A challenge for wheelchair users when flying is that airplane toilets are too small to fit their mobility aid, but an expandable aircraft lavatory developed by ST Engineering holds some promise.
The toilet, when expanded, offers users 40 per cent more space compared with a conventional lavatory and would fit an on-flight wheelchair. Airlines generally do not allow battery-powered wheelchairs in the cabins as they are too large and heavy.
The toilet has user-friendly features for people with disabilities, such as grab bars and a lower-than-usual sink that allows a user to wash his hands while seated on the toilet.
Called Access, it is touted by ST Engineering as the world's first expandable lavatory. It is being showcased for the first time at the Singapore Airshow held at Changi Exhibition Centre.
Mr Tan Hean Seng, vice-president for commercial business at ST Engineering's Engineering and Development Centre, said during a media tour on Wednesday that the firm anticipates demand for Access, with airlines becoming more aware of the needs of people with disabilities and an ageing population.
The lavatory opens up about 33cm into the back of the aircraft, or the galley area, such that aircraft-makers do not have to sacrifice seats to accommodate a larger lavatory, he said.
It is designed for narrow-body aircraft, which are currently not required under United States law to provide for wheelchair-accessible lavatories, unlike wide-body aircraft such as the Airbus 330 or Boeing 747. The project is now in the middle of attaining airworthiness certification, which is expected by the end of this year.
Several US airlines have already shown interest, said Mr Tan.
Since the middle of last year, ST Engineering has been working with a British group called Tryb4uFly under the charity Queen Elizabeth's Foundation for Disabled People to design the lavatory, which allows a wheelchair user to manoeuvre himself onto the toilet seat.
One flight attendant is needed to expand the toilet, which is also fully functional when not expanded.
National para-powerlifter Kalai Vanen, 60, who was given a demonstration of the lavatory on Wednesday, said: "It is obvious that some thought has gone into designing this. This would help users get in and out more quickly."
Civil servant Lim Boon Ghee, 52, who is a caregiver to his daughter and boccia player Faye Lim, 22, said he appreciates the extra room as conventional lavatories can hardly accommodate a caregiver.
In a bid to modernise the look and functionality of aircraft lavatories, ST Engineering has designed another product, called the Next-Generation Aircraft Lavatory, or Arc.
Its patented cartridge design means amenities in the lavatory, such as napkins, can be replenished without a person having to enter the toilet. This could reduce turnaround time for ground crew.