Wheelchair users are rejoicing as Delta Air Lines recently unveiled a new prototype for an in-flight docking system that would allow passengers to bring mechanized wheelchairs on airplanes and remain seated in them for the duration of a flight. This would increase comfort for passengers with disabilities and eliminate the risks of damage or loss of wheelchairs checked in cargo.
The seating prototype is still years away from deployment, but wheelchair-using passengers are optimistic. “I love it and think it would be awesome,” says Mark Chilutti, 54, an executive at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. “There are many people, especially those in power chairs, who either don’t fly or are scared to fly because there have been too many instances of their chairs getting damaged or losing parts.”
AARP examines the realities of this new prototype, the challenges of the current system, and why it has taken so long for improvements. We also provide suggestions on what you can do to lobby for change.
What is the new airline wheelchair prototype?
This June, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Delta Flight Products (DFP), partnering with the Air4All group, introduced a prototype airline seat that converts into a secure docking station for mechanized wheelchairs. The seat would enable wheelchair users to remain securely seated in their own device while still having access to tray tables, headrests and other airline features. The wheelchair docking system design would maintain the existing cabin layout, with the station able to convert back to a regular seat when not needed.
The seat prototype still must undergo final design and validation as well as testing and certification before installation on commercial flights.
“This project is in the very early stages ... and virtually all future details are not yet known,” according to Delta Air Lines spokesperson Morgan Durrant, who added the next steps will be “approximately 18 months of work and reviews ahead.”
John Morris on his WheelchairTravel.org blog predicts “the earliest we might expect to see Air4All debut is in the next three years.” Potential users have concerns beyond just the timeline. “Any step in this direction is something to be celebrated,” says Sylvia Longmire, 48, founder of the Spin the Globe wheelchair travel blog. “The first question I had … was how are wheelchair users going to get to this space in the first place?” And because the docking station is in the front cabin, “would that require wheelchair users to pay first-class fares?”
Airlines and product designers have yet to answer these and other questions. Something as seemingly simple as accommodating the ability to recline in a wheelchair can become a huge pain point for passengers and a time-consuming design challenge for engineers.