If I had the opportunity to design an airplane, I would make extensive use of existing features, but I would also make one major change. My airplane could be boarded while remaining in one’s own wheelchair. Inconspicuously and conveniently with no fuss, just like other passengers. The standard airplane seat would be removed and my own powered wheelchair could be firmly tethered to the floor in its place. I’d happily sit there, even on a long flight, in a chair customised for my body and its peculiarities, sipping some bubbly beverages and blueberry juice. There would be a lavatory nearby, large enough to allow me to enter it in my wheelchair, as many times as necessary during the flight.
Unfortunately, reality is a long way from this dream, and undoubtedly there are many regulations that place restrictions on aircraft design. Nevertheless, facilitating air travel for people with reduced mobility is always a timely issue. Special needs must be taken into consideration in every step of the service chain, both on the ground and in the air.
I returned home from my accessible round-the-world trip on a Finnair A350 aircraft and I was particularly pleased by the fact that my wonderful journey remained enjoyable all the way to Helsinki Airport. It turns out that the new airplane has many of the same elements as the airplane of my dreams. While my own powered wheelchair could not be brought into the cabin—as usual, it was directed to the cargo hold at check-in—my manual wheelchair made it all the way to the door of the airplane. There, I was lifted into a narrow aisle wheelchair by the helpful staff of Bangkok Airport and wheeled to my seat inside the plane. An airplane seat can never be as comfortable as my own wheelchair, but these seats were pretty good. Blankets and pillows always help me get propped up in my seat, and there was a good amount of such support available in addition to the ones I brought on board myself. The armrests were effortless to raise, which made it much easier to lift me into the seat. The cabin was bright and spacious. The superior air quality of the A350 is a big plus for all passengers, and for those of us who have lower lung capacity due to a medical condition, the difference is quite significant.
During the long flight, I enjoyed the personal inflight entertainment system and its new functions, such as the good external cameras. The timeline that presents information on inflight services made it easy for me to plan my time on board. The best thing of all was that I could use the airplane lavatory for the first time in my entire life! The A350 has one larger lavatory created by removing a partition wall between two adjacent standard lavatories. This special lavatory was very close to our seats in row 32. As on all of Finnair’s long-haul aircraft, there was a foldable aisle wheelchair on board. The friendly cabin crew prepared the lavatory for me and brought me the aisle wheelchair. However, the crew can’t assist passengers in moving from the seat to the lavatory. You need your own helpers for that. Even the larger lavatory isn’t exactly spacious, and it’s no match to an accessible restroom on the ground, but it represented a good solution compared to many other onboard lavatories. It doesn’t suit everyone, but it is a major improvement for many. I love blueberry juice and it was amazing to be able to enjoy several servings instead of the usual half glass.
For people with reduced mobility, air travel is certain to always involve a bit of extra fuss and often some discomfort, and I don’t expect all of it to be eliminated any time soon. Nevertheless, with the small improvements in the new aircraft and crew who are good at recognising special needs, the travel experience can be made more comfortable. Safety regulations also influence the flight of a passenger with reduced mobility; for example, with regard to seat selection. The general rule is that people with reduced mobility are assigned a window seat. Being assigned a non-window seat is possible on a case-by-case basis, particularly if the passengers in the adjacent seats are in the same party. Passengers with reduced mobility can never be seated next to the emergency exits, even though the added space would often make things more comfortable. However, the Economy Comfort seats in the A350 feature extra legroom and can be assigned to passengers with reduced mobility. Naturally, there’s even more space in Business class. Passengers who require a certain kind of seat, such as one located in the vicinity of the larger lavatory I mentioned, are advised to contact Finnair’s customer service when booking their flight.
In my experience, the best way to deal with the inconveniences and potential discomfort is to think about your destination. Having the opportunity to travel is definitely worth all the inconvenience and anxiety. With that in mind, I am already planning my next trip. Near or far, my round-the-world trip proved that I can get by anywhere if I just put my mind to it.