Handling of Passengers with Reduced Mobility

Air New Zealand has created new procedures.


The Vancouver Paralympics are in full swing. I admit to be a sports nut and will watch just about any sports ā€” hey, this is without doubt awesome; some of the most impressive performances I have ever witnessed.

As you read this the medals will have been won, the personal bests recorded and new benchmarks set ready for next time. The athletes will by now be home and enjoying good memories, win lose or draw.

The airlines, airports and support crews can take a bow. They played a vital part in getting the athletes, support teams and equipment to Vancouver and back again.

No medals but appreciation Iā€™m sure for the effort, along with the ground transportation crew, accommodation and catering staffs that were involved.

For the record, 650 athletes participated from 45 nations ā€” another record.

In the business end of providing a service to disabled passengers, sports people are usually the least of our problem. Generally they are fit, willing and able to offer assistance to airline personnel and they are frequent travellers; they know the routine.

At the other end of the spectrum ā€” passengers with severe mobility problems, often elderly perhaps heavy and not in very good health represent a challenge. They must be treated with respect and dignity on their journey but the reality is that air travel is not always a good experience.

Someone reading this will have the statistics but anyone who spend their days at an airport knows that the numbers have increased over the years, particularly passengers accompanied by a nurse or carer, assisted with an IV or oxygen device.

Some low-cost carriers have pricing policies that discourage passengers with any special handling needs, while still keeping just inside the legislative envelope that prohibits discrimination.

For the airlines that have been around awhile and are geared to handle disabled passengers, it is often left to the more senior service agents to drive the electric carts or push the wheelchair the length of the terminal, negotiating security and customs before finally arriving at the gate and calling on the aid of other staff to get the passenger onboard and seated. Where there is no aerobridge this will involve a mechanical lifting hoist ride through the catering door, usually in the rain and wind.

That is all replayed on arrival at the other end.

There has to be a better way. Everyone knows that but over decades the airline manufacturers, ground handling designers and airlines have only ever tweaked around the edges.

In the meantime the incidence of manual handling injury has increased, passenger complaints have been ignored and the effort of the advocacy groups, who have made constructive suggestions, put in the too-hard basket again.

Enter Air New Zealand
Early in 2008 Air New Zealand commissioned an independent review of the disabled passenger handling processes and procedures. Subsequent to the review, an internal steering group was established consisting of senior managers from across the business and sponsored by the group general manager of the international airline. The steering group considered the disabled passenger experience end-to-end and opportunities for improving handling procedures, assistive equipment and staff training.

For Air New Zealand the Pacific route to the West Coast has long been a flagship.

Upgraded regulations implemented by the United States Dept. of Transportation relating to nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel were imminent and these were taken into consideration. In addition, the handling of disabled passengers was an important consideration with the imminent introduction of the new B777-300 fleet.

The airline identified staff manual handling tasks associated with boarding and deplaning of physically disabled passengers as a significant risk. Check-in service agents, ground handlers and cabin crew were all represented in the incident reporting process. The incident numbers were not significant, but risks were clearly identified.

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