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See the "first-of-its-kind" seat that will make airplanes more accessible for travelers with wheelchairs

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Airplanes could soon be significantly more accessible for travelers who rely on electric-powered wheelchairs. A new airplane seat that debuted at an expo this week would allow travelers to remain in their own wheelchairs for the duration of their flight. 

PriestmanGoode, a transport design specialist who led the design, said it's a "first-of-its-kind." The design allows wheelchair users to still use a headrest, center console, tray tables and a cocktail table, PriestmanGoode said. 

A new airline seat prototype has been unveiled that would allow travelers who rely on electric-powered wheelchairs to stay in their chairs for the duration of their flight.  PriestmanGoode

So, how does it work? 

Video shows that the cushions in the seat that would be used in standard seating can be detached from the rest of the seat that's bolted in and stowed away. The seat base folds up to the back of the area and the headrest is raised allowing for people who use wheelchairs to back into the space comfortably. 

The seat debuted at the Aircraft Interiors Expo 2023 in Hamburg, Germany and was designed in a collaboration between Delta Flight Products and the United Kingdom consortium Air4All. 

Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, said that the new seat will also allow for "a more seamless boarding and disembarking experience" for those who have reduced mobility. 

"Air4All is collaborating with DFP and our strong production and manufacturing capabilities to explore new ways to deliver equal access to comfort, safety, and dignity for all customers," said Rick Salanitri, president of Delta Flight Products. "This patented design offers new possibilities for customers with disabilities to enjoy a travel experience they truly deserve."

After the prototype's debut at the expo, DFP said that the seat will go through the final stages for its design and validation. After that it will go through its testing and certification programs for installation. It will still need to be verified to meet U.S. and European standards. 

The seat is currently designed to fit on Airbus A321 aircraft, Salanitri told aviation news website Runway Girl Network. Delta's A321s are single-aisle planes that accommodate 191 seats. However, Salanitri said the design also allows it to be installed on other aircraft types "with only minor modifications." 

The new seat has been heralded by disability activists. Chris Wood, the founder of the organization Flying Disabled, which is part of Air4All, got to try out the seat for himself. 

"An innovation like this in air travel provides those with reduced mobility a safe and comfortable way for them to travel and remain in their own power wheelchair," he said. "It has taken a truly collaborative effort to develop this seat and we believe this product provides an optimal solution for all parties."

Maayan Ziv, the founder of AccessNow, which aims to be a resource for accessibility information, said that "airlines should take note" of the innovation. 

"What Delta is doing is what real leadership looks like and they will reap the rewards," she tweeted. "The disability community spends over $58B on travel annually. I know what airline I'll be flying with when these prototypes hit production."

The debut comes just under a year after U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the department is taking "big steps" to make air travel "safe and accessible for everyone." Part of that was proposing a new rule that would expand airplane bathroom sizes to be more accommodating to passengers who use wheelchairs.  

"No one should have to choose between dehydrating themselves and avoiding air travel altogether," Buttigieg said. 

The department also unveiled a bill of rights for passengers who have disabilities and Buttigieg said they are working on a rule that would allow people to stay in their own wheelchairs when they fly. Currently, TSA regulations state that electric wheelchairs and other similar devices are not permitted in aircraft cabins.

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