Southwest Airlines has long been a carrier of choice for not only my family, but for many of our friends who use manual wheelchairs. We have traveled with several adaptive sports teams and have always enjoyed the fact that most of the manual wheelchairs fit into the aisle of the plane, thus limiting use of the aisle chair, long nicknamed for its resemblance to something out of “Silence of the Lambs”.
Not having to use an aisle chair is a bonus for wheelchair users who can transfer independently or with minimal assistance. It is freeing to be able to wheel into an airplane on one’s own accord, and easily transfer into the first row, utilizing the moveable arm rest. It’s also a lot quicker.
Southwest was one of the only airlines in the U.S. whose configuration allowed this to happen. Well, not any more. Unfortunately, the new 737-800 airplane, while beautiful and sleek, now requires the use of an aisle chair. There is a large cabinet on the immediate right of the entrance that is so wide, that most manual wheelchairs will not be able to corner and get into the bulkhead seat.
Additionally, the armrests are no longer moveable to make room for table trays . Our flight attendants acknowledged the change with regret; they understand how easy it was to get on their planes quickly and efficiently under the old configuration. They now witness the extra time it takes to transfer twice, and lose some independence in the process.
Southwest has always been a friend to the disability community; their staff is some of the best trained in wheelchair handling, and disability awareness. We just wish they had thought about the many consumers who use wheelchairs before they took away one of the main reasons we fly them.