The number of people with disabilities travelling by air is increasing faster than the overall growth in air travel.
In the UK, for example, while passenger traffic through its airports increased by 19% between 2010 and 2017, the number of travellers requesting assistance during the same period soared by 47%, meaning this it is one of the fastest growing sectors in aviation.
With the increased need for special assistance services, airports face unique challenges. They must deliver services cost-effectively, but also in a way that respects passengers’ dignity and makes them feel like they are being properly cared for by people, who care about them.
What we must realise is that providing the right support for everyone is a global challenge that requires global collaboration.
Disabilities affect all of us – whether we have a loved one with a disability, have our own disability or face one in the future.
We should be mindful of this when designing and operating airports and aircraft, and in all the related operations and processes. It’s not enough to focus on how we get people onto and off aircraft with dignity, we have to think about how they get to the airport in the first place and even how they buy their tickets and how we share details of what assistance is available for them at the airport.
In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has pushed for major changes in the treatment of passengers with reduced mobility (PRM), with the assistance of disability advocates and others. But it’s going to be a never-ending journey, and right now we must involve everyone in deciding how we deliver against the promise of a more inclusive experience for all.
So, the airport and the aviation industry need to be considering inclusivity at the concept stages of infrastructure projects and airline products, not retrofitting.
We need to involve and support health care professionals and carers so they understand what services are available to the people they support in the community, so that PRM passengers can better prepare, hopefully reducing levels of anxiety before they even get to the airport.
We need to be talking to transport providers, which for London Heathrow in the UK means Transport for London and the rail companies, because not everybody arrives at an airport in a car and we have to ensure we have as seamless a transfer between modes of transport as possible.
And – this to me is the most important – we have to continue to engage with our younger people, the future architects and designers, because if we are going to change the shape and the future of air travel, we’re going to need the input from them.
We need to be more challenging of ourselves. We need to be pushing for things like apprenticeships to have inclusivity and access built in. We need to be pushing for the creation of a UK PRM supplier federation so that we share best practice, drive improvements and deliver consistent levels of service.
We also need to ensure that all frontline colleagues at airports are disability confident. If staff aren’t confident enough to ask the right questions because they feel embarrassed or because they think they know the answer, it all too often results in an unsatisfactory experience for the passenger and, can be damaging for the airport, in terms of fines and unwanted media exposure.
To be honest, my vision is for a world where we deliver the best possible experience for PRM passengers because we all know it is the right thing to do. Our global goal has to be inclusivity and accessibility for all.