Accessible aircraft boarding

Posted: 16 March 2005 | Dr. Katharine Hunter-Zaworski, PE, Director of the National Center for Accessible Transportation | No comments yet

Although great strides have been made in the area of increasing accessibility to transport, it remains difficult for many people with disabilities to utilise air transport. The National Centre for Accessible Transportation (NCAT) aims to make air travel more pleasant, efficient and dignified for travellers, both with and without disabilities, writes Dr Hunter-Zaworski.

Although great strides have been made in the area of increasing accessibility to transport, it remains difficult for many people with disabilities to utilise air transport. The National Centre for Accessible Transportation (NCAT) aims to make air travel more pleasant, efficient and dignified for travellers, both with and without disabilities, writes Dr Hunter-Zaworski.

Oregon State University is the home of the National Centre for Accessible Transportation, an active collection of research and development projects for improving access to public transportation. The NCAT mission is to improve both the safety and dignity of travel for persons with disabilities. The centre is both important and timely because societal values and attitudes towards persons with disabilities are changing and there is a need to adapt to those changes.

A major feature of NCAT is its role as host of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centre (RERC) on Accessible Public Transportation. This RERC is addressing all primary modes of inter-city public transportation, but its major focus is air travel. A key element of the research and development projects is access to vehicles, and in particular access to aircraft. To set the stage for a discussion about the boarding process, that is the interface between an airport and an aircraft, the first section will introduce all of the research and development activities of the RERC as a means to develop the concept that ‘accessibility’ includes much more than simply physical access.

Research and surveys

The work of the RERC includes two research projects, which both provide information used for improving the safety and dignity of travel for all. The first is a biomechanics study which provides quantitative data for use in the design and application of aisle chairs, aircraft seats, on-board chairs, and on-board lavatories. This project makes use of sophisticated motion-tracking and force-measuring equipment to understand how people may be injured as a mobility- impaired passenger is moved to and from the aircraft and within the aircraft.

The second research project is a survey of the groups involved in the transportation of persons with disabilities, including: passengers, boarding personnel, baggage handlers, aircraft manufacturers, aisle chair manufacturers, and airlines. This research is important because it feeds the development projects which have the goal of arriving at solutions that will be adopted and used in practice. To maximise the likelihood of success, survey research is required to understand what needs improving and how proposed improvements may be accepted by the users and service provides alike.

Development projects

In addition to the two research projects, there are four development projects that identify and develop solutions to accessibility issues, in particular solutions that are universal so that they work equally well for all travellers. The development project topics include:

  • Boarding technologies
  • On-board lavatories
  • Communications
  • Passenger assistance training

An interesting feature of these projects is that they all use a very formal design process as a framework for developing a clear understanding of the problems, and for evaluating the options that might be applied to the problem. The ‘House of Quality’ design method and the structure it provides is important because just as there is great variability in airports, so there are important differences in aircraft, how accessibility issues are handled by different airlines, and of course, variability in passenger needs according to the different disabilities involved.

People generally think in terms of providing assistance for people who use wheelchairs. If prodded, most people will also think of persons with hearing or sight limitations. It is rare for people to think of cognitive difficulties or hidden disabilities such as fatigue due to Multiple Sclerosis or the breathing difficulties of persons with emphysema. A structured approach to design that considers the needs of the ‘human’ as well as the ‘mechanical’ interface is therefore vital, due to the different types of disabilities to be considered and all the different entities trying to provide accessibility to travellers.


Another important feature of this design process is the active participation of collaborators. To help ensure that results are of practical as well as academic interest, we have established formal collaborative relationships with airports, transportation providers, user advocacy groups, manufacturers, and regulatory agencies. In all there are more than three dozen different companies and agencies participating. They review programme direction, monitor progress, assist with idea generation, and provide advice on the development of implementation strategies.

The final point to make about the overall programme of research and development is that the needs of passengers without disabilities are also included in the design process. It has been our experience that a good design for persons with disabilities more often than not will also be an improvement for all others. This idea of universal design is central to our design process. We strive to make it possible for all people, with or without disabilities, to be able to effectively and efficiently use the same facilities.

The boarding process

Getting passengers aboard an aircraft, particularly for a regional service, is done in various ways. Some methods are more accessible and dignified than others, some fit more situations than others. Perhaps most important, there is a significant lack of consistency when it comes to the boarding technologies currently in use. The boarding process is depicted in Figure 1. The elements of the process are discussed below.

The path from the boarding area to the aircraft can be very different depending on the airport, the aircraft, and the available equipment. For persons that have difficulty in walking, seeing, or grabbing rails, there can be many unexpected hazards in this transition. Steep ramps, handrails that end prematurely, uneven match heights at transition points, can all lead to stumbling and falling. For large aircraft the use of jetways is almost universal. Regional aircraft, however, may be accommodated using ramps, special lifts, bridges for conventional jetways, specially designed jetways, or for ambulatory passengers, the stairs built into the aircraft.

Most jetways are designed to accommodate a number of different sizes of aircraft. They can telescope and also change height. However this can present challenges for people who have difficulty walking or who use wheelchairs. Steep transition sections are very common for jetways that serve smaller aircraft. These transition areas can also be tripping hazards for any ambulatory passenger.

For persons in wheelchairs, the first step is a transfer to an aisle or boarding chair. For clarification of terminology, the aisle chair refers to the chair that is used to transfer a person from the end of the jetway to the aircraft seat. The on-board chair refers to the folding chair that is used to transfer a person between an aircraft seat and an accessible on-board lavatory.

Once in the aisle chair, movement from the transfer area to the aircraft may or may not be easy and dignified. For large aircraft this movement is fairly straight forward, nevertheless, the threshold between the jetway and the aircraft may be a problem if the jetway height has not been properly set. When a jetway is not available, alternative equipment must be used to get the boarding chair into the aircraft door because airlines are not supposed to hand-carry people in boarding chairs up stairs. This is where ramps and special purpose lifts come in. Unfortunately a special purpose lift may draw unwanted attention to the passenger that needs to use it.

\In many respects a simple ramp is a good solution. It works for the boarding chair, it is better than stairs for persons with limited mobility and all passengers enter the same way. This is a good example of the concept of ‘Universal Design’, a solution that works well for everyone.

It is the goal of the RERC boarding project to be able to provide airlines and airports with recommendations for boarding technologies that can be used at all airports and with all aircraft, that work well for all passengers, that are cost effective, and are readily available.

Mobility aid stowage

Another project which was identified by the centre collaborators as very important is one to improve the handling and stowage of wheelchairs on aircraft. This includes wheelchairs to be stowed in the passenger cabin and also wheelchairs, especially power chairs and scooters, to be moved from the boarding area, stowed in the baggage compartment, and returned to the boarding area at the destination. There are numerous challenges with simply moving powered chairs to the tarmac, preparing them for transport, and reassembling after transport.

The importance of performing this part of the boarding process carefully and quickly cannot be overstated. If the wheelchair is thought of in terms of being the passenger’s ‘legs’, then it is clear that they must not be damaged and that they must be available immediately after arrival.


Another consideration at airports is real time communication and information, which is necessary for all passengers, and especially so for those with sensory, language or cognitive impairments. There are two classes of information that are important for all passengers in a terminal: (a) way finding or orientation and identification of facilities, and (b) real-time information, such as aircraft departures, arrivals, delays, and cancellations, paging of persons, boarding announcements, and emergency and evacuation instructions.

Real-time information is the most important during the boarding process. For real-time information, audio public announcements are the most common mode used in most terminals. Although human factor guidelines for electronic displays have been developed, the fast evolution of electronic technologies requires a new focus on real-time information systems in terminals.

NCAT is working on several projects related to accessible real-time information systems that accommodate the needs of travellers with sensory and cognitive impairments. Some of these technologies include; real-time wireless communication, open captioning and electronic displays. The communications needs of a traveller and the opportunities for providing information in real-time are shown. Clearly, development of real-time technologies will not only benefit persons with disabilities but will be of great value to all travellers.

Implementation – the final challenge

The key elements to a successful accessible service include: a commitment by the airport to provide a high level of accessibility, ongoing training of all front line employees who interact with the travelling public, ongoing maintenance and upgrades of accessibility related equipment; involvement of consumers of accessible services as members of a passenger advisory committee and designation of a staff person responsible for airport accessibility. For the airports and airlines currently following these practices, the NCAT research and development efforts are expected to result in technologies, techniques and procedures that could be of great use in further improving the accessibility of air travel for everyone.

When it comes time to implement these changes, a typical viewpoint will ask, “Who is responsible?” Unfortunately, there is not always a clear response. Another way of viewing the question of implementing change might be to ask who will benefit? In the case of universal design as promoted by NCAT, it will be the entire travelling public that benefits from the improvements to the accessibility of air travel.

The bottom line, then, is that a commitment at the highest levels of management to view with an open mind new opportunities to improve accessibility will result in a reduction in the need to provide ‘special’ services for persons with disabilities, and a better experience for all travellers.

Figure 1: The boarding process

Figure 1: The boarding process

Dr. Katharine Hunter-Zaworski

Dr. Katharine Hunter-Zaworski, PE, Director of the National Center for Accessible Transportation, is both a rehabilitation and transportation engineer. Dr. Joseph Zaworski, PE, is a Mechanical Engineer. They are both professors at Oregon State University in the College of Engineering, where they work together and collaborate on research projects related to accessible transportation.

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