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Delta demonstrates new seat concept, larger lavatory for passengers who use wheelchairs

Engineers at Delta Air Lines’ product development arm think they’ve found a solution that could make air travel a safer, more seamless and more dignified experience for passengers who use wheelchairs for mobility. It involves a spot in the front row of the aircraft.

Last week in Hamburg, Germany, TPG got a look at a new seating prototype that would allow passengers to bring their own wheelchair on board.


Meanwhile, another concept pioneered by another aviation giant would involve turning two side-by-side lavatories into one double-sized lavatory to make it more spacious and accessible.


It’s unlike any restroom you’ve ever seen on a plane — or probably anywhere, for that matter.

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Front-row seat converts

This newly invented seating concept would see Delta (or any other airline that springs for it) convert a domestic first-class seat to accommodate a wheelchair, as shown in this demonstration TPG witnessed at the 2024 Aircraft Interiors Expo, a major industry gathering focused on everything that happens inside commercial aircraft — from the seats to inflight entertainment and technology.

To orient yourself, picture this: Instead of a standard domestic first-class seat, you’d notice a specially modified seat in the aisle spot of the first row on the left side of the aircraft (or on your right side as you board). 


At first glance, the seat looks like a completely normal premium recliner and has all the same features and amenities you’d expect.

But if a passenger with reduced mobility will be on a particular flight and would like to bring their own wheelchair on board, rather than checking it and relying on airport services to board and exit the plane, the seat can quickly be converted to easily accommodate them.


The seat cushion flips up, and crew members can pull straps with hooks up from slots in the cabin floor. The straps would fasten onto the mobility device in several spots, tightly securing the wheelchair in place — and allowing the passenger to remain in their personal chair for the duration of the flight.

The setup I saw is a prototype and was showcased last week by Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based carrier that dreams up ideas and builds new concepts for commercial air travel.


The goal is simple.

“This gives you the same experience that every other passenger on the aircraft has,” said Rang Saeed, a Delta Flight Products mechanical design engineer who walked me through the concept.

The prototype is fairly similar to another one I saw in Hamburg last week shown off by leading aviation manufacturer Collins Aerospace. In that design, the passenger would be situated just in front of the first full row.

The Collins Aerospace design also includes a large table that would fold out of the aircraft wall for the passenger. When the seat is in use by a passenger using a mobility device, it’d be a tray table. In other circumstances, it could serve as an extra meal prep spot for flight attendants — or, perhaps, a snack counter, Collins Aerospace said.


Will airlines go for it?

Now, there’s a long way to go before these innovations make their way onto a real commercial flight.

Both Delta Flight Products and Collins Aerospace are in the early stages, gathering feedback from airlines and travelers to see what about these ideas might work … and what might not work.

As airlines investigate the seats, there’s a key factor that could make this a viable option: In theory, carriers wouldn’t have to make dramatic changes to their aircraft cabins to add these new seating options.

That’s because these solutions center around the first row of the plane. So, it wouldn’t require airlines to widen their center aisles to accommodate personal wheelchairs, for instance — an option that would likely face resistance from carriers because of the economics at play. (Today, personal wheelchairs generally can’t fit down commercial aircraft aisles; passengers must typically transfer to what is known as an aisle chair.)

airline seat reclining

“If we don’t have to traverse the aisle, then we’ve got a good starting point,” said Chris Wood, longtime aviation accessibility consultant and a co-inventor of Delta Flight Products’ seating solution. “We have to remove that elephant in the room, that is an airline not wanting to lose a [passenger] spot.”

Changes needed

The ability for passengers with reduced mobility to bring their own wheelchairs on board is a priority for many accessibility advocates. After all, airlines mishandled more than 11,500 wheelchairs and scooters in 2023, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Under the Biden administration, the DOT has been vocal about regulating airlines in the name of consumer protection, including with respect to accessibility.

“They see legislation coming,” Wood said of airlines. “Or regulation.”

In fact, some new regulations around air travel accessibility have already come.

Building a more accessible lavatory


Last year, the Biden administration finalized a rule that would require even those smaller, single-aisle jets — such as the Boeing 737, Airbus A220 or A320 family — to have at least one lavatory on board large enough to accommodate a passenger in a wheelchair and at least one aide.

The rule will apply to new jets that are ordered from manufacturers starting in 2033 or delivered starting in 2035. That means enforcement of this rule will begin less than a decade from now.

With that timeline in mind, a key question arises: How will airlines reconfigure their cabins to comply?

Some possibilities began to present themselves in Hamburg last week.

Collins Aerospace’s version

Check out this concept Collins Aerospace showed off. Instead of having two lavatories across from one another, the company demonstrated a way to have two side-by-side lavatories that can fuse into one larger lavatory in order to accommodate a passenger who needs additional space.


A divider between the two unlatches and slides to the side to form one larger lavatory.


Collins sees this design as a way to meet the new DOT standards without sacrificing seats on board, the company told TPG.

Delta Flight Products’ version


Delta Flight Products offered its own option with a unique trifold door that would unlatch to allow a wider entry space. The lavatory also features a wraparound grab bar and touchless details, such as a motion-activated sensor that would trigger an additional handle to drop down from the ceiling.

Lighting features would also support travelers with low vision or color sensitivity.

Delta’s engineers see this as a possible solution in the forward cabin for jets like the Boeing 737 or Airbus A321. The Delta Flight Products team is studying what this might mean for cabin configurations if the design is someday brought to fruition.

Bottom line

Whether any one of these specific innovations ultimately appear on a commercial jet remains to be seen — and it’s likely some or all of these inventions might change dramatically as airlines weigh in. But the sheer number of ideas being presented, Wood said, is a striking sign of progress in making air travel a more harmonized experience for all travelers.

“I would argue that [airlines] should have done this 20 years ago … 10 years ago … 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s to bring dignity — and safety, more importantly — back to this community for air travel.”

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