Breaking Barriers in the Sky: The Future of Air-Travel for Wheelchair Users

By Justin Cohen, PhD

Air-travel for wheelchair users come with a unique set of challenges that cause many to forgo the
plane altogether. This could all change after the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany,
which unveiled a new airplane seat prototype that could revolutionize air-travel for wheelchair users. In
a collaboration with the Air4all consortium and Delta airlines, this novel seat design folds up, providing
room for a wheelchair to be secured and allowing the passenger to stay in their seat for the flight. As a
wheelchair user myself, I am excited for the new air travel possibilities that this news could mean for
myself and other wheelchair users.

First, there is the enhanced comfort and familiarity. Being able to remain seated in our own
wheelchairs throughout the duration of a flight ensures that we are not subjected to the discomfort and
potential pain caused by a regular airline seat, which, let’s be honest, is uncomfortable even for able-
bodied individuals. Wheelchair seats in contrast are often tailored to each individual, providing support
and stability that can otherwise be lacking.

Another major change would be the process of boarding and disembarking from an aircraft. Currently,
we are required to transfer onto a tiny aisle chair, be squeezed through the cabin and then transfer
onto/off the airplane seat. For those of us that can’t transfer on our own, the flight staff must help with
this process, which can be painful if they don’t know the proper way to provide support as you are
lifted. Furthermore, there are often big delays in getting the aisle chair to your gate which requires
making sure you arrive early to notify the staff. Once the plane lands you are usually the last one off the
flight. Being able to simply roll onto the aircraft eliminates these issues.

Most importantly for air-travel, passengers would no longer need to stow their wheelchair with the
checked luggage. Airlines are notorious for damaging wheelchairs when loading them onto/off the plane
due to their complexity and a lack of proper training on how to lift these devices. For those that are
dependent on them, wheelchairs are an extension of one’s body and damaging it is unacceptable, akin
to cutting off one’s leg. From personal experience, one of the few times we chose to bring my electric
chair with us on a vacation, the airline broke the chair on the flight back home. This was a specialized
chair with a power seat elevator and standing function that is required for my independence and getting
it repaired took nearly half a year. With the new airplane seat design, this would no longer be a worry.

In spite of these potential benefits, challenges remain. It is a rather tight space to get onto the aircraft
and turn into the cabin, many chairs, especially powered ones may be too large and therefore would not
be able to fit. Additionally, since only the front aisle seats would have this design, it limits the number of
wheelchair users that can choose this option per flight, restricting availability when making a flight
reservation. Lastly, the restrooms on flights are still tiny and generally not wheelchair accessible, which
can be a particular problem on longer flights.

Overall, the advent of wheelchair-friendly seats in airplanes marks a pivotal moment in the quest for
accessibility and inclusivity. It represents a monumental leap towards acknowledgement of the needs
wheelchair-bound individuals require for air-travel. If implemented, would open up new possibilities for
wheelchair travel and help create an environment where accessibility and inclusivity become the norm.

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