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Why everyone seems to be doing wheelies 30,000ft aloft

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWheelchairs may be causing flight delays as more passengers book them to fast-track immigration and security. What are the airline regulations?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Future of wheelchairs aloft?

Wheelchairs are becoming more sophisticated, electric, and faster. Are there too many aloft and are they slowing ontime departures? Airline regulations for assisted devices in-flight.

ARE wheelchairs jamming up boarding procedures and delaying flights as more and more passengers use them to fast-track immigration and security? We certainly see a lot more people being wheeled about airports and this must be applauded. The elderly and the disabled need to travel without fear, head held high.

Yet there are more and more instances of travellers who avail of the service simply to get wheeled through the formalities without the usual tedium. The wheelie also allows for a lot more impedimenta as the individual is not physically carting it all to some distant departure gate.

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I once ran into a friend at Singapore’s Changi Airport, hand held aloft bearing a magnificent cast. I commiserated and he embarrassedly pushed me away, trying not to draw too much attention. The reason for this became clear 30 minutes later when I spotted him in the loo, relaxed and chatty. The cast was gone. “It didn’t work man!” he sighed, with a broad grin. He had been trying to wangle a seat upgrade along with some extra baggage allowance. Singapore Airlines was having none of it. The fancy cast and sling had to go.

Heading to my boarding gate recently for a Cathay Pacific flight Hong Kong to Bangkok I spotted at least three disabled travellers merrily trundling themselves along on electric vehicles. It was good to see them enjoying their mobility and independence. Their svelte transports were later folded up and stowed in the cabin. While all this was time consuming, throughout the entire process airline staff was courteous and efficient. No passengers complained. This is how it should be done.

{at Heathrow one in five passengers sampled said they had booked a wheelchair because they "needed help" with bags and airport navigation...

What is the level of wheelchair misuse at airports? Travel access advocate Reduced Mobility Rights Ltd points to a 2019 survey by Heathrow of wheelchair users where one in five passengers sampled said they had booked a wheelchair not on account of a disability but “because they needed help carrying their bags or needed help to navigate the airport environment (lack of familiarity or illiteracy).” The volume of usage had caused a backlog stranding several genuinely disabled passengers.

On a flight to Goa, I saw the lame and the crippled — who had held up boarding interminably — miraculously cured upon arrival. They bounded off leaving astounded passengers and their wheelchair assistants behind. Hallelujah!

To be fair, passengers with mobility issues do receive more than their fair share of brickbats as they navigate tough situations. In August 2022, British airline Jet2 apologised for humiliating a disabled passenger after the pilot made repeated announcements of delays due to her wheelchair. This is not an isolated incident. In March 2024, Air New Zealand offloaded two wheelchair passengers for being “too large” for their seats with a loudspeaker announcement asking all passengers to disembark due to an “inconvenience”. In May 2023, Ryanair encouraged a disabled passenger to “crawl off” the plane at a Swedish airport as assistance was not readily available.

So do wheelchairs cause delays? Yes and no. Airlines are in the habit of padding their ‘block’ times to allow for air traffic control and chocks-off pushback issues, redrawn flight paths, late cargo loading and boarding hold-ups. These hugely misleading times (shown on your e-ticket) create a false impression of punctuality at the other end. This practice is both inaccurate and encourages lazy habits.

Flights Hong Kong to New Delhi listed as a six-and-a-half-hour duration often conclude in five hours or less while flights in the reverse direction (availing of the jet stream) arrive in four hours. Longer routes flying eastwards have greater variation in scheduled times. This makes a mockery of ticketed flying times.

Airlines also like to play around with the normal on-time allowance of 15 minutes, often extending this to 20 or 30 minutes, in order to rate high on punctuality charts. Wheedling wheelchair delays out of this fake algorithmic stew is well-nigh impossible though airports are starting to take note.

How do major airlines operating to Asia handle wheelchair passengers and what regulations apply?

The US Department of Transportation guidelines for assistive devices suggests battery powered devices may need to go in the cargo hold. Manual devices must follow the airline requirements and some collapsible items may be stored in the aircraft cabin.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific has a clear wheelchair manual for check-in and cabin stowage for collapsible devices. As with most international airlines, there is a smaller inflight wheelchair for toilet assistance and some private wheelchairs may be stowed onboard subject to space on a first come first served basis.

Similarly, Emirates accessibility policies allow passengers to take collapsible manual wheelchairs onboard depending on size and cabin storage space.

Singapore Airlines wheelchair regulations state there are “no free baggage allowance perks and no onboard assistance devices” (like manual or electric wheelchairs and scooters). The airline requires all such items to be checked into the cargo hold.

The THAI Airways International onboard wheelchair guidelines for disabled passengers say that manual wheelchairs are provided onboard by the airline but larger personal and electronic wheelchairs must be checked into the hold and “may require authorisation” by the airline.

Handling wheelchairs and overhead bins requires heft and reach. Recent flying experiences in Asia seem to point to shorter staff and higher stowage as on the A350-900 where I saw CX cabin crew standing on tippy-toes trying to deal with overloaded bins. Are you spotting this too?

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