When Richard Williams and his wife Jane, who has cerebral palsy, were left stranded while they waited for assistance to get off a plane in 2019, the 63-year-old knew something needed to be done.
The management consultant said the hold-up was a nightmare – and was a bitter end to a lovely trip to Malaysia.
Richard, from Derbyshire, explains: ‘Like any of the other passengers, at 5.30am you’re just ready to get home. But we were stuck on the plane for 45 minutes – just us and another man in first class waiting for assistance.
‘While we waited, the crew couldn’t get off. The cleaners couldn’t come on. We were all just waiting.
‘Eventually, I was so fed up I got off the plane, had a look around the airport and found an abandoned wheelchair. I got back on and helped Jane off the plane myself.
‘We’d had a cracking trip, but it was soured. I realised then that it shouldn’t be so difficult. I knew I’d had enough and had to do something about it.’
While the pair love to travel, Jane’s disability means she can only walk short distances, can struggle to communicate clearly and tires easily.
And the husband and wife – who have been married for 40 years and share two kids and one grandchild – have battled with this problem for decades.
Richard adds: ‘The challenging experience of travelling through an airport with someone with restricted mobility begins from the moment you’re parking the car.
‘You get dropped off roads away from the actual airport. You’ve then got to queue to see a person at the desk who’ll often tell you wheelchair assistance is at the extremity of the building. If you ask for help getting there you face a wait for that.
‘You are then given a wheelchair. Sometimes, as an accompanying passenger, you’re asked to push them. Other times, one of the staff will push the chair.
‘So, you either get pushed to the gate or you go on your own. You’re then left without the chair in a nearby café and told the assistance will come back 20 minutes before boarding.
‘Often, it doesn’t show-up or is late and if there’s a gate change at the last minute, it’s really stressful.
‘For Jane, and others like her, it can be a physically painful experience. She’s been in tears in airports because of the pain, or because of having to be dragged along by me.’
The particular incident at the end of their Malaysia holiday spurred Richard to come up with a solution.
He decided to make his wife a special carry-on wheelchair – which combines a chair, walker and travel case.
‘I built the first version on the patio at home,’ the 63-year-old grandad explains.
‘I asked Jane to sit in it and give me her honest opinion and she said, “It’s absolutely cr*p!”
‘I’d not invented a product personally before, but I’m a chartered engineer and have been working in management for the manufacturing industry for years, so I’ve always looked for solutions to overcome problems.
‘So, I just kept thinking back over the problems we’d face in airports and how to solve them.
‘I kept going through several iterations. It’s not rocket science, but it is an ingenious mechanism, getting a chair to fold down into carry-on size. The whole point is for you to be able to carry it on to a plane, so there would be no need to wait for assistance getting off.’
After some tweaks, his product – named the Traveller Chair – was born.
Not only does it work as a seat and wheelchair – which can hold anyone up to 16 stone – but it’s also a 17-litre piece of luggage.
It also can be folded down, so you can take it onto the plane, and it fits in the overhead locker when you’re on board.
Richard says that the chair wouldn’t be suitable for anyone paraplegic or for long-term use, as it’s designed for people with restricted mobility.
But hopes this invention will be useful in bringing back dignity in air travel for people like his wife.
And, after being fully developed and tested, it’s now on the market for £449.
Jane is also thrilled with her new chair and used it on their recent holiday to Menorca.
She says: ‘Sometimes travelling is very difficult. We’ve had times when we’ve waited for assistance. Other times, I’ve been put on the golf buggy and Richard has had to walk, meaning we’re separated in a foreign country.
‘I like to look in duty free. There are some fantastic shops in different airports but with special assistance they just take you from A to B.
‘I use it as both a walker and a chair and on holiday, it was like having my legs back fully functioning.’
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