The United States Access Board has released a draft of new advisory guidelines for the design of aircraft onboard wheelchairs. These small, collapsible wheelchairs are stored onboard the aircraft and used to help passengers with disabilities move between their seat and the lavatory.

Aisle chair inside the accessible lavatory on an Etihad Airways Boeing 787.
Aisle chair inside the accessible lavatory on an Etihad Airways Boeing 787.

Concerned individuals are invited to submit comments on the proposed guidelines by October 21, 2019 and to attend or call-in to a public hearing that will be held this Thursday, September 12, from 9:30 to 4:00 p.m.

The key recommendations found in the draft guidelines are described below, but it is important to understand what these guidelines are, and what they are not. The Access Board advises the following:

The Access Board is developing these advisory guidelines as technical assistance to air carriers by providing one example of how they might satisfy performance standards for onboard wheelchairs on covered aircraft, which the Department of Transportation (DOT) expects to establish in a forthcoming rulemaking under the Air Carrier Access Act. Even if adopted by the Access Board, these guidelines will not be legally binding on any regulated entity. Whether, or to what extent, DOT subsequently references, incorporates, or adopts these guidelines falls under the department’s exclusive authority.

Unless the Department of Transportation decides to adopt these guidelines into the Air Carrier Access Act, they will only serve as a recommended best practice, and passengers should to expect to see any immediate change to the type or design of aisle chairs made available for use in the aircraft cabin.

The draft guidelines provide the following recommendations, among others, for design of onboard aisle chairs:

  • The aisle chair should be designed to allow it to enter the lavatory and be positioned over the closed toilet on single-aisle aircraft, in order to allow passengers with disabilities the privacy to accomplish non-toileting personal hygiene and medically needed tasks, even in the smallest onboard facilities.
  • The aisle chair should be rated for a load of 826 pounds, based on a 99th percentile male with a 3.0 safety factor.
  • The seat height of the onboard wheelchair should be as close to the height of the aircraft seat as possible to permit lateral transfer.
  • The onboard wheelchair seat should be padded or cushioned to preserve skin integrity, minimize injury, prevent spasticity, and provide greater safety and comfort.
  • The onboard wheelchair back support should be a minimum of 26 inches high above the seat.

Apart from the recommendation that onboard aisle chairs be designed to permit over-toilet positioning, most of the guidelines are aimed at creating consistency. Onboard aisle chairs presently come in many different forms and vary widely in their usability. Efforts to standardize the design of this critical access equipment are indeed welcome.

Despite these efforts, lavatories will remain difficult or impossible to use without additional space and accessibility features. Accessible lavatories are long overdue on single-aisle aircraft, and the industry must wake up to that fact.

What aspects of the onboard aisle chair design would you change?
How can airlines making lavatories more accessible?
Let me know in the comments below!

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