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The imperative for accessibility in advanced air mobility

By Arthur Gilmore | July 20, 2023

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 26 seconds.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made definite improvements for accessibility in public buildings, buses, trains and subways, and we comply with these in our design work every day.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), on the other hand, has not done as much to improve travel accessibility for those who need it. Operators say it’s too hard and too expensive, and they have a point. It is a challenge, but challenges need to be addressed with clarity, focus and creativity.

OEMs that take on the challenge of designing an aircraft with human factors in mind will be the ones to have long-term success. Gilmore Group Photo

For the most part, we are not seeing very many eVTOL aircraft designs addressing accessibility as much as they could be. It’s not as inclusive as it needs to be, and there is a lack of universal design principles regarding human factors.

As a brand-new sector, eVTOL developers hold the power to make changes for the better. It’s time to address the roughly 60 million Americans who have some form of disability with a dignified design approach.

Accessibility changes to AAM designs

When advanced air mobility (AAM) stakeholders talk about urban air mobility and regional air mobility, their designs speak louder than their words. Some eVTOL aircraft designs can be more inclusive of the elderly, people of size, and people with disabilities.

Right now, much of the focus seems to be on certifying these aircraft to fly and not on designing them to fly people. We believe that some original equipment manufacturers (OEM) will regret their decisions to focus on meeting flying and investment milestones at the expense of addressing the importance of real customer experience, with a particular focus on universal design.

We’ve seen some unrealistic illustrations and concept renderings of eVTOL cabin designs with regard to accessibility. For example, we’ve seen folded wheelchairs within the cabin, which can end up blocking an exit in a crash. There are also illustrations of people in wheelchairs moving alongside eVTOL aircraft alluding to their accommodation, but the reality is, it will be extremely difficult to lift people out of their wheelchair and place them into such a high seat. Furthermore, inadequate luggage space on eVTOL aircraft prevents passengers from being able to safely stow their medical equipment, such as wheelchairs.

We’ve also seen dimensionally compromised openings and deep bucket seat designs that would make it difficult for those with mobility issues and different body types to get on board and slide comfortably into their seat. Bucket seats, gullwing doors, and compound curve forms can often sacrifice functionality for the sake of style.

These design choices look good now but won’t help sell eVTOL aircraft fleets in the future when usability, functionality, and maintainability become key.

Questionable design choices like large gullwing doors, inadequate steps, undersized seating, dimensionally compromised openings, and a lack of luggage space will prove to be regrettable decisions down the road.

Categories beyond mobility issues include low vision, hearing impaired, and cognitive impairment. Since there won’t be any flight attendants on board to assist, how are critical safety information, directional updates, or accommodations going to be communicated or provided to these passengers?

More than making them feel welcome, we need to make them feel safe. We need to use smart technology, such as assisted listening devices or visual alert and signaling systems for the hearing impaired, and improved visualizations utilizing high contrast and color accessibility for those with low vision.

Next steps

Whether it’s grandma, someone with cerebral palsy, a veteran, or a child with autism, people have a right to accessible public transport, so we must do our best to develop solutions.

Human factors are critical. They represent much more than just simple anthropometrics and ergonomics. Human factors really represent the optimized human experience. Human beings are adaptable, so they accept compromise, but for those OEMs that take on the challenge of designing an aircraft with human factors in mind, including universal design for those with disabilities, they will be the ones to have long-term success.

Arthur Gilmore is the president and CEO of Gilmore Group, an industrial design and branding firm with a focus on human experience design. The New York-based group has worked on numerous human-factors programs in aviation, ranging from general aviation programs with Honda Jet and Textron Aviation to commercial airline programs. Gilmore has an industrial design degree from Carnegie Mellon where he also studied architecture and mechanical engineering.

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