Air travel can be stressful and uncomfortable for everyone, but for those with mobility issues, it can be downright dangerous. Since wheelchairs are currently not allowed on planes, wheelchair users have to gate check them when they board — and they have to rely on airline employees to carry them to their assigned seats. This process can be demeaning and dangerous for passengers, and some people have been dropped or otherwise injured in the process.
Another problem: When passengers hand over their wheelchairs to the airline to be checked, it’s sometimes returned damaged or even unusable.
But change might be on the horizon. Delta Flight Products recently debuted a new seat design that would allow people to board the plane in their powered wheelchairs and remain in their chairs throughout the flight.
The patented design was revealed at the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo earlier this month. The new design allows for wheelchair users to easily access the plane. Delta Flight Products has taken a traditional airline seat and modified it so that it can safely fold up, making a convenient space for a wheelchair to dock securely in its place.
The aisle-side armrest can fold up and allow the wheelchair users to use their own armrests. Passengers without wheelchairs can sit in the seats when they are in their down position. Essentially, the unique design allows for a wheelchair to be turned into an airline seat.
Delta Flight Products worked with the organization Air4All to create the prototype, which includes a headrest, tray table and specialized seatbelt for wheelchair users. Air4All is a U.K.-based collective of organizations like Flying Disabled that work together to improve airplane access for people with disabilities.
“For decades, people with disabilities have been fighting for more accessible air travel, and this feels like a huge step (or a giant roll) toward real inclusivity,” Lee told CNN.
Other disability advocates also said the new seat design will be a game-changer for people with disabilities, making air travel more accessible.
“An innovation like this in air travel provides those with reduced mobility a safe and comfortable way for them to travel and remain in their own power wheelchair,” said the Founder of Flying Disabled, Chris Wood, in a press release from Delta. “It has taken truly a collaborative effort to develop this seat and we believe this product provides an optimal solution for all parties.”
Radio presenter Ian O’Connell Trust explained his usual travel experience with a wheelchair in a Facebook post that calls Delta’s design “absolutely revolutionary.”
For people who use a wheelchair, the ability to stay with the wheelchair is key. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, air carriers checked more than 72,000 wheelchairs and mobility scooters in May 2022 and mishandled 1,100 of them. In addition, DOT received 158 complaints about the treatment of disabled passengers that month.
NPR correspondent and and disability-rights advocate Joe Shapiro notes that air travel can be life-threatening for people who use wheelchairs. In 2021, he tweeted about the case of Engracia Figueroa, an advocate for safer air travel for people with disabilities who died that year. Her loved ones say that her health deteriorated quickly after her wheelchair was destroyed by an airline.
Airlines still lose, damage or destroy 26 wheelchairs a day–same as when they were first required to start reporting. Breaking a chair is like breaking someone's legs. And for Engracia Figueroa, there were deadly consequences. https://t.co/FXgE3bsfK1
— Joe Shapiro (@NPRJoeShapiro) November 9, 2021
Even if the new design widely implemented, people who use wheelchairs point out that accessible airplane bathrooms are still an issue. Many planes don’t have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms; in the U.S., handicap-accessible bathrooms are only required on wide-body airplanes with dual aisles.
Additionally, these new seats will likely only be in the first-class section, as wheelchairs can’t fit down the narrower aisles in the coach section. It’s unclear right now whether this will mean that wheelchair users would have to pay more just to be able to stay safe and secure in their devices.
Still, the newly-debuted accessible design is offering hope to people who don’t want to risk damage to their wheelchairs or even their health by getting out of their devices for every flight.