Aircraft ramp has huge benefits for less able passengers

The air travel sector crosses swords with the special needs community at its peril. A decade ago, one of the low-cost airlines ended up in court when it imposed an £18 single-use charge for wheelchairs at its main UK base. The operator was forced to compensate the traveller who had brought the action, backed by the Disability Rights Commission. More important, though, was the reputational loss to the airline in the court of public opinion.

Compared with the other problems endured by non-walking wheelchair users at airports, that falling-out over charges pales into insignificance. Where level access from an airport terminal is not available, and the aircraft can be reached only by a flight of steps, wheelchair-bound passengers have to be hoisted on a telescopic platform to the level of the galley loading door along with the cooked meal containers and miscellaneous cabin cargo. This is not very dignified.

UK initiative with worldwide potential

A company based in the West Midlands has developed a solution for boarding aircraft from the tarmac which extends far beyond the benefits to the occasional wheelchair user. It replaces the flight of steps with an inclined ramp from ground level to the passenger door. The gradient is sufficiently shallow to handle wheelchairs, baby buggies and the growing proportion of often elderly but otherwise able-bodied passengers who prefer not to have to climb a steep staircase.

A quick calculation would show that a single ramp at an acceptable angle from the ground up to the aircraft could be too long for the ground handling facilities at many airports. By constructing the air ramp as a three-part zig-zag, however, that hurdle is overcome and creates a compact but flexible solution that will be delivered to an airport in a container.

The customer could be either the ground-handling contractor or an airline which wanted to draw a competitive advantage for its own passengers. A range of three models can accommodate the full range of access heights encountered across aircraft flying today. And at a cost of around £50,000, it is a facility that could reasonably be afforded even at provincial airports across the world.

Apart from the practical and psychological benefits to ‘encumbered’ passengers, the ramp has been shown to achieve financial savings under operational conditions. One no-frills airline which has been trialling the system reported being able to load a full complement of passengers eight minutes faster than by using a staircase. That achieves significant savings particularly at the end of a busy day when aircraft on tight schedules are running late and take-off slots are at a premium.

One airline saving eight minutes at a single UK airport is probably not the basis for building a successful manufacturing business. But when the total package of benefits – time savings and improved quality of life for disabled passengers – is taken into account, the product has enormous export potential.

The company could not have timed the launch of its system better given the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil. Disabled competitors – many of them in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues – will be arriving from around the world. Travel-hardened though these passengers may be, the ability to embark and disembark quickly, and in comfort, dignity and style, will have a bearing on their total experience of the Games.

It is encouraging to find that the first export order is from Mexico rather than Brazil, suggesting that the merits of the solution are already being recognised beyond the immediately obvious marketplace of the Paralympics .

High street bank referred its client to TAEFL Group for trade finance

How the Trade & Export Finance group came to be involved was through an introduction from one of the high street banks. While the air ramp was a major technical development, and the company’s owners had a track record in running a manufacturing business, the bank could not support the funding of exports of the air ramp. Aware that this was within the proven expertise of TAEFL, it invited the Aston team to work with its customer.

TAEFL agreed to fund the sale of the system to Mexico through one of the finance companies in the group, against a Letter of Credit. This is a potential minefield of risk if the document is not drawn up in the appropriate terms. TAEFL’s specialists in this field advised the manufacturer on

the detailed wording, which will see the TAEFL Group repaid as the equipment is delivered to the airport in Mexico.

The prospects for this UK exporter are good. It has a product set with a huge worldwide marketplace. No less important, it has the production capacity to build four or five of the units every week. Using its funding and skill sets, TAEFL and the specialist finance companies in the group are able to turn an export opportunity into an export success.

Return to Case Studies >>