WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A vision of accessibility taking flight at Wichita State is getting international recognition. 

A team from WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research has designed a way to modify planes to have wheelchair access. It’s putting them on the shortlist for the Crystal Cabin Award. 

Courtesy: NIAR

Ankit Gupta was a NIAR student in 2016 and is now a NIAR research engineer. He said this project could transform traveling. 

“The basic idea behind this project, this concept, is a modification and reengineering of the first-class left closets, which are found on the single-aisle aircrafts,” Gupta said. 

He took KSN News through the design that was constructed. The concept is called the Fly Your Own Wheels Suite.  It was designed by a team of seven people at NIAR. The concept modifies an airplane to be handicap accessible by turning a closet into a suite. 

“This is a low-level mock-up of a 737-800, a single-aisle aircraft,” Gupta added. 

Gupta said they chose the 737 because it’s the most popular aircraft. 

The team showed how a wheelchair got on and off the plane. A person could easily get on the plane and right at the front is a suite with a door. The door would be open, and staff would come by to close it. 

“It takes maybe less than 30 seconds, so it is very, very quick,” he said. “What makes this project highly innovative and economical for airlines is that it adds an extra passenger to the aircraft.”

Typically, wheelchairs have to go under the plane, and through cargo, then an airport official helps them. 

Through their research, the team said people deal with lost, damaged and stolen wheelchairs often when traveling. It also showed that people with disabilities prefer to be in their own wheelchairs on airplanes because it can be uncomfortable to sit in standard seating. Not only that, but it would take less time to board and deplane because there wouldn’t be a need for auxiliary personnel to help. 

Gupta said it’s still in the first stages as they work on testing the safety and features. 

“There’s a lot to be done when it comes to testing,” he said. 

The Crystal Cabin Award’s intent is to find improvement in passenger comfort, and it is the only international award for excellence in aircraft interior innovation. The team said being shortlisted for this is a big deal. 

“These awards are judged by people from airlines and aircraft manufacturers, so it gives us confidence that they have some belief in this concept that this is feasible and can be implemented in the future,” said Gupta. 

It’s safe, reliable and meets FAA and other guidelines. Gupta said there is no loss of revenue from empty seats because when no one with a wheelchair is on board, that area can become a closet. He said there is no loss of cargo space either. 

It’s helping engineering students develop their skills. Carlos Gatti is a NIAR virtual engineering student assistant, and he said it’s allowing him to follow his passion. 

 “I think working on a project that has such a tremendous impact on people with disabilities is one of the reasons why I moved here to the US,” said Gatti. “I am originally from Paraguay, and I always wanted to help people with disabilities.”

Gatti said he is proud to help a community that doesn’t always have its voice heard.

“It’s very amazing just to see how, from research, we can go into reality,” said Gatti. 

The team will know in roughly a month whether they are a finalist. Win or lose, the team said it’s an incredible opportunity. 

“Not just for the team but for Wichita State, NIAR, even the city and the state, this is a concept that is invented here right here in NIAR in Wichita State, so it makes us really proud,” Gupta said.