New Wheelchair-Friendly Airplane Seat Is in Development for Delta Air Lines

The prototype needs to be certified and tested before it is equipped on planes.

Wheelchair users will finally get the comfort they deserve on planes—or at least, that's the vision Delta is trying to make a reality.

Thanks to a collaboration with UK-based consortium Air 4 All, Delta Air Lines' Flight Products branch is launching a new airplane seat that is able to accommodate a wheelchair if needed, Insider reports.

If put into practice, it would be a huge deal for wheelchair users, as it would allow them to roll their own wheelchair from the airport onto the plane and then off once at destination. As of now, instead, wheelchair users have to use a wheelchair provided by the airline for moving across the airport and to the plane, and once they're on the aircraft, they are transferred onto a seat. Their own wheelchair is checked and usually stored in the cargo hold for the duration of the flight.

In addition to it being a not-so-seamless process, the current way of dealing with wheelchairs when flying has resulted in many issues for travelers who use wheelchairs. According to the US Department of Transportation's February 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report, in 2022 alone, 11,389 wheelchairs were mishandled by US airlines, which resulted in potential delays, property damages, and a greater layer of stress for owners, who have to face huge inconveniences if their wheelchair is delayed, missing, or broken.

The problem is growing, too. The latest Air Travel Consumer Report released in May 2023 reports that between January and March of this year the number of total mishandled wheelchairs and scooters was 2,547 (versus 2,028 in the same period last year).

This new seat would set these problems aside for good, as the passenger wouldn't need to get off their wheelchair at any point. According to a press release by Air 4 All, the new seat—which is still a prototype, and needs to be certified and tested before it finds its spot on commercial planes—is designed in a way that allows for a wheelchair-friendly seat conversion when needed. That means that if there is a wheelchair user aboard, the seat can be flipped up, its back cushion removed, and the wheelchair backed into the space and safely attached.

Here's a closer look at how the seat functions:

If no one needs the wheelchair seat, no worries—the seat can work as a regular seat as well, allowing the space to be used by all passengers. For airlines, this is yet another incentive to equip planes with the new seat. "Airlines have been resistant to provide a wheelchair space as this would result in a loss of seat count," reads the Air 4 All website. "The Air4All system removes that anomaly."

And get this: the upgrade would be a simple one. The implementation of the new seat wouldn't require any change to current cabin configuration. Plus, wheelchair users would get the same level of comfort and amenities as any other passenger, as the seat is always able to offer access to the headrest, tray table, and cocktail table.

"We believe that everyone should have access to air travel, and we welcome the significant improvements in accessibility made by UK airlines and airports in recent years," Sir Stephen Hillier, chair of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said in a statement shared by Air 4 All. "In the last five years the number of assistance requests has doubled, with passengers with reduced mobility and hidden disabilities now feeling more confident to travel. As the industry looks to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are keen to see innovative proposals which might further enhance the passenger journey."

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Serena Tara is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.