Airlines are investing millions of dollars in their onboard product to attract discerning business and leisure travelers. One area where this investment is being made is in new premium cabin seats — designed to provide greater comfort and privacy to passengers who have paid to sit up front.
The problem, typical of 21st century innovation, is accessibility, or the lack thereof. Many WheelchairTravel.org readers have reached out to me with stories of business and first class seats that they could not access — seats designed in a way that makes independent transfers from the onboard wheelchair impossible, or assisted transfers dangerous and likely to result in injury.
As a frequent premium cabin passenger myself, and because many disabled travelers require the space offered in first class, I decided to investigate this issue. What follows is an accessibility assessment of airplane seat designs that have recently launched or are soon to debut.
Delta’s New Domestic First Class Seat
Delta Air Lines has unveiled a new seat for its domestic first class cabin, slated to enter service in late 2020 on the carrier’s Airbus A321neo aircraft.
The addition of a fixed headrest is touted as adding “increased privacy” and the opportunity for “better sleep.” Unfortunately, the headrest will block much of the space used by passengers to transfer into the seat from the aisle chair
Rather than performing a safe, lateral transfer directly onto the seat cushion, passengers blocked by the headrest will have access to only a small portion of the seat surface. In showing this photo to special assistance staff members in an airport last week, they remarked, “This looks more difficult than international business class seats, which are already hard” and “We can’t reach that far” over the seat.
A partial wall extending over the center armrest will also prevent many disabled passengers from accessing the window seat, meaning they’ll have to contend with able-bodied passengers climbing over them to get in and out of the seat.
I reached out to Delta for comment about this new seat’s questionable accessibility, and was told that “all aisle facing seats have moveable aisle armrests which pivot out of the way of the seat profile.”
While the aisle armrest is movable (as required by law), Delta has added a new barrier that many disabled passengers will be unable to overcome without risk of injury.
“Reverse Herringbone” Business Class Seats at American, Delta and others
Popular within the last decade are “reverse herringbone” seat designs, which are angled to provide every passenger with direct aisle access.
The shell surrounding many of these seats extends out over the aisle armrest, complicating transfers. Disabled passengers have reported hitting their heads, necks and backs on the shell’s immovable privacy extension during independent and assisted transfers.
Legroom on seats like these is obscured within a “foot cubby,” which reduces the space where assistance staff can stand to lift passengers. In some cases, staff will have to stand on a nearby seat in order to get a grip.
Noel, a frequent flyer on American’s long-haul business class product, shared several videos on Twitter to demonstrate just how difficult and dangerous these transfers can be:
If this wasn’t bad enough, several airlines are working to make business class less accessible still.
The Qatar QSuite Business Class Suite
Widely regarded as the “world’s best business class,” the Qatar Airways QSuite features a lay-flat bed enclosed by walls and a sliding door. I had the opportunity to fly in a QSuite business class seat last year and found it to be the most inaccessible business class seat of late, and perhaps of the last decade.
The QSuite cabin features both forward- and rear-facing seats. On forward-facing seats, the immovable suite wall extends to block all but one inch of the seat surface. The “aisle armrest” is movable, but it is located inside the wall. Without crawling onto the floor (which I did) or being lifted over the entire wall, wheelchair users won’t be able to access the forward-facing seats.
Rear-facing QSuites are slightly more accessible. Access to these seats is only possible if the passenger can first transfer from the aisle chair onto a small armrest, and from that armrest into the seat.
Due to the seat’s design and immovable walls, an assisted transfer is not possible. The space is insufficient for two people to lift a passenger from the aisle chair into the QSuite seat, whether it is forward- or rear-facing. This means that the “world’s best business class” seat can only be enjoyed by able-bodied people.
I reached out to Qatar Airways for comment, but did not receive a reply.
The Delta One Suite – Business Class
Delta is the first U.S. airline to unveil a full business class cabin of seats featuring doors. The Delta One Suite is being installed on the airline’s Airbus A330-900, Airbus A350 and Boeing 777 aircraft.
While the seat is more accessible than Qatar’s QSuite, its wall still blocks approximately two-thirds of the seat surface. This makes transfers difficult and dangerous, as passengers can transfer onto only a small portion of the seat from the aisle chair.
When I spoke to Delta’s Special Assistance Desk to ask about the suite, the agent couldn’t find any relevant information about its accessibility. She took initiative, and spoke to her colleagues in the maintenance department, who confirmed that, because the door slides into the wall, it is not movable. She was told that it would be “very difficult” to slide into the seat from the aisle chair.
I reached out to Delta’s media team and asked them to comment. They told a different story: “The Suites with the seats adjacent to the aisle have a mechanism which moves the door out of the way to allow unimpeded lateral transfers of a passenger from a wheelchair.”
With the door retracted into the wall, as seen in the photo above, the majority of the seat is still blocked, and the wall would certainly impede transfers from the aisle chair. I followed up again to ask for clarification, but did not receive a response. I can only conclude that the Delta One Suite is not accessible to the vast majority of wheelchair users.
British Airways Business Class “Club Suite”
British Airways unveiled its new Club Suite last year, but many disabled travelers question the seat’s accessibility.
I reached out to British Airways to inquire about the Club Suite’s accessibility, whether they consulted wheelchair users in its design, and if any changes were planned in light of criticism. To their credit, they responded quickly with the following statement:
We work hard to ensure our unique British Airways service and experience is available to all our customers and we are committed to making their journeys as easy and stress-free as possible.
We welcome more than half a million customers who require special assistance every year and during our new Club World (business class) seat design process we carried out extensive trials with customers with differing needs and expert accessibility consultant to ensure the Club Suite meets the needs of everyone travelling with us.
The Club Suite is compliant with accessibility legislation. As we roll out our Club Suite and get feedback from our customers, we will work with our suppliers to go beyond this and tailor the new Club Suite to our customers’ needs.
Many WheelchairTravel.org readers have questioned just who these “expert accessibility consultants” are, because the resulting product is not accessible.
Ann Webster, a wheelchair user who makes frequent transatlantic journeys between London and the United States, questioned the sincerity of BA’s commitment to accessible journeys: “How can they say this when so many of us have struggled on their flights and even filed complaints to the DOT that have been upheld?” In discussing the Club Suite, Ann said “they certainly couldn’t have included wheelchair users” in the design process, or their advice was ignored.
The small, enclosed spaces in suites are also a problem. Ann said that airlines “need to think about how disabled people can transfer into the seat from an aisle chair, as this needs room to manoeuvre.” The narrow gap between seats and the wall “is designed around people who can stand,” she said.
American Airlines will add a door, too.
American Airlines, a Joint Venture partner of British Airways, is expected to add a door to its long-haul business class seats as well.
Just last week, the airline invited select customers to “1-hour seat testing sessions.” I reached out and asked AA about its seat selection process, whether wheelchair users had been invited to these sessions, and if it had learned anything from the mistakes of Delta, Qatar and other airlines that have prioritized privacy over accessibility.
They responded with an opaque non-response that gives no assurances that the airline is committed to accessibility:
In addition to our own accessibility team, we have engaged Open Doors Organization to review seat options as they are able to provide input not only for passengers with mobility concerns but also those with other disabilities like vision and hearing loss.
American’s effortless approach to accessibility is evidenced by its ranking as the worst airline for wheelchair users in the United States, and it doesn’t appear poised to chart a new course.
Government regulations on airplane accessibility must catch up to innovation.
Businesses — especially airlines — despise the red tape of government regulations. But regulations are often the only way to ensure consumers are not taken advantage of by profit-hungry corporations with no regard for civil rights.
When the Air Carrier Access Act was written, there were no lay-flat beds in business and first class. Concerning seat accessibility, the ACAA required at least 50% of seats to have movable aisle armrests. The feature was intended to allow passengers to transfer independently from the onboard aisle chair, without barrier or impediment. If the passenger needed to be lifted by staff, that transfer would be in one direction — right or left, thereby ensuring the passenger’s safety. In the 1980s, that lone regulation was enough to ensure access.
Today, carriers are still bound to that regulatory requirement. Aisle-facing armrests are still movable, but they now sit behind an immovable wall, as with the Delta One Suite and Qatar QSuite. Both airlines have violated the spirit of the Air Carrier Access Act, denying disabled passengers the ability to enjoy their respective premium cabins.
If the U.S. Department of Transportation were committed to equal access and passenger safety, they would order airlines to ground aircraft with inaccessible seats until they were retrofitted to comply with the spirit of the law. Such an order would cost airlines tens of millions of dollars, which is all the more reason why it should be done — to send a message that accessibility can no longer be an afterthought.
Featured image courtesy Delta Air Lines.
Have you been unable to access an airplane seat, or injured during a transfer? Share your story in the comments below!