Resource: FAA and Wheelchair Restraint Systems

I am writing a new piece on airplane travel for wheelchair users. There is a movement underway to design a wheelchair restraint system for airplane cabins. The idea is that the wheelchair user could simply roll onto the airplane and be locked in place safely, rather than being transferred to a chair. There are a lot of reasons why this is a great idea.

The FAA, through a spokesperson, has some concerns. I offer their full statement here as a resource to quote in my published piece: They write:

•             Regulations require that airplane seats be designed to safely restrain occupants and prevent serious injuries resulting from an emergency landing under specified conditions. These regulations contain requirements for the strength of the restraint system, the seat structure, and occupant injury criteria limits. For example, seats must be able to withstand crash impact forces that are 16 times the force of gravity (16 g’s), acting on both the seat and the passenger. The wheelchair, in conjunction with the seats installed near the wheelchair, must be shown to protect both the occupant of the wheelchair and the occupants of seats behind and adjacent to the wheelchair.  Seat systems must ensure that the forces on the passenger’s head and spine are kept within specified limits during a crash to reduce the likelihood or severity of injuries.
•             The wheelchair must not adversely affect survivability of airplane occupants following a crash.  For example, the wheelchair in combination with the surrounding seats and interior furnishings must provide enough space for a rapid evacuation after an emergency landing.  Any battery installed on the wheelchair would also need to meet crash loads, to ensure it does not rupture and release toxic or flammable vapors or liquids into the passenger cabin.
•             Airplane parts are tightly controlled under approved quality systems to ensure that the parts are and remain airworthy. These quality systems also carry over into the modification and maintenance of the parts. Even if the manufacturer of the wheelchair had such an approved quality management system, once the wheelchair is sold to a customer, it would be difficult for the airline, the manufacturers, and the FAA to ensure that the wheelchair continues to meet the standards over time. For example, a wheelchair owner might damage or modify their chair in a way that compromises its crashworthiness. Currently, the FAA has no method to ensure the continued airworthiness of every wheelchair that might be used as a passenger seat.
•             Modifications to the airplane would be necessary to accommodate a motorized wheelchair. Strengthening of the aircraft floor to support the additional weight of a motorized wheelchair would likely be necessary. A tie-down method with sufficient strength for 16 g’s would likely require the removal of several seat rows. The airplane modifications would require certification for each different airplane model. The FAA is currently not aware of any airline that has indicated a plan to pursue this type of modification to their aircraft.

In summary, a wheelchair restraint system would have to go through extensive design and qualification to meet the safety standards of a transport airplane seat. More information about FAA requirements for the safety of passengers onboard transport category airplanes can be found in Advisory Circular (AC) 25-17A, Transport Airplane Cabin Interiors Crashworthiness Handbook.

Given this, I am not optimistic.

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