A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

Inside Money: Wheelchairs on planes - it could be worse (or more expensive)

Image / Thinkstock
Image / Thinkstock

The case of the airplane wheelchair refusnik has sparked many questions in the national press.

Herald columnist Deborah Hill-Cone, for instance, in her reflective piece of self-confessed middle-aged mellowing attracted a barrage of responses, which covered the spectrum from calm to apoplectic in tone.

But my brief analysis suggests that the amazing diversity of replies can be boiled down into three fundamental categories:

• Those who, like Hill-Cone, have a sense (in varying degrees of conviction) that giving up your allocated seat for a disabled fellow-traveler is probably the decent thing to do;

• Hard-line consumers who maintain an issued boarding pass grants them non-negotiable seat occupation rights, and;

• People with direct experience of wheelchair flying conditions and its attendant difficulties.

As someone who falls into the latter group, I'd like to make an argument for wheelchair-passenger aircraft preferential seating rights based on efficiency rather than compassion. For compassion, as psychologist tell us is a soft quality subject to fatigue while efficiency, economists tell us, is a hard-wired human factor underwriting most of our actions.

Traveling recently with a group of disabled youth I witnessed first-hand the logistical challenges of wheelchair/aircraft interchange.

Boarding a late plane out of Christchurch we had three wheelchair-bound passengers to load.

This is not a high-tech process. Passengers transfer (by themselves or with assistance) out of their own wheelchairs into an airline-supplied aisle-chair on the tarmac. The aisle-chair is then pushed into what looks like a tin garden shed mounted on a fork-lift.

The fork-lift driver raises the chair up to the right height before attempting to align the garden shed with the airplane door; don't imagine any Soyuz-International Space Station scenarios here - instead picture a split tennis ball mounted on a two-metre pole jutting out from a garden shed.

When the tennis ball hits the fuselage sweet spot ("yeah, that'll do") a flight attendant rolls out a ramp, connecting garden shed with plane door. Off you go.

I estimate each transfer took about five minutes. If you had to drag the aisle chair to the back of the plane, rather than offload each passenger at the first available seat, add another two-to-three minutes at least.

With more wheelchairs about (aging population, medical advances saving lives without necessarily restoring full function) airlines - and able-bodied passengers - have a real economic incentive to ensure disabled embarkation operates smoothly: longer load times=lower profits and/or higher ticket prices.

Normally, booking staff should be aware of the issue and allocate wheelchair seats appropriately. But, as the "well-turned-out" blonde incident illustrates, things don't always go to plan.

It didn't go to plan for us. Fortunately, the ultra-professional flight attendant took the initiative, making a unilateral decision to seat the wheelchair passengers upfront.

The first two reseated customers were unfazed by the new arrangements when asked politely by the flight attendant if they "would mind" shifting. However, passenger three (whose description uncannily fits that of well-turned-out blonde) minded.

"I suppose I'm going to have to," she whined, which, minus the attitude, is the right answer.

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A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

David is a freelance journalist who has covered the financial services business on both sides of the Tasman for over 15 years. He is the editor of industry website Investment News. David has edited magazines and websites for the financial advice, investment and superannuation industries.

Read more by David Chaplin

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