“Our committee did not identify any issues in this preliminary assessment that seem likely to present design and engineering challenges so formidable that they call into question the technical feasibility of an in-cabin wheelchair securement system and the value of exploring the concept further,” said Jette. “Closing the remaining information gaps — particularly about safety — would enable more-informed public policy decisions that meet the needs of airlines, their personnel, and people with disabilities.”
Assessing Passenger Demand
For many people who use wheelchairs, the experience of flying is stressful, uncomfortable, and painful. Some avoid flying altogether because of the risk of serious injury when transferring from a wheelchair to an airplane seat, or because of concerns that their personal wheelchairs will be lost or damaged. Because of the difficulties of air travel, some wheelchair users have to make long-distance trips for work, medical care, family visits, and recreation using other modes of transportation that are more time-consuming and potentially less safe.
Airlines carried nearly 382,000 wheelchairs or scooters in the second half of 2019; however, it is challenging to gauge how many people who use wheelchairs avoided flying, or how many would fly if wheelchair securement systems were available. The report recommends the U.S. Access Board sponsor studies that estimate total passenger demand for air travel if passengers could remain seated in their own wheelchair in flight. This information will influence an airline’s motivation to equip more airplanes with securement systems.
Evaluating Safety, Cabin Space Requirements
The report also recommends the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establish a research program to determine whether wheelchairs approved for motor vehicle transportation will satisfy FAA crash performance standards that apply to the seats in airplane cabins. While many wheelchairs that are in common use today comply with motor vehicle safety standards established by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, these standards differ in several important respects from the FAA performance requirements for airplane seats.
In most airplanes, the removal of two successive rows of seats in the front of the cabin, near the boarding door, would likely free up enough room for a wheelchair securement system, the report says. This location would allow the wheelchair user to maneuver into and out of the securement area; and, once secured, provide enough space for medically essential wheelchair position adjustments. The clear space around the wheelchair would be sufficient to protect nearby passengers and the wheelchair occupant from striking objects during a survivable crash. The floor structure would also accommodate the load imparted by the heaviest of occupied power wheelchairs.
Airline Operational and Passenger Accommodation Issues
The removal of seats to make room for a wheelchair securement system would likely affect airplane seating capacity in total and by fare class. While the committee was aware of this likelihood, it was not charged with assessing the economic implications for airlines.
Airline reservation systems will also need to be adapted, the report notes. For example, when searching for fares, the traveler would need information about the availability of a wheelchair securement system, for all segments of the itinerary. Likewise, airlines would need to ensure that travelers do not become stranded during connections, due to the unplanned substitution of an airplane that lacks in-cabin wheelchair service.
Other issues that warrant careful consideration include training requirements for personnel who assist passengers who use wheelchairs, procedures for validating wheelchair boarding eligibility, and protocols and power management for controlling wheelchair seating functions in flight.
The study — undertaken by the Committee for a Study on the Feasibility of Wheelchair Restraint Systems in Passenger Aircraft — was sponsored by the U.S. Access Board. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.