Hello from Hamburg, Germany!

The Aircraft Interiors Expo has kicked off, and there is a lot of buzz around the innovative accessibility products featured at the show.

I spent Day 1 with the Delta Flight Products team, who after stealing the show in 2023 with their first-of-its-kind Air4All wheelchair securement space for airplanes, have returned with an update to the Air4All prototype and three new products that put the industry on notice — Delta believes the future of air travel is an accessible one.

Two wheelchair securement systems for the aircraft of today

Last year, when I was given the first look at the Air4All prototype, I noted a number of areas where improvement was needed. Engineers and developers at DFP took notes, pledging to correct those issues in future iterations of the product.

John seated in his wheelchair secured to the prototype seat. Chris Wood sits in the adjacent companion seat in the mock up.
John Morris testing the securement prototype with Air4All consortium member Christopher Wood, 28 May 2024.

The DFP team kept their word and delivered substantial improvements in version two, which debuted yesterday.

In addition to a host of aesthetic changes (including outfitting the prototype in full Delta Air Lines colors and branding), version two underwent a critical redesign to accommodate a wider range of wheelchairs.

The 2023 prototype was too narrow to accommodate my Permobil F3 power wheelchair and greatly restricted the ability to use the tilt/recline features which are critical for pressure relief. Those issues have been resolved and, with the addition of 3.5 inches of width to the securement area, my wheelchair fit like a glove. While the ability to tilt and recline will vary based on the design of a wheelchair, I was able to tilt my seating system roughly 25 degrees. For me, that’s more than enough to be comfortable during a short- to medium-range flight.

John seated in his wheelchair which is strapped to the floor of a model airplane.

Underlying technologies also underwent refinement, including the plinth on which the seats and securement strips are installed. The plinth is now thinner, allowing for a smoother transition between the floor and securement area, and the securement straps have been further recessed, making them invisible when not in use.

New economy class prototype extends possibility of wheelchair securement to all airlines

Not only did DFP return with an updated prototype of the Premium Economy/First Class configuration of the Air4All prototype, but it introduced a new concept designed for the economy class cabin.

John's wheelchair secured in economy class wheelchair securement space prototype.

This product extends the possibility of wheelchair securement to carriers with only a single class of service, including nontraditional carriers like Southwest Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Ryanair, and larger European carriers like British Airways and Air France, carriers with what are essentially single-class narrowbody fleets.

The economy class prototype features even more space for wheelchair users, with the two seats closest to the aisle folding up to reveal a securement area that is 36 inches wide. That additional space may expand the securement area’s compatibility to virtually all known manual and power wheelchairs (that meet relevant crash certification standards).

When the wheelchair space is not in use, the row is a standard complement of three economy class seats.

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Never-before-seen accessibility features in an airplane lavatory

Move over, Secretary Pete and the Department of Transportation’s disappointing regulations for so-called “accessible” lavatories.

Larger accessible lavatory concept with unique lighting features and grab bars.

The dreamers at Delta Flight Products have a vision to go beyond the minimum mandate, and their prototype for a new lavatory for single-aisle aircraft is the most accessible solution I have seen yet. While the product doesn’t reach the mark of “truly accessible” a la the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, it far exceeds the minimum standards set by the Department of Transportation last year (and that will not take effect for another decade).

So, what’s special about this toilet?

Space! The footprint is larger, allowing space for not only the passenger (on an aisle wheelchair), but also two companions or personal care attendants. The DOT regulations require space for just one carer, while disabled adults often require the assistance of two people to transfer onto the toilet.

Grab bar extended from the lavatory ceiling.

Delta has also demonstrated a feature never before seen in an aircraft lavatory, an overhead grab bar that drops down from the ceiling. Testing and analysis will need to be done to determine the appropriate height setting, but this is a fantastic concept that would make transfers easier for wheelchair users and older adults.

The lavatory is touchless — A wave of the hand deploys the overhead grab bar, raises the toilet lid and activates the water faucet, soap dispenser and air dryer.

The tri-fold door is wide enough to accommodate the forward entry of a power wheelchair (including mine!), and one could envision this product being a natural complement to the wheelchair securement space.

We should think of this (and what I hope will be future products like it) not as an “accessible” lavatory for disabled people, but as a family restroom benefitting travelers of all ages, body types, sizes and abilities. Not too long ago, a plus size influencer shared why larger lavatories are important. Parents need more space too, and you’ll notice a baby changing table recessed in the wall behind the toilet. DFP hopes to rate the changing table at a capacity of 100 pounds. Would this not be a true game changer for parents, plus size travelers, and for disabled people?

Stopgap measure: Wheelchair cargo tray could protect wheelchairs from damage

Delta Flight Products has applied for a Technical Standard Order (TSO) certification from the FAA which, when approved, will authorize production of the wheelchair securement space for airline customers.

While the timeframe for that authorization is unclear (DFP must still submit additional data to advance the review), wheelchairs continue to be mishandled and damaged at an unacceptable rate.

Crate for securing wheelchair in cargo hold and protecting it from weather or damage.

DFP presented a fourth product at AIX this week, an unnamed crate for the securement of wheelchairs in the cargo hold. The system allows both manual and powered wheelchairs to be secured using straps and tie downs, while the crate itself is secured within the cargo hold.

The crate comes equipped with an inflatable cover which, when drawn over and around the wheelchair, provides a barrier to the elements. This device could prevent wheelchairs from being returned soaking wet due to rain or snow. The inflatable cover allows provides a safe way to turn over larger power wheelchairs that are unable to fit upright through small cargo doors. In my guide to airplane cargo door dimensions for wheelchair users, you’ll notice that the world’s most popular commercial airliner — the Boeing 737 — offers clearance of just 33 inches!

While this is not the long-term solution that a wheelchair space in the aircraft cabin most certainly is, it is a valuable stopgap measure that, deployed widely and used appropriately, should reduce the rate of wheelchair damage.

Making the business case

Wheelchairs in the cabin are a no-brainer, right?

Not for the bean counters at airlines who require that any upgrades to the aircraft cabin be cost-neutral or very low cost. Although I have made the case that there is more than enough space for a wheelchair spot and accessible bathroom on airplanes, cost and forward-looking revenue projections will be the key consideration for airlines to move forward in advance of general regulation (which continues to be delayed by congressionally mandated feasibility studies).

In the case of the Air4All wheelchair securement system, Delta Flight Products is the seller, while Delta Air Lines and a long list of interested carriers are the potential buyers. DFP will have to make a case, using all available data, that installing a wheelchair securement space and a lavatory with improved accessibility will bring a positive impact to the bottom line.

While I have no doubt that a wheelchair space will ultimately be mandated by government regulators around the world, the challenge now is accelerating this innovation beyond the slow pace set by Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Final Thoughts

Delta Flight Products has continued to prove its commitment to a principle I noted last year, that of “integrating the wheelchair user into the passenger cabin.” Integration and inclusion are the goals of my advocacy — the right of disabled people to enjoy a substantially similar if not precisely equal experience relative to their nondisabled peers. The Air4All wheelchair securement system does just that, and the community will be rightly excited by the progress advanced in just one year of additional development.

The Aircraft Interiors Expo is not over yet and, as you read this email, I will be demoing another wheelchair securement space introduced by Collins Aerospace. I look forward to bringing those details to you soon, analyzing how it compares to the system you have seen here. Competition will speed development of this critical accessibility feature, and it’s thrilling to now see two major players engaged in this work. 

Additional reading: Last year, I published the article, Answering Your Top 10 Questions About Delta’s Wheelchair Space for Airplanes and, with the developments seen here, my analysis has been proven correct in many respects. Give it a look for answers to the most common questions readers have been asking.

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