Last week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, Delta Flight Products unveiled the Air4All prototype, a wheelchair securement space for airplanes. It’s a positive, feel-good story, and the media ate it up — nearly every major media outlet covered the story, and I was quoted in The Washington Post, on BBC Radio 4, and elsewhere.
The widespread coverage served an important purpose — it raised public awareness about the possibility of a wheelchair space on airplanes. Many of us never doubted that possibility, but now that a solution has been demonstrated, it’s time to get Air4All flying! Disabled travelers should not ease up on the accelerator of their advocacy and rabble rousing, as it’s more important now than ever before.
After I published my first reactions from AIX, I was bombarded with questions from readers and members of the community. I identified the 10 most frequently asked questions and shared them with the Delta Flight Products team. Morgan Durrant, a spokesperson for the airline, stated that “Delta Air Lines is watching this project driven by our subsidiary closely, but Delta and Delta Flight Products have no additional comment or guidance at this time.” Disappointing, but understandable, given that so much about this seating product is still up in the air — figuratively, that is.
That leaves me to answer your questions — many of which have clear and obvious answers that don’t require input Delta or any other airline. For those without a definitive answer, I’ll rely on my knowledge of air travel, civil rights law in the United States, and information I previously received from the Delta Flight Products team during my time in Hamburg.
The wheelchair space will be in the front row — Will disabled passengers have to pay for First Class?
The Air4All wheelchair securement space is designed for installation in the front row on narrow body aircraft (the domestic first class cabin) and in the first row of premium economy on wide body (dual aisle) aircraft. While airlines might like to charge premium cabin fares for these spaces, I count it unlikely.
In Europe, the high-speed Eurostar train that connects London to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Rotterdam has three classes of service: standard, standard premier, and business premier. Wheelchair spaces are located only in standard premier and business premier, but disabled passengers are charged the prevailing standard fare — oftentimes, it is less than half the cost of a business premier ticket. Wheelchair users receive all the benefits of the elevated premier service, even though they have paid a reduced fare. Airlines will likely follow this same standard for wheelchair securement spaces located in premium cabins on airplanes.
In the United States, ADA requirements regarding wheelchair accessible seating at sports stadiums and concert venues would likely inform the USDOT in its regulation of pricing for wheelchair spaces on airplanes. Although the ADA requires ADA accessible seats be made available at all price points in a stadium, the U.S. Department of Justice advises that, in venues where accessible seating is not available in all sections, “the venue must offer a proportional number of seats in an accessible location at the same price.” Using this ADA regulation as an example, airlines that fail to make a wheelchair space available in the economy class cabin will almost certainly be required to offer the wheelchair space at the price of a coach ticket.
Although I have confidence that wheelchair users will be accommodated without an additional charge, it is unclear whether a nondisabled companion or carer would receive the same privilege. It would be appropriate for airlines to extend that benefit, but they may not be required to do so.
How will wheelchairs fit through the door of the aircraft and down the narrow aisle?
Although airplanes may feel small as you wheel down the narrow aisle in economy class, most passenger jets are not small at all — the world’s most popular commercial airliner, the Boeing 737, is wider than the newest Amtrak trains that offer dedicated wheelchair spaces and an accessible route running the length of the train.
Even with the narrower aisles on an airplane, the width of the aisle itself will not impact the accessibility of the Air4All securement system. Wheelchairs will fit through the boarding door of most airplanes with 100 or more seats, and they need only make it to the first row.
In the Tweet above, I shared a photo taken on a Qatar Airways Airbus A320 aircraft — Look closely and you’ll see that my power wheelchair is in the aisle, right next to my seat. Air4All has been designed to allow wheelchair users to enter through the main boarding door, then reverse into the securement space. An early conceptual video from the Air4All Consortium demonstrated this:
The securement method has evolved from a docking system to a more traditional 4-point strap system, however the method of approach remains unchanged. A portable ramp used to bridge the gap between the jet bridge and airplane would be set in place and the wheelchair user would then be free to board the aircraft in reverse. For those unable to maneuver their wheelchair into place, airline staff could assist by placing the chair into neutral and pushing it to the securement space.
How large of a wheelchair will the securement space ultimately accommodate?
The prototype on display in Hamburg was designed around the Quickie Q100R rear-wheel drive power wheelchair, which measures 21 inches (54cm) in width and 40 inches (101cm) in length. The majority of complex rehab power wheelchairs have a wheelbase that measures 24 inches (61cm) in width by 36 inches (92cm) in length, plus the additional space required for footplates.
The business case for a wheelchair space on airplanes hinges on carriers’ ability to reduce the cost of wheelchair damage. Larger power wheelchairs like the Quantum Q6 Edge and Permobil F3 (with list prices often exceeding $30,000) will need to be accommodated for airlines to justify the expense of adding a wheelchair space in the aircraft cabin. What good is a wheelchair space if the most expensive wheelchairs must still be loaded into the cargo hold?
I suspect that Delta Flight Products will expand the footprint of the Air4All seating system to support larger wheelchairs, but it will ultimately be federal regulators that set the standards for wheelchair securement spaces on U.S. airlines and, if history is any indication, for global carriers as well.
Will the securement space support manual wheelchairs?
Delta Flight Products has designed the Air4All wheelchair securement space to comply with the WC19 standard, a voluntary industry standard for designing, testing and labeling a wheelchair that is ready to be used as a seat in a motor vehicle. The standard, promulgated by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), states that WC19 compliant wheelchairs must have:
- Four permanently attached and labeled securement points that can withstand the forces of a 30 mph, 20 g impact.
- Specific securement point geometry that will accept a securement strap end fitting hook.
- A clear path of travel that allows proper placement of vehicle mounted occupant safety belts next to the skeletal parts of the body,
- Anchor points for an optional wheelchair anchored pelvic safety belt, that is designed to withstand a 30 mph, 20 g impact, that has a standard interface on it that allows it to connect to a vehicle-anchored shoulder belt.
Many wheelchairs sold to the public do not meet the WC19 standard, and the most recent list of WC19 wheelchairs was published in April 2013.
Securement standards aside, the Air4All prototype on display in Hamburg could technically secure a manual wheelchair — the seat’s 4-point securement system is similar to those used everyday to secure both manual and power wheelchairs in private vehicles, adapted taxis, and city buses. Manual wheelchairs should be supported by any wheelchair securement system installed by commercial airlines, but Delta Flight Products and the UK-based Air4All Consortium have thus far been unwilling to make that commitment. The community must make it clear to regulators that compatibility with both manual and powered wheelchairs is non-negotiable — both types must be supported from the start.
What range of aircraft types will be capable of supporting this seating system?
It is as of yet unclear which aircraft types Air4All might be manufactured for, however the seat is similar to those found in domestic first class on narrow-body airplanes like the Boeing 737 and in the premium economy cabin on wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 787.
It is reasonable to assume that Air4All could be deployed across the following aircraft types:
- Airbus A220
- Airbus A320
- Airbus A330
- Airbus A340
- Airbus A350
- Airbus A380
- Boeing 737
- Boeing 747
- Boeing 757
- Boeing 767
- Boeing 777
- Boeing 787
Each of these aircraft types feature a boarding door wide enough to allow a power wheelchair to pass, and U.S. airlines have outfitted them with similarly designed seat pairs in either the first class or premium economy cabins. It remains unclear whether some larger regional jet types, like the Embraer E190, might be a fit.
Will power wheelchair users be able to recline and raise their footrests during flight?
If nondisabled travelers can recline, wheelchair users should be permitted to do so as well. As I wrote in my first look at the Air4All prototype, “Each airline customer would adapt the base seating product to their needs and, absent the rear panel, the space could accommodate a certain degree of tilt or recline for power wheelchair users.”
It remains unclear what the maximum level of tilt and recline might be and, without input from other wheelchair users, I am uncomfortable making a recommendation at this time. It is clear to me that, absent regulation, a high degree of tilt or recline will not be supported by air carriers who will prioritize limits on the floor space allocated to wheelchairs.
On long-haul aircraft with flat bed seats in premium cabins, some of which take up significantly more space than a power wheelchair that is fully reclined with leg rests extended, a solution should be developed to accommodate wheelchair users in those spaces.
Lufthansa’s video announcing its updated “Allegris” aircraft cabin design depicts a gigantic first class seating area that, if adapted in some fashion, could no doubt accommodate even the largest of power wheelchairs. The carrier has missed an opportunity to lead, but it’s not the only one — several other carriers have oversized first class seats, suites and double beds that could no doubt double as a wheelchair securement space.
Will airplane bathrooms be made accessible to the passenger’s personal wheelchair?
Should a wheelchair be secured in the aircraft cabin, it could be unlocked during flight — present regulations would only require that it be strapped down during taxi, take-off and landing. As such, the introduction of a wheelchair space in the aircraft cabin should be accompanied by a wheelchair accessible family bathroom — large enough for a passenger to access with his/her own mobility device.
Although the Delta Flight Products team has made no commitment to develop a truly accessible lavatory, they do recognize the opportunity.
I proposed an expandable lavatory design that would permit a passenger’s personal wheelchair to be maneuvered directly alongside the toilet at the front of the aircraft. During flight, the lavatory walls could be extended, temporarily claiming the space in front of the aircraft’s forward boarding door. It seems the most likely solution, as no additional floor space would be permanently set aside and it would not result in the loss of seating capacity.
How will the presence of personal wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin impact emergency evacuation procedures?
What procedure? In 2016, I asked the question: What happens to disabled passengers in an emergency airplane evacuation?
In seeking to answer this question, I spoke to flight attendants from a number of major airlines, and to American Airlines itself. What emerged from those conversations proved troubling — any plan that might exist was at best insufficient, and I was left with little more than verbal assurances that no passenger would be left behind. That sounds good, but flight attendants are not U.S. Marines and “trust us” isn’t a plan. Disabled flyers unable to evacuate themselves are justified in their concerns over airlines’ emergency preparedness.
The ADAPTS Portable Transfer Sling is a solution that I have advocated for extensively, and I continue to hope that every airplane safety kit will be outfitted with this lifesaving device. Should an airplane wheelchair space be realized, carriers will need to more carefully consider the safety of disabled passengers in the aircraft cabin. Through the proposed EVAC Act, Congress is also showing some interest in making air travel safer for disabled passengers.
Once a wheelchair securement space is available, will I be required to use it?
It seems unlikely that wheelchair users would be forced to sit in their own wheelchairs during flight, even if the airline might prefer that they do so.
Once a wheelchair securement space is available, passengers will likely face a choice: sit in their own wheelchair during flight in the aircraft cabin, or sit in an airplane seat while their mobility device is stored in the cargo compartment. Without the purchase of an additional seat, airlines would surely resist providing both a wheelchair space and a seat for a single airline passenger.
When will the first wheelchair securement space appear on a flight?
Altgough Delta Flight Products is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, the carrier has made no commitment to install Air4All on its aircraft. The seating system is still in the early stages of development and must undergo further design, testing and certification before it is ready for large scale production and sale to airline customers.
Delta Flight Products plans to pursue FAA certification this year, however design innovation will continue beyond that initial certification phase. The DFP team stressed to me that this first prototype is just that — a prototype designed to serve as a proof of concept. The completed design may not be ready for a couple of years, which would then require further certification for use on particular aircraft types.
DFP will face challenges in mass producing this seating system, not only for the 900+ aircraft fleet of Delta Air Lines, but other potential airline customers as well. The company may pursue a manufacturing partner, which could ease a backlog in the production process. Ultimately, the team hopes to see Air4All installed across a wide range of airlines and aircraft types.
With significant design, development and testing still required to realize DFP’s vision for inclusive air travel, the earliest we might expect to see Air4All debut is in the next three years.
If you value my reporting on accessible travel in the airline industry and elsewhere, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to my Substack Newsletter. Thanks to the support of paid subscribers, I’m able to travel to cover important events in the travel industry — delivering unbiased and thoughtful analysis from a disability perspective.