Apr 30, 2023

Delta Air Lines developing unique seat for wheelchair users

Air travel is remarkably easy for most passengers. However, for wheelchair users, it can be a fraught process filled with hardships, expenses and frustrations.

If a new prototype seat that Delta Air Lines is helping develop becomes a reality, those problems could become a thing of the past — at least for some travelers.

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The seat prototype, shown at the Aircraft Interiors Expo this week in Hamburg, Germany, would allow passengers with powered wheelchairs to bring them into the cabin and use them during flight, rather than having to check the wheelchair and be pushed onto the plane on an airport wheelchair.

The prototype was designed by Delta Flight Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of the airline that designs and creates cabin interiors for Delta and for other airlines, in collaboration with the United Kingdom-based consortium Air4All.

A spokesperson for the airline stressed that the seat is still in the early design stages and would require about 18 more months of development and certification work. It's also possible that the seat never makes it to market — new seat designs are often displayed at events such as the Aircraft Interiors Expo that never appear on an actual aircraft due to reasons like poor economics, safety considerations, regulatory difficulties or limited practical application.

Even if the seat were eventually certified, it's not a guarantee that Delta would install it on its own planes — the airline could choose to pass on it for various reasons but still make it available to other carriers through the DFP subsidiary.

One difficulty airlines could face would be if the seat were not compatible with a wide variety of wheelchairs, limiting its use and forcing carriers to leave the space on the aircraft unsold when not being used. Animations on Air4All's website suggest that DFP could get around this challenge by converting the space into a standard seat for use by any passenger when not being used by a customer with a wheelchair.

Related: Planning an accessible trip? These travel resources can help

The new seat would be the first of its kind, however, if it were to eventually make it aboard a commercial aircraft. The design offers "new possibilities for customers with disabilities to enjoy a travel experience they truly deserve," said DFP president Rick Salanitri in a press release.

Air travel difficulties for passengers who use wheelchairs have become an increasingly publicized issue, with passengers complaining about their mobility products being damaged in cargo holds or lost, causing massive disruptions for those travelers.

In the first quarter of 2023, 2,547 wheelchairs and mobility scooters were lost, damaged or otherwise mishandled by airlines, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data, or 1.53% of all wheelchairs and scooters brought on board, a slight uptick from the same period in 2022.

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