Interview with Christopher Wood, Founder of Flying Disabled and Creator of Air4All
By Chin Liang Teh
For decades, wheelchairs were prohibited from traversing up the aircraft aisle. For a wheelchair passenger, the flying experience is always riddled with stress coupled with immense inconveniences.
At the boarding gate, the passenger would need to be transferred from their wheelchair to a smaller wheelchair that can fit down the narrow airplane aisle, before being transported to their assigned seat.
The same process goes for disembarking the plane. During the flight, the wheelchair user is not able to roam as freely as normal people do without calling for assistance. For instance, leaving the seat to use the bathroom.
Airlines have been reluctant to create a wheelchair space as doing so requires a reconfiguration of the seating arrangement in all aircraft, translating to a loss of seat count and posing a major blow to airlines’ revenues.
A game-changing Solution for Wheelchair Passengers on Airplanes
Air4All offers a game-changer solution to move the needle on this long-standing conundrum. The award-winning patented design by Air4All allows power-wheelchair users to board the plane hassle-free without having to be removed from the wheelchair.
The system enables the wheelchair to be secured to the folding seat in the first row of seating via a special track underneath the seat.
This ground-breaking system is the brainchild of Christopher Wood, Founder of Flying Disabled alongside his fellow consortium members. Christopher leads a UK campaign offering resources for accessible flying.
In 2021, Chris was awarded with an MBE honorary title (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his relentless pursuit of Aviation Accessibility.
“I am still very much a campaigner and lobbyist, although, in recent years, I have been approached by industry and regulators to consult on regulation, compliance, and design”
It all started with a trip to Mexico
The idea of Air4All dawned on Chris in Christmas 2015, when he went on a family vacation to Mexico.
“I had a stark realization that everything from booking to boarding the aircraft was a military maneuver. My daughter was not comfortable at all on board the aircraft. Getting to the bathroom was a challenge for her.
Leaving the aircraft was equally challenging. Her chair was repatriated to her by several Mexican ground staff carrying it up the stairs to the aircraft door. This cannot have been safe for them let alone her chair.”
“The return journey was filled with frustration. When we arrived at Heathrow airport, her chair never arrived at the aircraft. Thankfully, the pilot decided to take it into his own hands and go locate the chair himself. Nearly an hour after landing, only her chair finally arrived!”
“A few weeks after the holiday, I decided to research why an aircraft is so behind the curve in accessibility, compared to land and sea. It took 6 years of work and the hammering of a few credit cards to get to where I am today.”
The prototype of Air4All
Chris partnered with Nigel Smith, Managing Director & Head of Design at SWS Certification, to sketch the potential ideas and designs that would work in an aircraft cabin.
They then took these sketches to Paul Priestman at Priestman Goode, an internationally renowned multidisciplinary design studio for further enhancement and improvement.
From this collaboration, the seeds of a consortium were born. The Air4All consortium consists of three reputable companies specializing in Aviation Design, Professional Certification, and Disability, demonstrating convincing credibility to airliners that the solutions they bring are feasible and have a good prospect for success.
The design solves the elephant in the room
The Air4All design utilizes the first row of the LOPA (Layout of Passenger Accommodations) of a single-aisle Aircraft (A320/737). It also fits the airline’s purchasing trend of these types of aircraft that are built to fly longer distances. These aircraft are the revenue generators for airliners.
“The design solves the elephant in the room. There is no loss of passenger space for the airline.”
“There are several ways to latch the chair to the floor. We are exploring all available options and innovating ground-breaking ways in this area.”
“As of now, we prioritize the design around the front row in a premium economy cabin of 2+2, instead of 3+3 configuration. This allows more width and maneuverability for a power wheelchair.”
“Since we have designed this for a single-aisle aircraft – the most challenging in terms of space, in theory, it will be easy to upscale this to a bigger aircraft (with more room). ”
Air4All’s Award Winning Design Team
The Air4All system has won a Conde Nast Travel Award and the Fast Company Award. The prototype is being built by a subsidiary of a major global airline. The progress is expected to churn promising results.
“We have to build the first prototype as a feasibility study and address any pinch points before it goes into full production.”
“The biggest modification will be the flip-up seat. Once we have the prototype complete, it will then be made available to order. We already have an exclusive airline and many others watching the progress.”
“We will be the first to do much innovation around this.”
“By working alongside one of the largest manufacturers of power wheelchairs – Sunrise Medical, we need to identify needed modifications to the power wheelchair in accommodating the environment of an aircraft cabin. Since no one has ever scrutinized this, it will be an unprecedented attempt for us to transform and innovate the traditional wheelchairs.”
Ventured into the industry with little knowledge
Chris arrived at the industry knowing very little. As a fast learner, he has a business background and is very capable of research.
“I quickly learned that other people and advocacy groups (primarily in the UK, but also in the USA) have tried to create the same system but with very little traction. Air travel is a global industry, so whatever I do in the UK would only have a minor impact.”
“I need to travel, attend aviation around the world, lobby, and network, this would not be cheap. I have personally spent tens of thousands of pounds of my own money lobbying and campaigning globally.”
Other untapped areas of air travel opportunities
When asked about the untapped opportunity in serving the disabled community, Chris offered his expert insights.
“There are numerous platforms around the world tapping on the accessibility market, hotels, Airbnb and even Google have wheelchair maps for cities, land, and sea are typically accessible. Airlines, however, are the broken link. They are yet to suitably engage the value of nearly $2 trillion market available to them, a market eagerly waiting to spend their disposable income on travel.”
“I receive ideas from numerous App developers, primarily for navigating an airport, many of these are for those who are blind or with partial sight. I feel we could migrate much of this to an aircraft, additionally, sensory lighting inside the aircraft could also help many people with autism.”
“There are so many areas that airlines could improve across a wide spectrum of disabilities. We must also consider our elderly. We are all living longer and often with less mobility. However, an aircraft is unlike any other form of transport. It is essentially a thin metal tube flying at 30k feet at speeds around 500mph with passengers in a pressurized cabin. Therefore, it has limitations.”
Moving forward with Air4All
“As we move forward and look to integrate the Air4All design, I hope regulators will see this as the springboard to offer a safer experience for the most vulnerable of wheelchair users to fly by air. I would like to see more innovation to enhance the experience of a wider spectrum of visible and invisible disabilities, more revenue for the industry and a better and more humane system for everyone to operate with.”