Evaluating Wheelchair Crashworthiness for Potential Use as Aircraft Seating

Sponsor: National Institute for Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR)

Dates: October 2022 to August 2025

Researchers: Kathleen D. Klinich, Miriam Manary, Nichole Orton, Kyle Boyle, Brian Eby, Jennifer Bishop


Approximately 3.6 million people in the US use wheelchairs, but they cannot currently use them on aircraft, preventing many from flying. Among those that transfer to airline seating, many report instances of their wheelchairs being damaged during transport, as well as discomfort, injury, and social stigma experienced while transferring to an aircraft seat.

A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) consensus document determined that it should be feasible on most commercial aircraft to allow passengers to use their wheelchairs. However, wheelchairs would need to meet the FAA crashworthiness requirements for current aircraft seats. These consist of dynamic tests simulating frontal and vertical loading, plus static pull tests.

While voluntary, RESNA WC19 currently has standards for assessing frontal crashworthiness of wheelchairs used as seating in motor-vehicles. We hypothesize that wheelchairs meeting current RESNA standards for vehicles can meet the FAA crashworthiness requirements for airline seats. To test this hypothesis, we will construct adapted versions of the FAA test fixtures and test wheelchairs that meet current WC19 requirements under frontal, vertical, and static testing conditions. If needed, we would perform additional testing of wheelchairs with modifications made to improve their performance under FAA test conditions. Throughout the project, we will thoroughly document our methods and results so they can be used to test additional wheelchairs according to FAA seat testing standards. These documents could also be used to support petitions to the FAA to allow wheelchair use on aircraft.

(click image to play simulation)

Preliminary simulations to understand how crash-tested wheelchairs might perform under FAA test conditions for aircraft seats. Upper left: standard WC-19 test procedure with lap and shoulder belt. Upper right: WC-19 test procedure with lap belt only. Lower right: horizontal aircraft test conditions with lap belt only. Lower left: “vertical” aircraft test conditions with lap belt only.

Related Publications

NAS Report: Technical Feasibility of a Wheelchair Securement Concept for Airline Travel

Design Guidelines for Wheechair Stations on Aircraft (new 8-15-23)

Klinich KD, Orton NR, Boyle KJ, Vallier T, Eby B, Bishop J, Weissel G, Manary MA (2024) Evaluating Wheelchairs for Potential Use as Aircraft Seating: Static and Dynamic Frontal Test Conditions (Interim Project Report). UMTRI 2024-01. University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.