New Delta Seat Design Would Fundamentally Change Air Travel for Wheelchair Users

A new prototype for the first-of-its-kind airplane seat was unveiled this week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, and could transform the inflight experience for passengers with reduced mobility.

Air4All prototype for airplane wheelchair restraint seat

The patented design converts a standard passenger seat into one that can accommodate a wheelchair restraint.

Courtesy of Air4All

Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, this week debuted an airplane seat that will allow travelers who use a wheelchair to bring their wheelchair onto the aircraft and remain seated in it for the duration of the flight.

The prototype for the revolutionary new seat design was created in partnership with U.K.-based Air4All, which develops accessible aircraft seating, and was unveiled this week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany.

The patented design enables airlines to retain the seat layout of their aircraft cabins by converting a standard passenger seat into one that can accommodate a wheelchair restraint. It also provides wheelchair-using passengers access to a headrest and a center console tray table that can adjust into position once the wheelchair is in place.

“Commercial aviation is the only mode of transport that has no regulations to allow power wheelchair users to travel safely and with dignity seated in their own chair in an aircraft cabin,” Air4All writes on its website.

At present, wheelchair users are required to go through an intense juggling act to get through the airport and into their airplane seat. After checking in their wheelchair, they are then taken to the gate via an airline-provided wheelchair service. And then they are transferred to their seat where, for those who are fully reliant on their wheelchairs, they will remain for the duration of the flight.

Add to that the fact that there’s no guarantee that their wheelchair will arrive at the destination intact. In 2022, 11,389 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by U.S. carriers, according to the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, released in February 2023.

The crux of the problem is that passengers aren’t currently able to use their own personal wheelchairs as a seat on an airplane, something they can do on other public transport systems such as trains and buses.

According to Air4All, airlines have resisted providing space for wheelchairs because of the resulted loss in seat count when that space isn’t being occupied by wheelchair users. But the Air4All prototype solves for that by converting a regular passenger seat into a wheelchair-friendly one. The wheelchair-accessible seats would also make boarding and disembarking less challenging for passengers with restricted mobility because it would eliminate the need to transfer from their wheelchair to a standard seat.

A September 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the majority of U.S. passenger planes can, in fact, accommodate secured wheelchairs, allowing travelers to remain seated in a personal wheelchair while flying.

“Equipping airplanes with wheelchair securement systems is an intuitively appealing solution to many of the hardships that people with disabilities and who are nonambulatory face when flying,” stated Alan Jette, emeritus professor and dean at Boston University’s Sargent College and chair of the committee that wrote the report, titled “Technical Feasibility of a Wheelchair Securement Concept for Airline Travel: A Preliminary Assessment.”

Airlines carried 741,582 wheelchairs or scooters in 2022. “However, it is challenging to gauge how many people who use wheelchairs avoided flying, or how many would fly if wheelchair securement systems were available,” the report stated.

It recommends that airlines consider freeing up space at the front of the cabin for wheelchair securement systems, such as the one being debuted this week by Delta Flight Products and Air4All at the Aircraft Interiors Expo. The expo, which runs June 6–8, 2023, is an annual showcase of new aircraft cabin concepts. After the expo, the new wheelchair-accessible seat will undergo final design updates, testing, and certification.

“This product remains in its early development stages, with approximately 18 months of work and reviews ahead, but Delta will keep a keen eye on the progress of this concept being driven by our subsidiary as we are always looking for ways to improve the travel experience for all customers,” a Delta spokesperson tells AFAR.

The Delta Flight Products division was created “to re-think aircraft interiors,” according to Delta. In addition to exploring new and evolving approaches to cabin design, inflight technology, furnishings, and food and beverage service, Delta Flight Products is also “engaged in a variety of initiatives to increase air travel accessibility,” including working with a long-standing advisory board on disability issues.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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