The boardroom of Irelandia Aviation is tucked beside a railway bridge in the heart of Dublin’s docklands. It is packed to capacity and overflowing into the surrounding rooms with aviation leaders who are all in Dublin for the annual Airline Economics conference, which attracts over 2,000 people annually. This Monday’s morning briefing is from a 32-year-old Dubliner called Jack Kavanagh.

Eleven years ago, Kavanagh suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury after a swimming accident that left him with 15 per cent muscle function. Kavanagh is a pharmacist but also a disability campaigner as a non-executive director of the National Disability Authority and its Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. He explains to the room, based on personal experience and using social media posts from other wheelchair users, how hard it is to fly if you have mobility requirements.

Declan Ryan, the serial airline founder and executive chair of Irelandia, asks some practical questions as does John Slattery, the non-executive chair of Heart Aerospace, the Swedish electric aeroplane maker, and Jean Botti, the cofounder of Volt Aero, a hotly tipped new green aircraft startup. Eamonn Brennan, the former director of Eurocontrol and ex-chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority, then makes his point. “This needs to be top-down,” he says. “Regulators need to set the standards and set a deadline for planes to be more accessible. Once that happens, then the whole industry will follow.”

Solving a big problem

After the briefing, I join Jack Kavanagh as the boardroom empties out and attendees head to the Shelbourne Hotel for the aviation conference. Kavanagh says he was prompted to speak out as he knew from personal experience and from speaking with others how hard it is to fly if you have mobility requirements. “Airlines are the only kind of travel where your mobility equipment is taken away from you,” he says. “This takes away your independence, your postural support and your agency in the world. We need to come up with better solutions. 

“Regulators, airline funders and airline executives need to see that there is a viable case to do things differently. We need to take a universal design approach that sets standards,” Kavanagh says. At any time, 15 per cent of the population has some form of disability and one per cent use wheelchairs so millions of people have either had bad experiences flying or chosen not to fly at all. “We need specifications that airline manufacturers need to meet in terms of safety and accessibility,” he says. 

“At the moment, it is all in a grey area. There are ad hoc solutions everywhere. You could turn up for one flight and it is fine but on the return flight discover it is not OK. The thing to do is bring in a uniform solution that everyone can buy into.” Kavanagh says that Ireland is a global capital for aviation so it should take the lead on this, both for new planes and retrofitting old ones. “We need a hard stop date by which airlines need to comply,” he says. 

“Today was about explaining the problem, the next step is about solving it.”

Kavanagh says that he was encouraged to hear from Slattery and Botti about how designs for new electric or hybrid planes include accessibility from the start, but that this needs to become mainstream in the airline industry. He says he felt forced to campaign for airline accessibility because he could see how people with mobility requirements were impacted by bad experiences travelling. 

“I didn’t arrive here deliberately,” Kavanagh says. “I have had poor experiences flying like so many other people for a prolonged period of time and at a certain point, you reach your capacity to tolerate that and want to do something about it.” 

Kavanagh says Ireland is a leader in so many areas of global aviation that it should take the lead, too, on making planes more accessible to everybody. “We have the real capacity to change things just with people in the room today. We can significantly move the needle,” he says.

“The essence of what business is, is about innovating and problem solving to meet the needs of customers. Awareness always precedes change. When people are not aware of the real impact a problem has on people, they can’t provide a solution. Today was about explaining the problem, the next step is about solving it.”