Air travel

How the environment has benefited from Brignell's Rule

I’m 30 and I’ve never been on a plane. It struck me the other day that there can’t be many 30 year olds in Britain who can say that (especially if you exclude those who have grown up in poverty and cannot afford to go on holiday).

Actually, it’s not strictly true that I’ve never been on a plane. When I was about eight, my dad carried me onto the prototype Concorde that’s kept at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. But it is indeed true that I’ve never travelled anywhere by plane.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I’ve been told that toilets on planes are minute and hardly big enough to swing a mouse let alone a cat. And when you’re a wheelchair user who can usually only transfer onto a toilet with the help of two assistants and a hoist you need plenty of space. I might be able to cross my legs for a short trip to Paris or Rome but a long flight to Canada or New Zealand is definitely out of the question.

Secondly, I’ve heard some astonishing horror stories about the way in which some airline companies treat wheelchairs. One man once described to me how he landed in Majorca to find that his wheelchair had been broken in three places. Not just one but three. He doesn’t know whether it was broken when it was being loaded or unloaded or whether it happened in transit. Either way, his wheelchair was completely unusable so he had to hire a standard one and spend his holiday sitting in a chair which was far less comfortable than his own. Needless to say, this considerably marred his enjoyment of his summer break.

Another wheelchair-user arrived at her holiday destination overseas only to discover that her wheelchair had been left behind at Heathrow. When she returned home to Manchester, her wheelchair was again left at Heathrow. This happened despite months of careful planning with the airline companies and airports involved. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to mislay a wheelchair once is unfortunate but to mislay it twice smacks of carelessness.

And it’s not just us ordinary members of the public who are affected – celebrities suffer too. Recently the actress Julie Fernandez (who appeared in The Office) told me that her wheelchair was badly damaged when she flew back to the UK from Vienna last July. She says it was unsafe to use on arrival and received £3,000 compensation.

My wheelchair has a specially-designed headrest because the muscles in my neck are weak and my head tilts to one side. I can only hold my head up for a short time when stationery and it’s impossible when I’m being pushed along. If I went on a plane I would be constantly worried that this headrest would get damaged. As it was specially made for me, I couldn’t simply hire a replacement. With no headrest, my assistants would have to hold my head all day and the holiday would be ruined. (And even if the headrest was damaged on the return journey, I would still face a long wait before a new headrest could be constructed).

I know that many, many wheelchair-users fly every year without anything going wrong but Brignell’s Law dictates that if I boarded a plane I would be among those who encounter problems. (As you can see, I’m not one of life’s optimists). Of course, my wheelchair could arrive in perfect condition but I’m no gambler and it’s not a chance I’m willing to take.

I used to regret the fact that I couldn’t easily travel by plane. After all, I’m interested in history, geography and other cultures and I would love to see the ancient city of Petra, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House or the Alaskan landscape. But in recent years I’ve changed my outlook and I now celebrate the fact that I’m an airplane virgin.

Aviation is by far the most polluting form of transport ever invented. It's quickly becoming a serious cause of global warming, with aviation emissions the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide in Britain. Emissions from UK aviation have already increased by nearly 70% since 1990. Although this currently accounts for only 3% of national carbon emissions, this figure is expected to double within 25 years.

Moreover, aviation’s apparently low proportion of total emissions is misleading. When aviation fuel is burned at high altitudes a complex chemical reaction occurs which makes airplane emissions four times more damaging than those at ground level.

The Department for Transport predicts that the number of British airplane passengers will rise from 228 million today to 465 million by 2030. The British Government has pledged to cut UK carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050 but the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has estimated that, on present trends, aviation emissions could make up half of the UK’s total emissions target by 2050. This would cancel out any reductions in other sectors.

With so much evidence of the threat air travel poses to the future of the planet, I am thankful that I don’t use planes. I’d like to think that if I were able-bodied I would choose not to fly (whether an able-bodied version of me would have the will-power and self-discipline to stick to this we’ll never know). However, it just so happens that my disability makes it easy for me to make that choice. When I hear environmental campaigners describing the impact air travel is having on the climate, I can be smug knowing that, in this respect at least, I’m not guilty. And since I want to have a clear conscience, I shall endeavour to keep my airplane virginity.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.