November 11, 2022
Rumeysa Gelgi, the world’s tallest living woman, recently boarded an airplane from her home country of Turkey to San Francisco.
However, it wasn’t just any flight. It was Gelgi’s first, and one that highlighted a growing attention to accessibility.
Gelgi, 25, stands at 7 feet, 0.7 inches tall. Her proportions are a result of Weaver syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes bone overgrowth. She has been a Guinness World Record celebrity since her teens, and holds records in several size-related categories, including the longest fingers on a living person and the longest back on a living female person.
Gelgi regularly travels to share her story, and uses her warm wit to spread body positivity on social media. However, despite her international profile, she had never flown on an airplane before. Like many people with Weaver syndrome, Gelgi uses mobility aids to get around, and a long flight would require special accommodation for her extraordinary frame.
But in September, Gelgi finally took to the skies. In an Instagram post a few weeks later, she shared photos from her trip aboard Turkish Airlines, which was made possible after the airlines removed several seats on the plane so Gelgi could rest comfortably on a stretcher during the 13-hour journey from Istanbul to California.
“A flawless journey from start to finish,” Gelgi said on Instagram, praising Turkish Airlines staff and medical personnel for their work. Gelgi said that although it was her first plane ride, “it certainly won’t be my last.”
In her photos, Gelgi appears to get the VIP treatment, conversing with smiling staff aboard the plane and enjoying a first-class meal.
Gelgi, who is a computer programmer as well as a public advocate, says she is spending her time in San Francisco working with Guinness World Records.
CNN has reached out to Turkish Airlines and Guinness World Records for comment.
Making air travel more accessible for everyone
Gelgi’s recent trip highlights a growing awareness of airline accessibility for people with physical differences and disabilities. Historically, air travel has been inconvenient at best for such travelers, and, at worst, abusive and painful.
CNN talked to Linda Ristagno, Assistant Director of External Affairs at the International Air Transport Association, which sets global standards for air travel. Ristagno, who recently received the Open Doors Organization’s Disability Access Professional Award for her work, described what kinds of global and structural efforts are underway to improve accessibility for all travelers.
“We are devoted to ensuring all passengers can enjoy the freedom of air travel, and we expect standards [among participating airlines and airports] to be consistent so the same level of assistance can be offered to everyone,” she said.
Ristagno says a recent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency, produced a historic resolution that will better allow different parts of the industry to work together to improve accessibility.
“This resolution encourages governments to collaborate with airlines and disability organizations, and all actors, including travelers with disabilities, to reach solutions,” she said.
One of the biggest priorities this resolution can help with is the principle of “universal design,” in which accessibility is built into the very structure of buildings and mechanisms, rather than treated as an addition or modification.
Additionally, Ristagno says industry groups and state organizations are also trying to improve infrastructure and procedures around the transport of mobility aids such as motorized wheelchairs — a particular pain point when it comes to accessible travel.
“The root of the challenges airlines face in the loading and safe storage of mobility aids is few have been designed with air transport in mind,” she explains. “That becomes even more challenging as mobility aids grow in size, complexity and weight. There is risk of injury in transporting them, and risk of damaging the device.”
By looking at the issue from all angles, air travel groups like IATA, ICAO and participating parties can explore long-term solutions, including design improvements that allow for easier navigation in airports and on planes, and even better-designed mobility aids.
“There’s an inherent motivation to raise standards, as these passengers represent a growing section of the demand for air travel,” Ristagno said. “Also, disability is a medical term. But accessibility is a social term. We want to make sure we are accessible for all.”