Travelling isn’t easy for passengers with reduced mobility. Getting on and off the plane requires care and additional time. Purpose-designed equipment can also be required to safely lift the passenger from a wheelchair into their airline seat. But a new concept by Delta Flight Products aims to change all that.

Designed in collaboration with AirForAll, the new ‘PRM Suite’ concept would allow wheelchair users to remain in their own chairs. The thinking is simple: travellers with disabilities can already do this on buses and trains, so why not on planes as well?

Until now, the design of aircraft cabins has made that impossible. But the PRM Suite concept would accommodate this on US domestic flights. Work is already underway to achieve this for passengers in both First and Economy Class.

Many in our community require highly supportive and specialised wheelchair seating designed to their specific needs. An airline seat, and even the harnesses available to use in an airline seat, do not provide enough support to allow these people living with a disability to travel. It’s not a matter of choosing not to travel; they simply can’t.

It has been encouraging to see Delta Air Lines trialling various ways to make this possible. Aircraft design needs to take into account the incredible variation in wheelchair size and functionality, like tilt-in-space chairs. It is a massive challenge, and my concern is that those with the highest needs will still not be accommodated with the designs I’ve seen to date.

– Julie Jones, Editor, Travel Without Limits

While there’s still work to be done, Delta’s new seat concepts were getting quite some attention at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Germany. I stopped by to have a look for myself.

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Up close with Delta’s new accessible-friendly seat concept

The idea behind the design is simple. Much like on buses and trains, designated aircraft seats could fold up to create space for a wheelchair. The passenger can then be positioned in the space normally occupied by a fixed seat. The wheelchair’s own seatbelt keeps the passenger safely in the chair, and the chair itself can then be secured in place.

For the airline, converting a seat to accommodate a wheelchair would take 90 seconds at most. Seat cushions are easily removed, the seat base folds up and locks into place, and voila. I’m told that the concept would be limited to the front row in each cabin, specifically at the bulkhead, to accommodate the extra forward space required by a wheelchair.

For safety reasons, wheelchairs are expected to meet certain requirements—to be outlined in full at a later date. For instance, I’m told that only powered chairs would be accepted, not manual wheelchairs. The images below show manual wheelchairs only for a demonstration of Delta’s concept.

It’s certainly an interesting concept by Delta. If adopted, ‘PRM mode’ would be something of a hidden feature. When that functionality isn’t needed, the seat reflects the airline’s standard configuration and appearance. The difference will be almost indistinguishable to travellers without a disability. I only notice that the PRM-capable seat is marginally wider than the seat next to it when I try both in quick succession.

Perhaps rather than airlines racing to be the first to send passengers into space we could set a goal of being the first to comfortably transport travellers with a disability across the globe.

My hope for the future is that everyone that wants to travel by plane, with or without disability, will have the ability to do so.

– Julie Jones, Editor, Travel Without Limits

The next steps

Right now, Delta’s new seating concepts don’t yet have certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Those approvals can take 2-3 years – so you won’t see this on a plane in 2024 or 2025.

Delta Flight Products is also a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, but that’s no guarantee the parent carrier will adopt the seat. It’s fair to say, though, that Delta wouldn’t be investing time and money into this if it weren’t at least considering adopting its own creation onto its fleet.

These concept seats are part of a broader collection of improvements currently on the table at Delta Flight Products. Delta is also working on a new aircraft restroom design that can better accommodate wheelchair users and travellers with hidden disabilities. This includes features to help passengers move out of and back into their wheelchairs inside the restroom.

Artificial intelligence also has a role to play on board. I’m told that automated closed captioning of any inflight announcements is also on the table, with those captions able to appear on the mirror of that accessible restroom. (Potentially, captions of announcements could also appear on inflight entertainment screens.) Delta is also working on a storage device that can more reliably transport manual wheelchairs in the hold, significantly reducing the chance of a chair being damaged in transit.

It’s still early days, and there’s a lot of work to do. But it’s great to see Delta taking the initiative to make travel more accessible. Delta Flight Products also routinely offers its services and licences its creations to other airlines, so it’s possible that the idea may one day become commonplace in aircraft cabins around the world.

Also read: Delta eyes flights to Melbourne as Brisbane launch nears

All photography by Chris Chamberlin for Point Hacks.

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Delta’s new seat concept lets passengers fly in their own wheelchair was last modified: July 3rd, 2024 by Chris Chamberlin