Jan 29, 2024

Wheelchair securement concept shows promise for disabled travelers

HAMBURG, Germany — This year's Aircraft Cabin Interiors Expo brought an attention grabber: seating for power wheelchair users that allows them to remain on their own device while flying.

The concept does not have an official name yet, but creators Delta Flight Products and the PriestmanGoode design firm have garnered interest from across the industry and disability advocates, and it's no surprise. According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines damaged or mishandled about 1.5% of the mobility devices they transport, resulting in 11,389 reported incidents in 2022.

"Every single part of that seat you have the same offer: you have the table, you have the headrest, you have the cocktail table. It doesn't feel like, as a wheelchair user, any different. You’re getting the same offer," Daniel MacInnes, director at PriestmanGoode, told USA TODAY during a demonstration. "It's a normal seat, it's a wheelchair seat, and then it's a normal seat, and it can be done so quickly that they’ll never lose any space. It won't be a dead spot in the aircraft."

While feedback on the design has been positive from expo attendees, it's still going to take a while before the specialized seats are available to passengers.

Rick Salanitri from Delta Flight Products estimated the certification and implementation of the design will take about two more years.

Although Delta Flight Products is a partner in the project, Delta Air Lines itself is not involved in its development and has not yet committed to putting the seats onboard once they’re approved.

A quick demonstration at the expo showed that the seat could easily be converted from a regular domestic first-class layout to a wheelchair anchor point.

The conversion involves removing the seat and back cushions for stowage, then folding away the seat base and adjusting the arm and headrests. The whole process takes less than a minute, and at that point, the space is ready to accommodate a wheelchair user.

The traveler would be able to roll themselves into place and be locked in using a standard Q’Straint system already common on other forms of public transportation.

"It's the operational procedures now that will change for the better," said Chris Wood, founder of Flying Disabled, an advocacy partner in the seating project. "No agents, no manhandling, no aisle chairs coming onboard."

For now, the design partners are focused on accommodating power chair users first.

"It's the hardest one to get onboard. Let's try and get the electric one in," MacInnes said. "The next revision of this will refine it to say ‘how many different shapes of wheelchairs can you get in and can you get the manual ones in as well?’"

Salanitri added that regulators will likely have to approve mobility devices individually for this kind of securement, so it may take a while for every wheelchair to be accepted.

"We would envision in the booking path, if you’re a wheelchair user you could actually book that seat from a dropdown list of approved wheelchair models. Hopefully, it's going to be very long. Ultimately we want to give our customers choices," he said.

Salanitri also said there's still significant design and engineering work to be done before the concept is ready for airlines to install.

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By and large disabled travelers today need to surrender their devices before getting on a plane.

"I will just tell you, we may lose it, we may break it, we may have to repair it or replace it," Salanitri said. "Anxiety is built into the current process."

USA TODAY has been tracking incidents of airlines damaging mobility devices in 2023, and many disabled travelers have said airlines often disregard the handling instructions they provide or simply do not treat their wheelchairs with sufficient care.

An option to stay in their chairs throughout the journey, many travelers have said, will reduce the risk of damage and is also safer for them, personally. Wheelchairs are often designed specifically to fit their users in a way an airplane seat can never be.

"From a personal point of view with my kids, they go like that, they’re slumping over" in airplane seats under the current procedures, Wood said. But with this product, they’d be able to stay in their own wheelchairs and be more comfortable and secure.

"Now it's human," Wood said.

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Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]

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