Report: U.S. Planes Could Accommodate Secured Wheelchairs in Cabin

In the future, could people who use wheelchairs just roll onto airplanes — no aisle chairs necessary — secure their wheelchairs, and remain seated in them during flights?

Interior of Airbus airplane

A new report published in September by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says the infrastructures and designs of most airplanes being flown in the United States would indeed accommodate wheelchairs.

The “Technical Feasibility of a Wheelchair Securement Concept for Airline Travel” report cited analysis of such factors as the widths of airplane doors and the designs of passenger cabins.

For example, the two most frequently flown airplane series in the U.S. — the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 — “should require only modest interior modifications to create a wheelchair securement area located at the front of the cabin near the turn from the main boarding door,” the U.S. Access Board said, in explaining the report.

The U.S. Access Board also referenced the WC19 motor vehicle transportation standard that many wheelchairs in the United States already meet. “Many personal wheelchairs, including power wheelchairs, comply with motor vehicle transportation safety and crash performance standards (WC19) for wheelchairs established by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), providing a widely available and standardized interface for an in-cabin wheelchair tiedown and occupant restraint system,” the U.S. Access Board noted.

The Board suggested that next steps include studying how many people who use wheelchairs would prefer to stay seated in them during flights, and taking a closer look at wheelchairs that currently meet the WC19 standard.

“The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establish a program of research, in collaboration with RESNA and the assistive technology industry, to test and evaluate an appropriate selection of WC19-compliant wheelchairs in accordance with applicable FAA crashworthiness and safety performance criteria,” the Board reported.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine added that equipping airplanes with appropriate wheelchair securement devices “would likely be of moderate technical complexity for many individual airplanes,” and that “substantial effort” would be required to equip enough airplanes with securement devices “to provide meaningful levels of airline service.”

Because the series of Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 planes are used so frequently in the United States, the report suggested that wheelchair securement would need to be available in those types of planes “for any wheelchair securement concept to be practical and provide substantive levels of service.” Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 airplanes carry nearly two-thirds of all air travel passengers in the United States, the report added.

Given the high numbers of wheelchairs currently being checked as airplane luggage and then sustaining significant damage during that process, wheelchair securement could provide optimal seating for wheelchair users during flights and also protect the wheelchairs and seating equipment. Wheelchairs would also be immediately available for use upon landing and deplaning.

Committee Chair Alan M. Jette, Emeritus Professor and Dean at Boston University’s Sargent College, said of the report, “Equipping airplanes with wheelchair securement systems is an intuitively appealing solution to many of the hardships that people with disabilities and who are non-ambulatory face when flying. We hope this report lays the groundwork for future efforts to fill the information gaps [that] the committee identified.

“The idea behind the study is: If passengers had the ability to fly while seated in their personal wheelchair that is customized for their medical and physical needs, they could avoid the hardships of flying and be able to use their own wheelchair at their destination.”

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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