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Wheelchairs on Airplanes: New Designs to Solve an Old Problem

Change isn’t expected to be quick, but advocates are hopeful

spinner image side by side before and after images of air4alls prototype for a plane seat that can be adapted to sit a personal wheelchair
In this prototype, a standard airplane seat converts into a secure docking station for powered wheelchairs. Wheelchair users can remain securely in their own chair without the need to transfer to an airplane seat.
Courtesy Air4All

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.”

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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.

What is the current situation for wheelchair users on flights?

Currently, while hotels, cruise ships and airports must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, airlines are exempt from most requirements. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation created the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, which mandates only limited accommodations, such as airline-supplied in-flight wheelchairs and an ADA-compliant lavatory for multi-aisle aircraft. This means that many wheelchair users have to abandon their chair before boarding the plane.

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Many passengers who use wheelchairs avoid the challenging and potentially humiliating experience of trying to use an airplane lavatory. “I go to the bathroom as close to boarding time as I can, and reduce my fluid intake on longer flights,” says Chilutti.

“I used to be able to transfer into the onboard aisle chair to use the lavatory on long-haul flights,” says Longmire, “but it’s getting more physically dangerous for me to do it, so I just starve and dehydrate myself.” She stops eating about 12 hours before a flight and “dramatically reduces” her liquids. 

Clearly, the airline wheelchair experience needs to be improved. “I understand firsthand how deeply frustrating it is that our aviation system still fails to make sure every passenger with a disability is treated with dignity and respect,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D), who lost both her legs in combat in Iraq, says in a statement to AARP. 

As a final indignity, many passengers with disabilities find that their checked wheelchairs have been mishandled — even Duckworth, who says her “wheelchair is regularly broken or damaged by airlines.”

Of the 11,389 wheelchairs and scooters the Department of Transportation reported “mishandled” by U.S. airlines in 2022, airlines do not share how many were lost or destroyed. Duckworth, with the bipartisan partnership of South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R), recently introduced the Mobility Aids on Board Improve Lives and Empower All (MOBILE) Act mandating airlines report additional data, such as evaluating the frequency and type of damage to devices and the dimensions of the cargo hold, and provide more support to passengers with disabilities.

Why has it taken so long to develop a wheelchair solution?

Buses, trains and cruise ships have integrated systems to load and secure wheelchairs, so why haven’t airlines come up with similar solutions?

“Delays in making any modifications and design or rules for people with disabilities on airplanes always has to do with money,” says Longmire. She adds airlines “care more about lost revenue for taking out a couple of seats to accommodate a wheelchair user than they do about making flights accessible to everybody.” Technology does not seem to be a reason for the delay for an in-flight wheelchair solution. “To me, the [airline wheelchair] tie-down/locking system is no different than what is used in other transportation methods,” says Chilutti.

However, FAA safety regulations may slow implementation. A 2021 Transportation Research Board study recommended testing and evaluating a host of requirements for “wheelchairs secured in an airplane cabin during a survivable crash, an emergency landing and severe turbulence,” among many other conditions.

While some technical and regulatory challenges do exist for making airplanes more accommodating to wheelchairs, without monetary incentives or regulatory requirements, airlines are likely to continue to delay investing in solutions.  

Airlines for America (A4A), an industry lobbying group, didn’t comment specifically on the AARP story, but provided a statement on its “commitment” to accessibility. “U.S. airlines are committed to offering a high level of customer service and providing a positive and safe flight experience for all passengers, especially passengers with disabilities.” While the A4A accessibility web page says it will “pledge to improve passenger transfers between mobility aids and/or seats,” absent on the website is any mention of supporting wheelchair seating on airplanes. 

How can you help with wheelchair travel issues?

To help drive improvements for wheelchair access and accommodations, advocates recommend the following: 

  • Reach out to your elected federal officials, Chilutti says, and share why this issue “is important to you and why it should be important to them.”
  • People should “meet with a legislative adviser to talk about their struggles and desires for movement on this issue,” Longmire recommends.
  • Contact congressional representatives to demonstrate support for wheelchair accommodations in legislation. 
  • Visit AARP advocacy sites to learn about your rights and how to work with government entities to drive change.

In addition, practical wheelchair travel advice can be found on blogs including Longmire’s Spin the Globe, John Morris’ WheelchairTravel.org and CurbFree with Cory Lee.

While it may be years before we see widespread use of wheelchairs on airplanes, advocates remain cautiously optimistic. There is more work to be done to make flying more accessible for passengers with disabilities, but this recent product announcement looks to be an important move in the right direction.

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