressure relieving cushions. These should be kept with the passengers at all times, as they can be easily lost.
The safety regulations insist that, if there are variations to the safety instructions due to the carriage of disabled passengers, they must be clearly outlined. How can carers or assistants help in an emergency if they haven't been briefed? This may be something that can be covered in pre-flight discussions.
During the flight
Ensure the aisle chair is available during every flight. It is inconvenient for all concerned if carers or assistants need to contact cabin crew every time one is needed.
Passengers may remove their legs during the flight for comfort, providing their remaining leg stump doesn't swell excessively. Some will choose not to use an aisle chair and will want the independence of getting around themselves. They will 'bum' their way along the aisle. Others will use a skateboard.
Not having the aisle chair available during a flight and refusing to help a passenger to the toilet is a denial of their rights. The passenger is probably capable of transferring themselves from the aisle chair to the toilet independently, but may need someone to push them to and from the toilet.
A person with a visual impairment can be assisted with a simple explanation of where the food is on the plate. Directions are given like a clockface (eg at 12 o'clock is the salad, it has a dressing in a sealed package which I have placed on top of it for you if you would like it, at 6 o'clock is your main meal, etc). Severely disabled will need to be fed by their carer or assitant.
Accessible toilets makes life easier for passengers with disabilities. When transporting large groups of travellers with disabilities consider reserving one solely for their use.
Many years ago airlines would insist on all passengers requiring assistance at toilet time have an indwelling catheter. This is uncomfortable, increases bladder infections, and disturbs the trained regimen of the bladder. Bladder infections develop if the bladder is not emptied regularly. However, some passengers with high needs are still managed like this.
Passengers with bowel control problems will plan carefully around a longhaul flight and regulate their bowels so that they do not move during a flight.
Passengers should be allowed to manage their bladder and bowel as is best for them.
Guide dogs are given medication to stop them urinating during a flight.
The first toilet cleaned during a stopover should be the one accessed by the disabled passengers. This allows those remaining on the plane to have ongoing access. Keep a supply of water for the passengers during the stopover if they are confined to the plane.
Even though many wheelchair passengers may not walk, they enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs. Where possible, please allow them to do this.
It is important to have the passengers personal day wheelchair at the gate for arrival. It isn't unheard of for passengers to refuse to disembark until their chair was brought up. An inconvenience for who?
Travelling in groups
Encourage group bookings to arrange a seating plan. Endeavour to keep the group together where possible. This will give the passengers easy access to their carers, and vice versa.
It is easier for these passengers to be the first on and the last off. By doing this settling issues of where people's gear is and what they need to access can be sorted out while other passengers are boarding.
It has been suggested that the best seats for a group of passengers with disabilities is at the rear of the plane. They could have potential exclusive use of the back toilets. Larger groups they will have access to their own "emergency exit".
In the unlikely event of an emergency a chaotic situation is likely to develop if careful consideration isn't given to where large groups of travellers with disabilities are seated.
Carers and assistants
Carers and assistants usually have a high workload during a flight, especially if they are caring for more than one passenger. Cabin crew can assist by being considerate of their needs as well (eg. their meals may need reheating).