Passenger airplanes need passengers to board and be seated before the plane can take off. Upon arrival passengers have to be able to disembark quickly and easily. Everyone knows this, and it’s an air transportation basic. What few people do know though, is that a great deal of thought and effort goes into designing and constructing conveyances to assist passengers to board and disembark commercial jet liners.
Aircraft passenger stairs are most commonly used to board and leave a plane, followed by ramp assemblies. Whether stairs, gangways and ramps of one sort or another are used at a specific airport to get passengers on and off planes depends on the airport, and to some extent the airline.
The most common type of boarding ramp requires passengers to board aircraft by walking along a walkway from the departure gate, then cross over an elevated section into the aircraft. This type of boarding ramp, with minor modifications, is the only fixed aircraft passenger ramp and one of only two types of wheelchair accessible options.
Other methods of boarding a commercial passenger plane require passengers to climb up and down a set of movable stairs, or board and disembark via a mobile staircases, also called ramp stairs. A forth option is rarer. It uses a bus like vehicle, which drives up to an airplane and the entire cabin is raised to the level of the door. Passengers then walk to and from the plane, and once loaded or emptied the vehicle cabin is lowered and drives off. This method of loading and unloading aircraft is wheelchair friendly.
Smaller airports and terminals that support budget carriers most often use aircraft passenger stairs rather than the elevated ramps. The stairs can either be towable aircraft passenger stair, which are towed by a vehicle, or the stairs are mounted on the back of a truck. Airports that do not provide gangways from departure gates may provide mobile, adjustable height crew access stairs as well. If not, crews have to board ahead of passengers by using the passenger stairs.
Mobile aircraft passenger stairs come in three basic types. The first are stairs mounted on the back of a truck. The truck drives up under the door of a plane and stops. The passenger stairway is extended to reach the door of the aircraft, and remains in place until all of the passenger and crew are on board or have deplaned.
The second type of aircraft passenger stair is on wheels that can be manually rolled up to the door of the plane or towed. Breaks are set and the stairs remain in place until passenger and crew have gotten on of off the plane. Neither this nor the previous aircraft passenger stair solution are wheelchair friendly.
The only other wheelchair accessible solution is actually a mobile aircraft passenger ramp. The equipment is a switch back version of the mobile aircraft stairs. It too is pushed up to the aircraft using its own wheels, but rather than rungs of a stairway the assembly is a ramp. To limit the incline, the ramp switches back and forth, allowing room for passengers to turn and climb higher by walking in the opposite direction. Usually there are 3 ramps with two turns. Together they create a Z configuration that wheelchairs can easily navigate.
No matter what type of aircraft passenger stair is used, a towable, aircraft passenger stair, ramp or gangway, the goal is to board and disembark the plane as efficiently as possible. Constant refinements to designs of aircraft passenger stairs are being made to improve safety, efficiency and mobility, as is the case with every piece of equipment used in the aviation industry.
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