Josh Wintersgill was enjoying a drink by a Tenerife pool when the entrepreneurial spark hit him. He been pondering how to make travelling easier for people with disabilities; a quandary close to his heart.

Josh, now 25, has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type three – a progressive muscle wastage condition affecting every muscle in the body. His physical capabilities have reduced with age and, since age nine, he has required a wheelchair on a daily basis.

Yet Josh loves travelling and so has experienced the often-undignified, stressful and uncomfortable process of being transferred on and off aircraft. In the Canary Island sunshine he imagined a device that would bring an end to the barriers of air travel for many people with reduced physical mobility.

Less than two years later his innovation, easyTravelseat, is now attracting attention of major airports and even has the backing of one of Europe’s most prominent entrepreneurs.

Josh says: “As a kid, my nan used to take me to Tenerife most summers and growing up, I’d also been to places like Turkey, Florida, Lapland and Sweden. So I was pretty well travelled, but as I got older, my condition deteriorated and more and more issues arose when flying abroad.

“One of the problems I experienced was just how undignified, uncomfortable and unsafe it was to be lifted under your arms and legs onto an airplane. As well as the prospect of being manhandled, there is also the issue of airports and airlines not having specialist equipment in place to assist in the process.

“With my invention, the airport doesn’t need any specialist equipment, as the passenger brings it with them in their wheelchair. Also, assistance is not needed to move equipment from one end of the airport to the other.”

The easyTravelseat is placed in the wheelchair on the day of travel. The user can then sit in it until they reach their destination, using their preferred method of transfer on and off the plane. This can either be via a hoist, or with two to four manual lifters.

Travellers do not need to be lifted to put transferring equipment under them as it is already in place. The product also comes with a double-layered pressure relief cushion to alleviate pressure from the lower back and buttocks area when sitting for sustained periods.

Crucially, easyTravelseat circumnavigates the widespread lack of specialist infrastructure in airports. Only 15 of the 34 main commercial airports in the UK have transferring equipment in place.

In Spain, meanwhile, it is only present in two of 23 commercial airports. “If you travel around Europe, you will notice the severe lack of airports equipped with the appropriate transferring equipment too and find yourself being lifted under the arms and legs,” Josh says.

Relying on special assistance and airport equipment not only limits destination options, but creates extra problems. As well as possible language barriers, there is the potential for discomfort and even injury caused by being manually lifted and jostled into transferring equipment.

It also adds extra time constraints. Additional processes must be carried out on top of sorting luggage and getting the wheelchair into  the hold. Josh also believes many carriers do not have formal equipment in place to transfer disabled passengers off the aircraft in an emergency. “The airline industry has been ignoring this for years,” he says.

His device features manual handles and extension straps that can be used in emergency situations.

The brand name of his creation offers a major clue to its influential backer. Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet, has invested through his easyGroup company into Josh’s business, Able Move. Their paths first crossed when Josh entered the Stelios Awards for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK 2018, administered by the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation in partnership with Leonard Cheshire Disability.

Not only did Josh win the £30,000 first prize to develop his idea, but he attracted the attention of the serial entrepreneur and founding father of budget airline travel. Perhaps he recognised similarities between his own journey to make air travel accessible to more people; and Josh’s mission to do just that for disabled travellers.

Josh says: “After winning the award, Sir Stelios invited us to his headquarters in London. He liked the idea and so we had various meetings over two weeks about brand licensing and an investment deal. We are now part of his ‘easy’ family of brands. We are not part of easyJet but we share the same branding and easyGroup Ltd owns a percentage of my company through his investment.

“It’s fantastic to have him onboard but so far we’ve been in an area where I haven’t really needed to ask him anything significant. I’m just getting on with what needs to be done and there’s no point in going and asking him silly questions. If I’m going to ask a guy like Sir Stelios a question it’s going to be a big one!”

After months of research and development, building a solution to suit as many people as possible and adhering to various airline measurements and requirements, easyTravelseat is now commercially available.

From a neuro-rehab perspective, Josh urges carers, loved ones and other professionals such as case managers to consider the benefits of making air travel smoother, safer and less stressful for the severely injured.

“If the individual has an acute condition that is relatively new and they are still working with occupational therapists and social workers, for example, I would advise the case manager to contact us and we can work with them to make sure it’s the right solution for their needs.

“A lot of our customers have been disabled for a long time and know what works and doesn’t work for them, so it can be a bit of a juggling act.

“Within the healthcare sector, there are so many variations of slings and seats and it’s nigh on impossible to suit everybody without having 100 different sizes and designs. I’m not saying this will work for everyone but we have created something that suits the vast majority.”

As well as transforming air travel for his customers, Josh is also considering ways of tweaking the product to match other types of travel. “My dream holiday is a safari and I’d love to make that happen with the easyTravelseat.”