Management took up the committee recommendations. These included design and engineering solutions, and process changes supported by new equipment and staff retraining — a major undertaking.
New equipment included power-driven wheelchairs at all major domestic airports. Two types, one for general terminal use and another narrow model that could be used as a boarding chair.
The design included a new on-board wheelchair to facilitate a level transfer from chair to chair and from chair to the cabin seat. Lifting had just been eliminated. A local New Zealand wheelchair manufacturer was assigned the task of developing a prototype that could be tested and commented on by disability advocacy groups and frequent flyers who have a mobility issue.
All that takes time, money and commitment.
For the cabin crew the move from the chair into the seat is never easy. In some cases the passenger or carer can assist, often that is not possible.
Air New Zealand devised a system using a transfer belt, slide sheet and slide board — a modification of techniques used in physiotherapy setting. This is made much easier when the wheelchair height and the aircraft seat height are aligned.
Some seat modifications were also designed for future business premier and premium economy class seating. This required the involvement of the design team and aircraft seat manufacturers.
Already, indications are looking very good. The systems have been in place four months. It is now in place on long-haul flights.
It is early, but the initial results have been encouraging. Staff manual handling injuries associated with disabled passenger handling are reducing. During this period Air New Zealand recorded reductions of up to 25 percent in flight delays and a 32 percent in minutes lost and associated costs.
The softer spin-off for the company has been a genuine connection between passengers, front line staff and the disabled community.
Going forward the changes will be rolled out on all flights — a big ask for an airline with a sizable network for a country as small as New Zealand, where air travel has always been high on a per capita basis.
Air New Zealand has shown leadership the industry would do well to follow.
Ground Handling and cabin service for disabled passengers has been slowly improving but talk to frequent flyers with a disability and they will raise travel issues such as transportation interchange before they even reach the terminal, check-in and managing luggage. Invariably, the issue of paper work and forms is raised. Despite really good work that has been done by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and European Union lawmakers, the devil is in the detail.
Some airports and airlines do it well — the majority still have a way to go. The community does have Web sites that rate facilities and service standard globally.
They do tell it like it is — well worth a visit and see how the service at your airport or airline scores.
Air travellers who use electric wheelchairs know only too well what it's like to be buried in pre-flight restrictions.
'Special Need' PAX First-hand suggestions on ways to accommodate passengers who bring with them special challenges BY Norm Avery, AIRPORT INFORMATION RESOURCES June 1999...
September 2003 To an airline or ground handler, the term "Special Needs Passenger" can define a wheelchair-bound person, or a blind person with a service animal, or a child with a leg...