Delta Flight Products has unveiled the first prototype of its wheelchair securement space at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, built in partnership with the Air4All Consortium of Flying Disabled, SWS Certification, Sunrise Medical and PriestmanGoode.
Wheelchair Securement System
I arrived in Hamburg with questions and concerns about the seating system — previous design concepts depicted a wheelchair docking system similar to the EZ Lock, which would have limited the compatibility of the securement space to powered wheelchairs with an installed connector. Delta Flight Products has instead unveiled a new concept, with retractable securement straps integrated into a panel resting on the aircraft’s floor. This securement system will accommodate a wide range of powered and manual wheelchairs that meet relevant crash test safety standards (I’ll provide a more complete analysis of this in a future article).
I was given an opportunity to become the first wheelchair user to put this prototype to the test at AIX and I first attempted to do so with my own wheelchair, a Permobil F3 with a wheelbase that is 24 inches wide. Although my Permobil proved to be a few inches too wide to fully enter the space in this prototype, the Delta Flight Products team assured me that future iterations will be expanded to accommodate a larger range of wheelchairs. The additional space necessary to accommodate complex rehab power wheelchairs like mine could potentially be found through a combination of narrowing the console between seats, reducing airplane aisle width (which is typically wider in first class and premium economy than in standard economy cabins), and narrowing the adjacent window seat.
For the purposes of its AIX demonstration, the Air4All seat and securement space was modeled using the Quickie Q100R rear-wheel drive power wheelchair, and I filmed a video of what the boarding process might look like.
Please forgive my poor driving skills — the demo wheelchair was set up for a right handed person, and I lost mine to amputation! My challenged maneuvering aside, securement was a simple process that proved much easier than I have experienced on many city buses!
Commitment to an Inclusive Seat Feature Set
Like many domestic first class and premium economy seats, the Air4All seat has a variety of features including an adjustable headrest, tray table and power outlets. The Delta Flight Products team shared with me their internal commitment to ensuring that the full range of seat features would be accessible for use by disabled passengers, even while seated in their own wheelchairs.
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 — a significant improvement over present travel conditions.
Unlike other concepts that have been proposed, Air4All integrates the wheelchair user into the passenger cabin. The wheelchair and its user are secured alongside a standard seat — allowing the disabled passenger to sit in his/her own wheelchair alongside a companion or a total stranger! Should Air4All be installed on aircraft in the future, disabled flyers will not be segregated in the aircraft cabin — they’ll instead have a front row seat along with their nondisabled peers. And, if carriers choose (or are required to by future government regulation) to install Air4All in multiple locations, wheelchair users could potentially sit directly across the aisle from one another.
Timeline for Seeing a Wheelchair Space in the Air
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. A final product 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 manufacturing 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. While that timeline seems optimistic, it was not that long ago that I simply hoped to see a wheelchair space on airplanes within my lifetime — and at just 33 years old, I hopefully have many decades of life remaining! Air4All has dramatically moved up the timeline of my imagination, and it’s real — I’ve seen, touched and interacted with it.
Final Thoughts and Looking Ahead
While I traveled to AIX with some doubts about the suitability of Air4All for the majority of wheelchair users (those who use manual chairs), I left seeing a path forward for what should prove to be an inclusive wheelchair securement space for commercial airliners. This seat, should it come to market and be installed on passenger aircraft in the future, will be just one piece of the accessible air travel puzzle (a BIG one, no doubt!).
Truly accessible lavatories built to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act should also be a priority, and may ultimately prove to be much harder to achieve than a wheelchair securement space on airplanes. Even so, it was just a few years ago at the IATA Global Accessibility Symposium that airline executives and even some disability advocates told me that an airplane wheelchair space would “never happen.” Thanks to the DFP team, visionaries and advocates, they could soon be proven wrong.
This article is intended to be a quick first look at the Air4All prototype — In the coming weeks, I plan to dig deeper into Air4All and answer more questions from the community of disabled travelers. Please ask way in the comments below!
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