‘Airport trek’: Wheelchair lag hits airlines as airport walk area increases | India News

MUMBAI: It’s an open secret in the airline industry that not every passenger who opts for the wheelchair assistance service to travel through an airport is in genuine need of a wheelchair.
The misuse was largely condoned by regulators, while some airlines leaned in on the trickery as a no-questions-asked complementary wheelchair service attracted bookings from a certain category of passengers.
It was all very well until recently, when an 80-year old passenger suffered a heart attack and died after having walked from the aircraft to the Mumbai airport immigration counter. Minutes earlier, wheelchair shortage had the airline send only one wheelchair for the couple, though both had pre-booked wheelchair assistance. Instead of waiting for the second wheelchair as instructed by the airline, he opted to walk.
On that Air India New York to Mumbai flight, 32 passengers had pre-booked the wheelchair facility to take them from the aircraft to the terminal exit. But the airline had positioned only 15 wheelchairs with assistants on ground, so each would have carried out at least two sorties.
Days after the Feb 12 incident, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation levied a financial penalty of Rs 30 lakh on the airline for failing to provide timely wheelchair assistance to the deceased. But the critical question that remained answered was, out of those 32 passengers, how many were in genuine need of a wheelchair? It’s a question that wasn’t asked, but its time has come.
In 2023, IndiGo, India’s largest airline, handled over 13 lakh wheelchair passengers, most on its domestic flights. If the wheelchair usage on international flights operated to/from India by other carriers are factored in, the number would go up multi-fold, said aviation experts. What has changed in the past few decades?
Airports have changed, passenger profile has changed and so has wheelchair usage:
Most metro airports built around the mid-20th century underwent massive expansion in the 21st century to handle the growing volumes of flights and passengers. As airlines “up gauged”, replacing smaller planes with larger ones, at the airport, the distance between boarding gates had to be increased to accommodate the increased aircraft wingspan.
“In the last century, forecasting studies done for airport planning didn’t consider wheelchair passenger numbers, only total passengers’ volumes were calculated. Back in the 1970s, when we designed the Delhi airport, we had planned for an annual passenger handling capacity of 60-65 million. Today, they’re expanding to over 100 million passengers per annum with larger aircraft, more passengers per aircraft and improved air traffic control resulting in more flights per hour, and so it’s imperative to factor in wheelchair users,” said Robey Lal, an expert in airport planning and design.
“Any airport expansion comes with consequences for geriatric passengers and those with limited mobility,” said Lal, who framed India’s first set of guidelines for serving passengers with limited mobility in airport terminal buildings design back in the 1990s.
For instance, under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annex 14 document which lays down standards for aerodromes, a minimum distance of 72.5 m should be maintained from nose to nose of two parked wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 777 or the Boeing 787, Lal said. At an international airport then, if you must go from say, from boarding gate 10 to gate 17, it’s about half a kilometre walk, he added. Similarly, at domestic terminals expanded to handle the increased flight volumes. While the nose-to-nose minimum distance between narrow-body aircraft like A320, B737 is 40.5 m, the large number of boarding gates send passengers on an airport trek.
Boarding gates apart, airports are constantly looking at ways to increase their non-aeronautical revenue incomes from shop rentals, advertising, car parks etc. This means more shops and restaurants between the security zone and boarding gates. At US airports such as those in Newark and Chicago, this has meant removing travelators to make way for restaurants and shops. Some airports have electronic signages that estimate the time it would take to reach a boarding gate.
In India, in the coming years, the walking time is only set to get longer as Indian carriers, with 1620 aircraft on order, will add flights. By 2034, the Indian fleet is expected to be 2.5 times larger than its current size.India’s domestic air passenger traffic is expected to touch 300 million by 2030, almost two-fold from the 153 million in 2023, said civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia in a recent speech. To accommodate the growth, airport terminals will expand in size and with that the distance from the curbside to the boarding gates increases.
Last year, Larry Summers, former US, secretary of treasury tweeted, after passing through LaGuardia airport said, “It confirms a theory of mine. The newer the terminal, the less convenient it is to use because all the walks are longer.”
The ‘airport trek’ became a familiar phrase with the travelling public at the turn of the century. In 2012, Direct Line, a UK-based insurance company measured airports around the world to find out the distances from the entrance to the furthest departure gate. Back then, Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3 took the top slot at 3.2km. The company said it hasn’t updated its research since then. But aviation experts say, the number of airports with long curb-to-gate distances have gone up in the past two decades as airport terminals were renovated to expand. In the US, the longest walk is at Dallas-Fort Worth international airport, in Texas, US, where, on an average a passenger walks 3.4 km from the check in counter to the boarding gate.
But these mega airports have trains, other forms of intra and inter terminal transport to ferry passengers from check-in counters to their boarding gates or move them across expansive terminal buildings. The problem with Indian metro airports such as Delhi and Mumbai is, they aren’t big enough for intra-terminal trains, but they aren’t small enough for short curb-to-gate walk times either.
“Walking long distances at airports is tough even with aids like travelators. Senior citizens find it difficult to step on and off a travelator with cabin baggage in hand,” said Pravin Gupta (73), retired senior vice-president, Havells India. He and his wife travel frequently to Kuala Lumpur to visit their son. While he suffers from cardiac issues, his wife has knee problems. “At Kuala Lumpur airport we don’t face problems as the terminal has trains and buses to ferry passengers. Indian airports should at least provide golf carts, buggies for senior citizens and people with mobility issues,” wrote Gupta, in a letter sent last year to the civil aviation minister. The couple cannot walk long distances and opt for wheelchair assistance when booking an air ticket. “The requirement of wheelchairs will go down if there is an assurance of availability of buggies. The airport has to be more passenger comfort conscious than appearance-conscious,” Gupta added.
While a wheelchair is provided by airlines and is booked at the time of ticket purchase, the golf cart or buggies are provided by the airport. The DGCA norms on ‘Carriage by Air of Persons With Disability And/ or Persons With Reduced Mobility in India’, puts the onus on both the airline and the airport.
“Airlines and airports should get together to handle passengers who cannot walk long distances and so book wheelchairs,” said Lal, who is in his eighties. “I do not book wheelchair assistance when travelling to smaller airports like Jaipur. But in metro airports it’s difficult to walk. At Delhi airport’s Terminal 3 provided electric cars are provided for departing passengers in addition to airline provided wheelchairs. But at Terminal 3 arrivals, the electric buggies are fewer and far between. This highlights need for improved planning and coordination amongst the airport operator and all airlines at Delhi, and elsewhere,” he said.
The number of senior citizen passengers on flights, particularly international, has been steadily going up with increasing migration. According to a 2019 United Nations report, the Indian diaspora is the world’s largest, with a population of 17.5 million. “When the NRIs, PIOs book tickets for their parents’ annual visit, they opt for the free wheelchair facility, even if their parents are fit enough to walk. The wheelchair assistant guides the parents through the airport, they don’t have to wait in long security queues, immigration counters. The parents are booked on Air India because of their preference and comfort with all Indian cabin crew,” said Capt Manoj Hathi, former director (operations), Air India.
According to sources, for years now, during peak travel season on flights to the US, Air India gets several dozens of wheelchair requests per flight. It’s a common sight to find a long queue of wheelchair passengers waiting to board the aircraft.
Airlines that otherwise put a price tag on everything from extra leg room, to priority check in, extra baggage etc. meals are bound by regulations to provide free assistance to passengers with impaired mobility. While in the US, airlines seek documentation validating the need for a wheelchair, in India, that is not the case. The only condition is that the airline should be informed at least 48 hours in advance. The misuse then is rampant.
For passengers in genuine need of assistance, the anxiety over wheelchair service is real. With a high number of wheelchair requests, wait times have got longer, which only adds to the problems of those with disabilities. Airports are bound by service standards that set the time limit for first and last check-in bags on conveyor belts, waiting time in queues etc, but none for wheelchair availability.
The global airline industry segregates wheelchair passengers into categories, assigning a special service code that indicates the degree of mobility assistance needed. A passenger whose air ticket is marked `WCHC’ is one who is completely immobile and must be carried to and from the aircraft cabin seat. Then there are separate categories for passengers who travel in their own wheelchairs which are carried on board the flight. In the US, the focus on this particular category as airlines have been mishandling wheelchairs. The US Department of Transportation is currently working on a regulation that makes it easier to hold airlines accountable for damage or delay in return of a wheelchair. Most Indian wheelchair users though fall under the `WCHR’ category which stands for wheelchair for the ramp. These passengers need a wheelchair only to go from the check in counter to the aircraft door and vice versa. It’s the most misused category, passengers who can walk long distances well opt for a wheelchair assistance only to skip the airport queues.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airlines’ trade body, has taken note of this issue. Currently, wheelchair assistance is offered and fulfilled on a first-come, first-serve basis. “Unfortunately, some customers may exploit this assistance,” it said, in a tweet. To ensure those who need the service get it, IATA introduced the concept of digital identity, wherein a passenger uses verifiable credentials to prove their request for wheelchair assistance is legitimate. This would ensure those with genuine need are given preference. But the idea hasn’t caught on yet.
Till a long term solution is put in place, airlines and aviation regulators could put in stop gap measures to ensure that the needy passenger is not left waiting in the aircraft for a wheelchair by those not really in need.

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