Biogen and Delta Air Lines are taking flight on an initiative to improve air travel accessibility for passengers with reduced mobility.

The biotech company announced earlier this week that it is collaborating with Delta Flight Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, to create enhancements that offer a more comfortable, accommodating air travel experience for passengers with disabilities.

Delta Flight Products is working to create wheelchair seating models that can be utilized on the latter’s commercial planes, something that patient groups like Cure SMA have advocated for over the years.

SMA, also known as spinal muscular atrophy, is a rare disease that affects between 10,000 to 25,000 Americans and is best characterized by muscles and nerves that become progressively weaker over time.

In February, an SMA-focused musical “Most Likely Not To” premiered at the Times Center in New York. A subplot in the show, which was supported by Genentech through its ongoing SMA My Way initiative, centered on the all-too-common and all-too-frustrating challenges faced by that patient population while traveling via airlines.

The first prototype from Delta Flight Products aims to allow customers to remain in their own wheelchairs for their duration of the flight, rather than subjecting it to potential damage or misplacement among luggage. U.K.-based consortium AirforAll was also involved in the design and creation of this seat.

The announcement was made earlier this week ahead of Cure SMA’s 2024 annual SMA Conference, which kicked off in Austin on Thursday. 

Kristen Fortino, head of the U.S. rare disease franchise at Biogen North America, told MM+M that both companies will be on hand to discuss the partnership, have attendees test out the prototype and incorporate their feedback into future models.

Fortino said the company is committed to improving the travel experience for passengers with disabilities and ensuring that they have the same independent, equitable experience as other customers.

She said that while more concrete aspects of the partnership will come into form in the months and years ahead, this announcement marks step one in terms of progress.

“The discussion has to start somewhere. Once you start that discussion, then I think it will actually get traction,” she said. 

In addition to the innovative seating prototype, Delta Flight Products has worked on improved cargo storage options designed to better protect mobility devices that need to be stowed away during travel. 

These will all be presented at upcoming medical and travel conferences, according to Fortino.

As for what she expects at the Cure SMA conference, Fortino said she anticipates a positive response and hopes for practical feedback from a passionate community that has long advocated for meaningful changes to make the travel experience more inclusive.

“While we don’t know exactly what [the final seating model] is going to look like today, once we hear their responses and their perspectives, that can hopefully get us one step closer to making this a reality,” she said.