Size Matters — Especially on Small Planes

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole”, and in a sense that’s exactly what Air France tried to do. Earlier this year, wheelchair-user Gordon Aikman tried to fly from Edinburgh to Paris with his husband for their honeymoon. Unfortunately his plans were quashed two days before departure when Air France informed Aikman that they could not transport his power wheelchair because it was too tall to fit into the hold.

And although there’s really no excuse for the delay in informing Aikman of the situation, it’s important to note that some smaller aircraft might not be able to transport large power wheelchairs.

The aircraft in question is an Embraer ERJ-190, and indeed both cargo doors on this 72-passenger aircraft are only 71 cm (28 inches) high. Herein lies the problem, because most power wheelchairs are taller than that. And to add insult to injury most also can’t be easily disassembled.

So what does the law say about this? Well the Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to carry mobility devices in the hold, if the baggage compartment size allows. Granted assistive devices are given priority over other cargo, but if an item won’t fit in the door, it just won’t fit.

So what’s a traveler to do? Well, of course you should ask the airline about the dimensions of the aircraft before you book your flight, but if they are as responsive as Air France was to Mr. Aikman, you’ll need to be a little more proactive.

It’s easy to find the dimensions of the aircraft. Just type in your route and find your aircraft on www.seatguru.com, then google it. If you want to get specific you can even add “cargo door height” after the name of the aircraft in your search. Granted it takes a few minutes to do, but wouldn’t you rather know this information before you book your flight?

As for Mr. Aikman, well Air France apologized and refunded his fare. Ironically he got to Paris on easyJet — an airline that has a reputation for denying boarding to wheelchair-users who travel alone. But since Aikman was with his husband he passed muster on this flight.

The moral of the story? Be proactive when flying on smaller aircraft. Make sure you wheelchair will fit in the hold before you buy that ticket. It really is time well spent.