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 cast and crutches - basically,
anyone who needs extra help. When boarding via passenger boarding bridges, customer
safety and ease is generally assured by available and well-designed equipment.
However, for ground loaded aircraft, boarding passengers with mobility impairments
becomes more of a challenge.
"This is an area that's been neglected," explains Florida-based Airport Automation Corporation's Owner and President, Jeff Ganiere. "And that is why I believe that the new law that requires airlines to provide a dignified manner for loading non-ambulatory passengers came about. Too often, for lack of a better alternative, airline personnel board a non-ambulatory passenger by seating the person in a straight-back aisle chair and hoisting the person in the chair into the aircraft. One person in the aircraft and a couple of people on the tarmac grab the chair with the passenger in it and hoist it up into the aircraft. That would be scary for a lot of people - myself included. I think that has been the modus operandi up until recently for boarding non-ambulatory passengers on hard stands."
The "law" Ganiere mentions is the Federal Aviation Administration's Advisory Circular AC-150/5220-21B - Guide Specifications for Devices Used to Board Airline Passengers with Mobility Impairments, which went into effect on December 4, 2002 and contains performance standards, specifications, and recommendations for the design, construction, and testing of devices used to assist in the boarding of airline passengers with mobility impairments. The portion of this AC pertaining to lifts was developed in coordination with the Canadian General Standards Board document CAN/CGSB-189.1-95, Lifting Systems for Aircraft Boarding of Passengers with Mobility Impairments and states "It is intended that, except for certain purchaser-specified requirements (e.g. climatic protection) and other minor modifications, lifts meeting the requirements of either the U.S. or Canadian standards should meet the requirements of the other."
The Council of the European Union has deemed 2003 as the European Year of People with Disabilities to create awareness of issues facing the more than 60 million disabled people in Europe. The European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) Facilitation Sub-Group on the Transport of Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRMs), has been working on behalf of disabled air travelers to ensure that their needs are being met and that good practices are being followed to provide consistency and confidence for these passengers.
Specs and standards
"As of December 4, 2002, all airlines are supposed to have plans as to how to board PRMs [Persons with Reduced Mobility] even at airports that do have bridges - for all types of aircraft, not just commuters," explains Christopher Barefoot, GSE & Military Sales with Lift-A-Loft. "The regulation that we build to is AC-150/5220-21B. Disabled passenger lifts are funded usually with federal monies and airports, not airlines, can apply to get funding to purchase this equipment. For airports using federal grant and aid assistance in the purchase of devices, the use of this guidance specification is mandatory. So the AC has to be met to get the grant money," he continues. "Other items are the ANSI standard A92.7, which is the GSE standard and A92.6 for Scissor lifts. We build to all applicable ANSI standards. There are also standards from IATA such as the AHM921 - Functional Specifications for Incapacitated Passenger Loading Vehicle. Another is the AHM979, which applies to commuter-type aircraft. We take a look at all of the standards and we see how we can best fit all of their needs."
Cathryn Dye, Chief Operating Officer with Columbia Medical, offers that Columbia Medical's onboard chair, the SkyMaster, is spec'd a lot more with respect to materials used. " The onboard chair is FAA-approved and is not made for lifting but for transporting. It has to be flame retardant and it has to be able to withstand certain cleaning solvents used by the airlines," she explains. "Onboard chairs have to have armrests and have to be able to fit in certain parts of the aircraft."
Certain considerations need to be addressed when choosing special needs equipment for your operations.
"You need to evaluate the situation you have. If you are an airport, a smaller type airport, you obviously need one of the smaller ones for commuter aircraft," explains Barefoot. "If you are in a larger airport purchasing a disabled passenger lift, you need to purchase a high-speed lift, similar to the APX16 lift where you are able to go 30mph instead of using a gas or electric powered one that only goes 3mph because you can't get from one terminal to the other in a timely fashion."
A special needs passenger is not always an adult but many times is a child. Columbia makes a special needs seat for children who require upper body support to sit upright in an airline seat. Columbia's Orthopedic Positioning Seat, provides this needed support. The seat is FAA-approved and fits in most coach class seating.
Adaptive Engineering Ltd. manufactures the Mobilift AX and the AX/R, which offers wheelchair access to commuter aircraft. Their Mobile Bridge Adapter closes the gap between existing boarding bridges and regional aircraft, and their Multi-Ramp bolts onto a baggage cart and is a ramp that folds out to allow the airlines to more safely and effectively handle heavier cargo, particularly powered wheelchairs, which are becoming more popular.
Airport Automation has a new product called the NOVA Commuter Boarder that is an integral boarding staircase and wheelchair lift for passengers boarding from the ground level. "There are about 20 Commuter Boarders out in the field in the prototype phase. We are now pretty comfortable with how they're performing," says Ganiere. "We also have a baggage lift, the Weslift, that attaches to the PPB and is used to safely and quickly get bulky items such wheelchairs from the bridge level to the ground."
All of the companies interviewed offer some type of training on equipment for ground crews and airline staff but the general consensus was that much of the special needs equipment is relatively simple and straightforward.
"We do onsite training with our lifts, ramps, and jetbridge adaptors," says Mark Brown, Director of GSE Sales for Adaptive Engineering Ltd. in Canada. "We often do a demo for airlines, train the trainers, and provide follow up training. We have demonstration videos with some of our products and every product has a very detailed operations and maintenance manual."
Airport Automation's Ganiere has developed a training CD to show how to drive the equipment, which plays much like a driving simulator.
Lift-A-Loft's Barefoot explains that his company does an onsite training class for each unit that they provide. "They watch a video and are then taken out for some hands-on training," he says. "We contact our customers after about nine months for recertification training. For a fee, we'll fly out to conduct a recertification course at the airport."
Easy does it
The general consensus with the interviewees was that special needs equipment is relatively maintenance-free, but that visual inspections should be done as a matter of course to ensure the equipment would always be ready for passengers.
"A disabled passenger lift just requires routine maintenance - nothing special is needed," says Lift-A-Loft's Barefoot. "Probably one of the easiest pieces to be taken care of. For electric units, check water level in batteries and make sure it's plugged it in at night."
Airport Automation's Ganiere concurs for the electric-powered items. "The one thing people have to be aware of is that when it's not in use, plug it in. Other than checking the hydraulic fluids and grease points, there isn't any other service items on it. We design to minimal maintenance service requirements."
Adaptive's Brown offers, "With any of our products, there are no batteries, no hydraulics, no motors. There is essentially no maintenance. Our hand crank lift, the Mobilift AX/R, is counterbalanced so you don't need much strength to operate it. It's really quite unique. We developed that lift the way we did because airlines have said, 'You know, every time we go to use our lift, the battery's dead' or, 'We can't get the extension cord out to it' or, The motor dies or is not working properly - so what can you do about it?' What we recommend is a visual inspection annually."
Columbia's chairs are extremely durable and only require cleaning and oiling of the movable parts. "Our earliest chairs have been in constant service at major hubs with excellent reliability," says Dye. "Because the older chairs are still reliable, but now may be showing their age, they can be refurbished. Airlines can contact Columbia directly if to find out more about our AisleMaster refurbishment program."
What does the future hold for this segment of passenger handling?
"It's serious business and as my baby boomer generation ages, it seems that more and more are turning to electric scooters and wheelchairs to aid in their mobility. Airports see wheelchairs weighing as much as 500 pounds each. The law requires that airlines transport a passenger wheelchair but the airline probably will not be aware of passenger need until the passenger arrives at the gate," says Ganiere. "The question is, how can we provide a smoother transition with added confidence and comfort for the passenger? My concern is insuring passenger comfort such as temperature control while working hard to keep costs down. On our Nova Commuter Boarder, we would like to be able to offer partially-enclosed canopies over the elevator car. Extreme temperature change is a concern for elderly passengers coming out of a terminal heated to 70 degrees and stepping out into 30 below zero temperatures as an example."
Brown concludes, "Our emphasis is that because of the slowdown in the industry, what we're trying to do now, is to address what problems the airlines are facing and we'd like to help them with creative solutions."Special needs equipment fills a small, but necessary niche in aviation ground support and manufacturers of this equipment feel that more can be done to provide a dignified manner to aid these passengers, reports Michelle Garetson.
TSA Smoothes the Way for "Persons with Disabilities"
In May, the TSA announced its Persons with Disabilities Program dedicated to providing a more secure and dignified program for screening persons with disabilities. Before TSA, there were no specific or consistent procedures to screen persons with disabilities. TSA publishes travel tips on its website, www.tsatraveltips.us so persons with disabilities can learn what to expect at security checkpoints.
The program is focused on passengers whose disabilities fall into four categories - mobility, visual, hearing, and hidden.
1. Mobility: Refers to limitation of body movement and involves people using wheelchairs scooters crutches canes etc.
2. Hearing: Includes persons who are deaf or have a hearing loss.
3. Visual: Includes persons who are blind or have limited (low) vision.
4. Hidden: Refers to persons who have heart and lung conditions diabetes brain injuries etc. and may be using devices such as a pacemaker insulin pumps or other devices.
419 - 34th Avenue S.E.; Calgary, Alberta T2G 1V1 Canada
Phone: 403-243-9400 o Fax: 403-243-9455
131 Hibiscus Street; Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Phone: 727-939-1723 o Fax: 727-939-2930
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
1819 L Street, NW, 6th floor; Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202-293-8020 o Fax: 202-293-9287
Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB)
Place du Portage III, 6B1; 11 Laurier Street
Gatineau, Quebec K1A 1G6 Canada
Phone: 819-956-0425 o Fax: 819-956-5644
Columbia Medical Mfg. LLC
13368 Beach Avenue; Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
Phone: 310-454-6612 o Fax: 310-305-1718
European Civil Aviation Conference
Federal Aviation Administration
Advisory Circular 150/5220-21B -
Guide Specification for Devices Used to Board
Airline Passengers with Mobility Impairments;
9501 South Center Road; Muncie, IN 47302
Phone 765-288-3691 o Fax 765-284-1023