Is Bamboo for You?


Last week Japan Airlines (JAL) announced the development of their new bamboo airport wheelchair, to help ease frustration and zip disabled travelers through security checkpoints at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. On the surface this announcement seems positive; after all what’s not to like about sustainability and a streamlined travel experience? On the other hand, although this new mode of airport transportation will be ideal for some slow walkers, it’s not really a good option for full time wheelchair-users.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that when I first heard the term “bamboo wheelchair” it sounded like some sort of medieval torture device. It just didn’t sound comfortable on any level. I guess I kept flashing back to that old bamboo-under-the-fingernails torture tactic, and I just couldn’t get past that. But to be fair, when I saw a picture of the new wheelchair, I thought it was a step up from the ubiquitous E&J classics found at most airports. It even has cushions. And although JAL representatives claim it’s comfortable, you just never know. I mean, it’s hard to judge another person’s comfort level. I guess that’s why we have the sleep number bed.

But I digress. The main advantage of the new bamboo wheelchair is that since there are no metal parts it can go through airport metal detectors without setting them off. And if you remember to take all the change out of your pocket and make it through the metal detector, that means you won’t have to undergo the dreaded manual pat-down.

It’s perfect for slow walkers who normally use a cane or walker, and can’t stand up and comfortably walk through the metal detector unassisted. But full time wheelchair-users should still remain in their own wheelchairs and gate-check them when they board the aircraft. Why?

Well, first-off, the less time the airlines have your wheelchair, the less opportunity they have to loose or damage it. Gate-checking your wheelchair means that they take it directly from the gate to the cargo hold of the aircraft. They don’t have to transport it through the terminal, risk getting it on the wrong flight or even leave it sitting on the tarmac. It’s just safer.

Second, no matter how comfortable a loaner wheelchair is, it just isn’t your own. And you never know how long you may be in it; after all flights are delayed all the time. If you have your own wheelchair, you will just be more comfortable using it in the terminal.

Third, lets talk about those dreaded skin-breakdown issues. If you have custom seating, pressure-mapped cushions or a tilt-recline model, you need those features to keep your skin healthy. And like I said, you never know how long you will be in the loaner chair. And we all know how long the recovery time is for flap surgery — and that’s time you’ll have to spend flat on your back. It’s just not worth the risk.

JAL will be rolling out the bamboo wheelchairs next year, so let’s see if they catch on. It seems a good option for many people, but at a price tag of nearly $7000 each, it doesn’t seem very practical. Perhaps someone can come up with a way to mass produce them to make them more affordable.