Improving the Wheelchairs on Airplanes Experience

Kasey Robinson
Published in
6 min readJan 9, 2017

Flying on airplanes can be an annoying process for any person, but it can be even worse for someone who requires wheelchair assistance. The risk of a damaged or lost wheelchair is terrifying, and also bathroom assistance doesn’t always work as planned. Those flying internationally have increased concerns due to language barriers and new processes.

I asked my former co-worker, who relies on a power wheelchair to get around, about her experiences. I learned that airlines hand out orange fragile tags upon request, like the one shown here, and standard white sticky tags for wheelchairs with their unique specifications (such as battery type and wheelchair model type), but these do not indicate all the instructions needed to wheelchair handlers.

So passengers often make their own handwritten notes and attach them with tape. These notes are often damaged or lost.

United actually has the most comprehensive and lovely form I found, that they recommend filling out, printing, laminating, then affixing to the chair. Then keeping a copy for yourself. I really like the design of this form. I wish there were an easier way than finding a place to laminate it, then punching holes and using string, or finding the right kind of tape to affix the form…

These forms could still be damaged and the small text does not promise that anyone will read them. Passengers often have to talk everyone they encounter through the process of the levels of assistance that they require, but through bad experiences, they don’t trust that others will understand the rules.

“You need to tell the airline what assistance you will need when making the reservation, but more importantly, you need to bring this up again when you check in for your flight… I remind them that no luggage should be placed on top of a wheelchair as it can cause damage. If the ground crew isn’t there, then I tell whoever takes the chair to please relay the message. You can also attach any directions (sometimes in different languages) to the top of the seat. Waterproofing the directions isn’t a bad idea, either. I am usually assured that nothing is ever placed on wheelchairs, which I do not entirely believe, so just in case I always bring Allen wrenches in my carry-on.”

Ashley Olson

The explanation process for special instructions can be lengthy. First the passenger must call the airline and explain instructions. Then they must arrive early to explain their custom instructions again at check in, to crew leads, TSA, ground crew, and to attendants.

After seat transfer, most custom or power wheelchairs are stored in cargo, because they can not be folded. Workers want to work quickly and sometimes do not lock the wheelchair into cargo correctly, or they put items on top of it, or they may throw a wheelchair onto an automatic conveyer belt. Keep in mind even with these pre-cautions, the plane is flying at 600 miles per hour at 40,000 feet in the air. There is usually turbulence, causing intensive shaking of the contents for a prolonged period of time.

One amazing organization called All Wheels Up is currently the only organization in the world advocating for Wheelchair Accessible Air Travel and crash testing Wheelchairs for Commercial Flight. Meaning that they are advocating for being able to take wheelchairs on board and remain seated in them for the duration of the flight. However, we are still a ways away from this and may have to resort to stowing and signage.

For wheelchair signage, “Most have official forms that must be filled out re: weight and type of battery on their websites. It’s good to talk to the guys loading it but there needs to be good signage for the guys unloading it. One tip he also gave, put the note in the language of the country you are traveling to or do something fun and friendly to make them understand the importance of this device. He also recommended having the name of a vendor at your destination who can do repair if needed.” - How do you fly in a power chair forum topic

I first thought about a two-step approach for my process. First a bright yellow protective cover for wheelchairs, with words and icons. Soft, but puffy coverings may mitigate that risk of the chair being tossed around like a box (hard coverings). They could also help indicate where to grasp or lock.

It may be costly to sew completely custom chair covers, and have them easy to remove and re-apply. Most people simply use bubble wrap and tape around delicate parts such as electronic screens or special handles, and this is suitable enough for them. But if the design is complete and easy enough to use, some may see it as a longterm investment. It would be less costly than replacing the chair, and also save the worry.

First sketch ideas for custom covers and special instructions:

For a more affordable option, I decided to design the most simple stickers and tags that I could think of, which are more wheelchair specific than the “shattered glass” fragile stickers. From my research, I discovered that key features are to be waterproof, include more than one language, and must indicate special handling, as well as some custom instructions such as locking areas. I would like to create this as a sticker, that also doesn’t leave an residue when it is removed. So that it can be placed in multiple areas to be seen from many angles. I may also try it as a sticky tag with a loop, that doesn’t have the risk of leaving reside. I will create separate stickers for handling with care, and for locking instructions. So as to reduce cognitive load.

First draft for handling with care:

I will gather more feedback from my former co-worker who uses a power chair as her means of transportation. After a few iterations, I hope that I can get a prototype sewn/printed and tested by her, or some of her friends, to see if the design improves upon their airline experience. Please feel free to comment if I have gotten anything incorrect here. I am not a disabled person nor wheelchair user, so any new information is completely helpful and I will add it to the designs. Thank you!

Updates: Photos from my co-worker’s travels, her own iterations, along with tags given by the airlines for research purposes. (Velcro and fabric versions yet to come).

Anna and I have submitted an application to the 2017 Adobe Creative Resident program to build out this tag project, and a second app project! I have received many private messages from people of the disabled community in support.

I’m Kasey Wang, a recent graduate of UX Academy, now job seeking. Please this article to support, and connect with me on LinkedIn!