Spinal Cord Injury BC

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Sea Change

Posted on March 7, 2024
by Lydia Wood

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Access to commercial seaplane service in BC appears to be improving in one fell swoop, thanks to some willing captains of the industry, a unique made-in-BC accessibility device, and the tenacity of one SCI BC peer.

[/mk_fancy_title][mk_image src=”https://sci-bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/seair-1-scaled.jpg” image_size=”full” desc=”New technology is available to make travel by seaplane accessible for wheelchair users.” caption_location=”outside-image”][mk_padding_divider size=”25″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709849818220{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Flying on Canada’s big commercial airlines as a wheelchair user is far from perfect—but at least it’s possible. In contrast, it’s never really been a viable option for most wheelchair users to take flight on any of the seaplanes operated by our province’s small coastal airlines, despite the fact that they are a vital transportation link in the fabric of BC life.

But thanks to some committed individuals and companies, some innovative technology, and a healthy dose of synchronicity, the situation seems to be rapidly improving.

On December 30, SCI BC peer and prominent fashion designer Chloe Angus and her husband Gabe were trying to book a flight with Harbour Air from their home in Vancouver to Salt Spring Island to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family.

“When we asked the Harbour Air agent on the phone about the plane and accessibility, the agent immediately said that, unfortunately, they couldn’t accommodate a person in a wheelchair who couldn’t walk on to the airplane,” says Angus. “I replied that she must be mistaken, but was then directed to review Harbour Air’s assistance policy online. It clearly stated that, although they’re willing to assist passengers as best they can, ‘All passengers travelling with Harbour Air must be ambulatory in order to fly.’ It was shocking to me that, in 2022, the world’s largest seaplane company had this policy and language in place. As a result of an outdated and extremely discriminatory policy, I did not get to spend New Year’s Eve with my family. I will admit this made my blood boil and my heart ache.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Angus has a streak of tenacity that’s clearly evident in the success of her fashion design business—despite the many challenges that came with a tumour resulting in paraplegia in 2015, she barely hit the pause button. So not surprisingly, her anger and frustration gave way to a resolve to change the situation.

“I decided to do something about it because it was the only way I could feel better about what happened,” says Angus. “As exhausted as I felt with the whole situation, I could not just sit there and allow this to happen to me or others. I learned to adapt after my injury, but I refused to accept exclusion when there are solutions.”

And Angus knew there was a viable solution, because one of Harbour Air’s competitors, Seair, had recently introduced accessible boarding for wheelchair users on its flights between Vancouver and Nanaimo.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709849859698{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]As she waited for a requested followup call from Harbour Air’s customer service department, Angus reviewed what she knew about Seair Seaplanes, BC’s second largest seaplane operator. She had flown with Seair for many years, before and after her injury. A couple of years ago, she was invited by the Rick Hansen Foundation to help develop seaplane accessibility solutions, and that’s when she learned that Seair owner and CEO Peter Clarke was truly an ally.

“He had donated time, money, and seaplanes to help come up with accessible solutions for all,” says Angus. “Since that time, Seair has taken leadership in developing and implementing universal accessible solutions into their flight policy and is finding it to be very successful, both in terms of passenger satisfaction and increased revenue.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][mk_image src=”https://sci-bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/seair-2-scaled-e1709684471164.jpg” image_size=”full” desc=”Chloe Angus has found a committed ally in Peter Clarke, CEO and owner of Seair Seaplanes.” caption_location=”outside-image”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709684754959{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Clarke and his company had worked with a few different options to try to identify and deploy safe, durable technology that would allow passengers in wheelchairs to access its fleet of seaplanes. Eventually, they found a workable solution and a partner with Vancouver Island-based Aircraft Access Solutions, inventors of the Wright Lift for small aircraft boarding (see sidebar for more information).

“It’s a lift that truly works and overcomes the challenges of boarding seaplanes—moving docks, wind, tide, and waves,” says Angus. “It’s lightweight, easy to operate, and efficient in loading passengers of varied abilities. Most importantly, it offers a safe way to provide accessible seaplane travel to customers. Seair did not hesitate to put in the order and was able to get the first lift last June, which is when it started to offer accessible flights. Not only did Peter see the solution, he saw the value in investing in his passengers and expanding his market.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][mk_content_box heading=”The Wright Life at the Right Time”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709686201036{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]One big reason that seaplane travel has been so inaccessible is a lack of a safe, viable device to lift a passenger with a disability from the dock to their seat in the plane’s cabin. The Wright Lift, by Vancouver Island’s Aircraft Access Solutions, has changed all that.

The high-strength aluminum frame of the lightweight lift is customized with length and rise suitable for the aircraft it’s intended for. At the top, it’s secured into place inside the cabin of the seaplane, while the bottom is free to move on the dock thanks to casters—this is what allows it to continuously self-adjust in the presence of waves or wind.

The chair’s sides drop to allow easy transfers. The chair locks into position for loading, lifting and lowering, but at the top position, it swivels the user into cabin, at which point one of the sides flattens into a transfer bridge to the regular seat. The seat and its passenger are smoothly raised and lowered with a winch powered by a cordless drill, or by hand. It takes about 30 seconds for it to load passengers weighing up to 300 pounds.

Portability is key—it can be wheeled down a dock and secured into position in minutes, and deployed in the most remote of locations. In addition to seaplanes, it’s also intended for use on small fixed wing aircraft like Cessnas, small private jets, and helicopters.

Passengers unable to transfer independently from their wheelchair to the Wright Lift can use the Wright Handler. Made of durable water-resistant webbing and fabric, it’s placed under the user in their chair, and wraps around their thighs and chest. Multiple handles allow two to four people to lift people with relative ease.[/vc_column_text][mk_image src=”https://sci-bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/20220224_143950_full_1.jpg” image_size=”full” desc=”The Wright Lift.” caption_location=”outside-image”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709849774767{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Five Wright Lifts are in use. Seair has three of them—one at their Vancouver terminal, one at their Nanaimo terminal, and one that can be carried in any of the company’s seaplanes. Two others are in private use. User feedback is excellent, and the company reports interest in the device is growing, from BC, and from other provinces and countries.

The Wright Lift is the brainchild of Aircraft Access Solutions owner and CEO Butch Wright, who lives in Duncan, BC. He built the first Wright Lift four years ago, but has been designing mobility lift devices for years. His inspiration for doing so has been his younger brother Kenny, who sustained an SCI in 1974.

“My experience is firsthand; I understand the challenges of helping those with motion disabilities access the world around them,” says Wright. “In 2023, it’s ridiculous that people with mobility issues can still not access so many places. Finally, the public is aware and it’s time to have accessibility everywhere for everyone. We look forward to helping many people travel to places they only dreamed about.”

The Wright Lift has a patent pending. To date, it has not required approvals from Transport Canada. Aircraft Access Canada says it is currently working through all channels to gain support from the federal government and hopes to soon see Transport Canada welcome the Wright Lift as a safe and affordable solution. You can learn more and see video of the Wright Lift in action at aircraftaccesssolutions.com.[/vc_column_text][/mk_content_box][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709680731651{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Angus became determined to let Harbour Air know about the Wright Lift and Seair’s positive experiences with it. And she knew she had a staunch ally in Clarke, who, upon hearing about Angus’ problem with Harbour Air, agreed to share Seair’s successes with the Wright Lift and offering accessible travel in general.

“The bottom line is that Peter cares deeply about people,” says Angus. “Because of that, he is willing to share his knowledge and success with others in the industry, even his competition, to help expand accessibility across the board.”

Early in the new year, Harbour Air’s customer service manager got in touch with Angus to discuss the issue she had on New Year’s Eve. Angus explained her situation and requested an in-person meeting with the company’s CEO.

“Harbour Air took the incident and my request seriously, and the following week I met with their new CEO, Bert Van Der Stege, and his team,” she says. “We discussed in-depth the issues around accessible seaplane travel, importance of inclusion, and corporate responsibility. In the end, they expressed their appreciation for me taking the time to share my experience, expertise, and ideas with them. Looking me in the eye, Mr. Van Der Stege and his team committed to doing what it takes to improve services and accessibility.”

Angus was pleased to see that, soon after the meeting, Harbour Air updated its mobility page, removing a statement that only ambulatory passengers who require minimal assistance will be able to board its flights.

“This was a commendable first step towards making real change,” says Angus.

Next, Angus took Clarke up on his offer to share Seair’s knowledge and experience. In February, she arranged a meeting between Seair, Harbour Air, the Vancouver Flight Centre, and Access Aircraft Solutions to demo the Wright Lift and to discuss next steps forward. That meeting, she says, went extremely well.

“I am happy to report that the entire thing is moving forward in a positive direction,” she says. “We hope to put together another demo for other interested airlines and community members in the near future. Seair has done everything they can, from developing and implementing the solution to writing accessibility into their flight plan policy, but if we’re going to see real change throughout the province, and Canada as a whole, the industry needs to work together and support each other in providing universal accessibility to all passengers. If they share information and pool their resources, change could be swift and the impact monumental.”[/vc_column_text][mk_padding_divider size=”25″][mk_image src=”https://sci-bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/seair-3.jpg” image_size=”full” desc=”A seaplane equipped with a Wright Lift.” caption_location=”outside-image”][mk_padding_divider size=”25″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709680851064{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]At the time of writing this story, which was late February 2023, Harbour Air had not made a commitment to purchase and implement the Wright Lift or offer any alternative. One media outlet that covered this story earlier this year as it was unfolding was CityNews 1130, which reported receiving an emailed statement from Harbour Air in which they described how they were proceeding. “Since not all lift systems available for seaplane operations today meet the approved safety standards or are deemed suitable for the variety of aircraft types that we operate, we continue to engage in conversations with several manufacturers to adjust and design tools that would increase our ability to safely carry travellers with mobility challenges,” read the statement.

Taking into account its importance and position in the market (its fleet of 42 seaplanes is three times the size of its nearest competitor, Seair), no one should be surprised that Harbour Air is exploring its options carefully. Here at SCI BC, we see its willingness to quickly take part in a dialogue and publicly state that it will make accessibility a priority as a good omen. And we should note that the company, which is the sole provider of seaplane service between Vancouver Coal Harbour and Victoria Inner Harbour, is clearly progressive—the fact that it is working so hard to develop electric seaplanes attests to this. So at this point, it seems Harbour Air deserves the benefit of the doubt. Angus agrees.

“Harbour Air has committed to continue updating their policy and working with industry and community to provide accessible travel for all passengers,” she says. “I choose to believe in people and trust that a person’s word still has value.”

As such, she will remain committed to being a resource to Harbour Air, along with the many other smaller seaplane companies operating up and down BC’s coast.

“Today the industry needs to be united in their collective corporate responsibility to provide universal access for all. Not only is it the right thing to do, it will increase revenue for all companies, big and small, that include people with a wide range of motion disabilities. The goal is to unite companies and community to support each other in providing universal access to air and aqua travel for all. As I always say, we have the solutions; all we have to do is apply them.

“Much of my life prior to my injury was adventurous and remote, from growing up in a remote location in Jervis Inlet to visiting and working with the many fishing and eco lodges all throughout BC that are boat or plane access only. I want to live that life again, and I want others to have that opportunity too.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1709680900565{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Spin.

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Read more stories from the Spring 2023 issue of The Spin, including:
  • Testosterone therapy
  • Smoking cessation
  • Nutrition for people with SCI

And more!

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