Last month, a report released by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the securement of wheelchairs on commercial aircraft is technically feasible, and that many wheelchairs already meet or exceed the minimum horizontal crash standards used by the FAA to certify airplane seats. That report confirmed what many of us already knew or had expected, but the challenge of developing a solution to meet the needs of both disabled travelers and airlines remains.

A consortium consisting of London-based design studio PriestmanGoode, Flying Disabled and SWS Certification, has unveiled a new airplane seat design that it says will meet that challenge — creating a wheelchair space while retaining seat count. The proposed system, known as Air 4 All, “aims to revolutionise air travel for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) by enabling powered wheelchair users to remain in their own wheelchair for the entire journey.”

Air 4 All works in a similar way to latch-type locking and securement systems used by many wheelchair users in their own vehicles. When a wheelchair user is flying, the seat folds up to reveal the securement space and attachments. If no wheelchair users require access, the seats function as regular airline seats.

The system is designed so that different powered wheelchair types can be certified for flying and will be able to interface with a wide range of airline seats. One point of frustration, however, is that the Air 4 All seating system will be compatible only with powered wheelchairs, not manual wheelchairs. The concept is an important first step in fostering collaboration between airline interior manufacturers and wheelchair manufacturers to produce an accessible securement system fit for air travel, and I certainly hope that future iterations will include support for manual wheelchairs.

Paul Priestman, designer and Chairman of PriestmanGoode says “Air 4 All will usher in a step change in the industry and finally offer equal access to comfort, safety and dignity for all passengers. The biggest barrier in the past has been that giving greater space to passengers in wheelchairs would have reduced seat count and resulted in a loss of revenue for airlines. Air 4 All solves this problem and has the added benefit of enabling airlines to retain the design of their cabin on every seat, ensuring brand consistency and a cohesive brand experience for all passengers. Air 4 All will facilitate a smoother boarding and disembarking experience for PRMs and will also significantly reduce the number of wheelchairs that are damaged through poor handling.”

Air 4 All has been initially designed for narrowbody (single-aisle) aircraft, in a 2+2 configuration. The solution will be particularly suitable for popular aircraft types like the Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737 series. The Air 4 All system is designed to convert front row seats and install a wheelchair guidance and locking system to the aircraft, allowing for up to two wheelchairs per row to travel on a single flight. The consortium will be working alongside Sunrise Medical to establish those powerchairs that would be fit to fly, as well as to retrofit and create new standards for powered wheelchairs, thus enabling passengers with the most challenging disabilities to travel. 

Power wheelchair secured in space where the front row aisle seat is typically located.

Chris Wood MBE, Founder of Flying Disabled says “Air 4 All is the first system that has been developed jointly by a design agency, a certification body and with input from the disabled community. With a leading global wheelchair manufacturer as well as the subsidiary of a major airline on board to develop the product, it’s a truly collaborative project. We’re actively working with all the necessary parties, including initial discussions with some of the key National Aviation Authorities,  to ensure our solution is harmonised and fit for purpose, thus significantly improving the travel experience for severely disabled passengers.”

A first prototype of the Air 4 All system is expected in December 2021. It is an important step forward in accessible airplane design, and I look forward to watching it progress through the various stages of development and, hopefully, installation. The good news: PriestmanGoode says that it is already working with a subsidiary of a major airline to bring the Air 4 All system to the market.

To learn more about the Air 4 All seating system, read the full press release from PriestmanGoode.

Have questions for the designers? Join the live Q&A session for Wheelchair Travel readers!

Tune in on Tuesday, November 2 for a live Q&A with consortium partner Christopher Wood hosted by yours truly. We’ll take a look under the hood and I’ll pass along your questions. Post them here, in the comments below! Details on the live broadcast will be shared closer to the event date on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and in the Wheelchair Travel Newsletter. Make sure to follow/subscribe for updates!

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