SINGAPORE - 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 also has user-friendly features for people with disabilities, such as grab bars and a sink which is lower than usual so that a user can 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 showcased for the first time at the Singapore Airshow held at the 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 (Feb 12) that the firm anticipates a demand for Access with airlines becoming more aware of the needs of people with disabilities and an ageing population.
The lavatory opens up about 13inches (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, said Mr Tan.
It is designed for narrow-body aircraft, which is 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. But several US airlines have already shown interest, added Mr Tan.
Since the middle of last year, ST Engineering has worked with a UK group called Tryb4uFly under the charity Queens 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 fully functional in the smaller state as well.
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 could hardly accommodate a caregiver.
In a bid to modernise the looks and functionality of aircraft lavatories, ST Engineering has designed another product, called the Next-Generation Aircraft Lavatory, or Arc.
Its patented cartridge design means that the amenities in the lavatory, such as napkins, can be replenished without a person having to enter the toilet. This could reduce the turnaround time for ground crew.