If I wish to travel on an airplane, I have to take special care to ensure that the appropriate accommodations are made to guarantee my comfort and safety. I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a condition which has left me unable to do many things independently.
As a young child I underwent major surgery to have two steel rods inserted into my back in order for my organs to have sufficient space to function. My spine is fused and steel pins are connected to my hips. I have absolutely no use of my legs, and the only upper body strength I have is a very small amount of movement is in my right arm from the elbow down. At home in Australia, I am totally reliant on two Disability Support Workers to assist me with my everyday life. I have been using a mobile lifting device for every function in my life that requires the movement of my body for 18 years. Being manually lifted is incredibly dangerous. If my head falls back during lifting I am unable to raise it back into position. I am what they call a "dead weight" – not a term I like to use but it is simply the truth. A wrong move by anyone trying to move me could in fact be fatal, which makes the mobile lifting devices a necessity in my life.
In my home country of Australia, I utilize our national air carrier, Qantas. My travel has only been possible because they use the new Eagle Lift 2 to assist passengers in wheelchairs board and deplane the aircraft. The Eagle Lift mechanically lifts a disabled person in and out of their aircraft seat into their wheelchair, saving several manual transfers. This provides a disabled passenger with a feeling of security and wellbeing.
Traditionally, airline personnel manually lift disabled passengers from their wheelchair and place them into an aisle chair that is small enough to move through the airplane. This process is dangerous and undignified for the passenger and the designated employee. With the Eagle Lift, I am able to drive my wheelchair to the entrance of the aircraft, providing me with independence and comfort. The transfer process with the Eagle Lift is safer and more dignified.
On many Aircrafts the Business and First Class armrests are unable to be raised/lowered, making it impossible to perform a manual transfer by using a slide board. Using the Eagle Lift overcomes many of the issues encountered with a manual lift; it provides travellers with a disability the option to fly any class they choose.
Qantas provides the Eagle Lift at over 40 destinations within Australia by using their own trained staff to operate the lift and perform the transfer. In April 2014, I traveled to Los Angeles, California. In advance of my trip, I was surprised to learn that the lift, which is standard in my home airports, would not be available in Los Angeles. At their International Destinations, Qantas claims they, like most airlines outside their home country, utilize the resources of independent Ground Handling Agents. These third-party contractors provide the equipment for transfers, but utilize aisle chairs instead of the Eagle Lift.
In advance of my trip to Los Angeles, Qantas stated that due to the infrequency of flights to and from their international destinations, it is not logistically viable to employ their own staff to perform the transfer of passengers with reduced mobility. Qantas contracts these third-parties to deliver their passenger handling services, including boarding passengers who require special assistance. After talking with them last year, I was able to convince them to procure an Eagle Lift for Los Angeles. This allowed me to take and enjoy my trip.
I have recently started to plan another vacation, this time a cruise from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong, China. The ship does not make a return journey from Hong Kong, so I will be forced to fly back to Australia. In contacting Qantas, I discovered that the airport in Hong Kong does not have an Eagle Lift. I have asked them to purchase the necessary equipment, but they have refused to do so.
Since the travel product Qantas is selling in Australia includes the Eagle Lift, it should be available across all flights operated under the Qantas tail logo, including those to/from international destinations. The fact they have contracted out core services is their business decision, but they should ensure the contract includes the provision of all equipment necessary to safely accommodate wheelchair travelers. If Qantas can transfer a disabled passenger onto an Aircraft within Australia using the Eagle Lift, that same service should be available at the destination.
I recently asked Haycomp, the Eagle Lift manufacturer, where they had delivered these lifts. I was told that they are currently available in the following airports: Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington in New Zealand; London-Heathrow in the United Kingdom; Dubai, U.A.E.; and Dallas-Ft. Worth, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Orlando in the United States. One lift is on trial at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Air Canada has recently provisioned 30 lifts for use across their network.
The Eagle Lift makes travel accessible to me. I hope that other airlines will purchase the Eagle Lift so that travel is possible for others who have disabilities similar to my own. I also hope that Qantas will do the right thing and install the lift at each of its destination airports, including Hong Kong.
Have you used an Eagle Lift to board an airplane? Would this device make air travel easier for you as a wheelchair user? Share your thoughts in the comments below.