By Mark E. Smith
Theradyne's new aisle chair could help wheelchair users make a smoother transition into airplane seats. If you're a wheelchair user who has flown on a commercial airline, chances are you've experienced that particularly horrid piece of equipment invented for those with disabilities, the aisle chair.
You know, that rail-thin, unstable mover's dolly the crew uses to cart you down the narrow aisle to your seat? Of course, the drama doesn't end with you precariously perched on this metal bench on wheels. Once at your seat, the flight attendants must jockey you over the seat's fixed armrest and into your seat, all the while fighting the aisle chair that's taking up the room you need for a safe lifting procedure.
Theradyne, a rehabilitation technology manufacturer, is looking to improve this product. The company is currently using 16 Delta Air Lines terminals across the United States to test its new aisle chair.
"Our goal with the chair has been to create an easier way to transfer the passenger from the aisle chair to the seat, eliminating the risk of injury associated with lifting someone over the seat's stationary armrest," said Chuck Hoffmann of Theradyne.
Mechanism Adjusts Chair's Height
Theradyne's aisle chair, the first new product of its kind in decades, has a hydraulic mechanism like a barber's chair to adjust its height. The chair can move up to 24 inches in height to be placed level with the passenger's wheelchair seat, then readjusted so it's level with the top of the plane seat's armrest, possibly eliminating awkward transfers.
Theradyne has addressed user comfort and security by including flip-up armrests, a padded seat and multiple safety belts on the chair, providing greater balance over conventional aisle chairs.
Theradyne is also working with Northwest Airlines to test a new courtesy wheelchair for airport use. It operates in conjunction with the aisle chair.
Scheduled for release to the entire airline industry by the end of July, Theradyne's new aisle chair promises to improve air travel for passengers with disabilities around the globe.
"We want to make flying as safe and comfortable for the passenger as we can," said Hoffmann.
The Author's Story Behind the Story
The collaboration on this product has set both companies' public relations people in motion. Delta is being touted as a friend to those of us with disabilities. A news wire story calls the chair the "Delta Air Chair."
One press release said, "These initiatives (the aisle chair) and others we (Delta) have on the drawing board demonstrate Delta's commitment to providing convenient and barrier-free travel to customers with disabilities."
As a frequent traveler and a wheelchair user, I read the wire story and initially thought that I, too, should fly with Delta from now on, as obviously the airline is dedicated to serving people with disabilities. But when I put on my journalist's cap to get more information about this new chair, my feelings changed.
After an hour and a half on the phone with Delta, transferred here and there and back again, I discovered that no Delta employee I spoke with knew of the revolutionary aisle chair. In fact, Delta doesn't have a department in charge of disability issues (though the press release did mention a customer advisory board that includes people with disabilities).
Several agents knew of the term "Delta Air Chair" but insisted it is the onboard chair used to take passengers to the lavatory while in flight, which has existed for many years. Apparently the information on the new chair has not been shared with many Delta employees.
The aisle chair should be a great improvement in air travel, but it appears that Delta needs to work on disability awareness throughout its company, not just in its public relations department.
(This story was posted on 11 Jul 2000)