For decades, travellers with disabilities have felt underserved at airports and have long been overlooked globally as a viable market with spending power.
According to the 2005 Open Doors Organization (ODO) Market Study on Travelers with Disabilities, four out of five (82%) air travellers with disabilities experience obstacles when they are at the airport.
These barriers range from inaccessible airport transport to a lack of animal relief areas in secure zones.
Even prior to the 9/11 security increase and the formation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), barriers and risks were eminent, but many still exist. If individuals travel with assistive devices, they risk the loss or destruction of their wheelchair or scooter.
Those with vision and hearing loss, often feel that they experience discrimination from airport staff, who frequently overlook the proper etiquette for assisting these customers.
In fact, until Open Doors Organization teamed with ACI-North America in 2011, there was no formal training available to airports.
To provide some perspective, until recently, employees in the US were not educated on the rights of people with disabilities as they pertain to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 (ADA) or the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA, Part 382).
Although passengers advocated for themselves by carrying their rights on paper to show at airports, passengers often felt that airport and airline employees blatantly disregarded these rights.
Many concessionaires and airport vendors attempted to find ways to fill space at the expense of equality.
Because of employees’ lack of education, they were repeatedly unwilling to handle customers with disabilities, and their attitudes were often negative towards requests for any sort of special service, whether or not the request was reasonable.
At some airports, accessibility was a marginal consideration.
At some regional airports dangerous devices like forklifts were used to get passengers up to small jets.
When an airline simply could not fit a power-operated wheelchair into the cargo bin, passengers were simply without options for transporting their assistive device.
During a decade-long stretch of renovations at countless major hub airports across the country, temporary accessibility was overlooked during the construction period, and passengers with mobility disabilities were repeatedly late for flights because the distance between gates was just too far.
The deregulation that began after 9/11 broke the industry down to its barest state, and those changes made travelling with a disability even more difficult.
Passengers with mobility devices experienced the embarrassment of being patted down and private devices like colostomy bags and catheterisation systems were exposed by security officers.
Travellers with a guide animal had to book three-hour layovers just to ensure the animal could relieve itself between flights somewhere outside the airport, as designated relief areas were non-existent.
Indeed, the stories for millions of travellers with disabilities are long and heart-breaking. Travellers have complained about broken wheelchairs or assistive devices, the lack of way finding assistance, and missing gates because the airport had no visual paging.
Airport design did not take crowd flow, the need for family restrooms, and accessible transport to off-site rental car facilities into consideration.
Thankfully, however, in the last five to ten years, airports, airlines and their associations have begun co-operating to improve accessibility, as well as training for handling customers with disabilities while they travel.
In the US, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has added several amendments and enhancements to the ACAA that protect the rights of and equipment used by passengers with disabilities.
As a result, airlines and airports have been making strides to improve both accessibility for and sensitivity towards passengers with disabilities.
Airports have begun renovations with universal design in mind and the FAA has continued its airport accessibility audits.
As of 2011, airports like Philadelphia, San Diego, Salt Lake, Washington Dulles, Tucson, Detroit and Miami have begun implementing elements like family restrooms that are larger in size with features for special needs and service animal relief areas, both inside and outside of security.
Features for travellers with vision and hearing disabilities are also being added, such as universally designed kiosks that have Braille and talking features, and Passenger/Flight Information Display Systems (PIDS/FIDS) in gate areas that scroll important information such as delays and pre-boarding announcements.
Additionally, over 30 airports have shown their commitment to learning how to work effectively with travellers with disabilities by taking part in ACI-ODO online training.
The first module, currently available for participation, gives an overview of disability and teaches important information on courteous service.
ODO will release more modules soon, so that the training programme will become the only comprehensive, one-stop centre for airports to gain knowledge about disability and accessibility.
Airlines and wheelchair service providers have also begun requiring training on serving customers with disabilities, including education on the laws, rights, and best practices for handling these customers.
Every airport is also required by the DOT and ACAA to staff a team of Customer Resolution Officials (CROs). These specially-trained representatives – provided by the airline – primarily handle complaints and resolve issues regarding the rights and services for passengers with disabilities.
In July 2009, the DOT added a hotline that travellers with disabilities are able to call, Monday to Friday, if they felt they where being discriminated against. This hotline immediately addresses the passengers’ needs and communicates them to the airline.
The TSA has also begun making assistive changes, starting with a designated lane at all airports that allows passengers with disabilities to avoid the long TSA lines during busy travel periods.
In January 2012, it added a programme called TSA Cares, where passengers with disabilities can self-identify their special needs before travelling and alert TSA ahead of time to their needs.
However, while great advancements have improved the travel experience for people with disabilities, many are still needed.
The 2005 ODO Market Study shows where people with disabilities would most like to see change, and 63% of those polled claimed the distance between gates is too long, while 69% cited obstacles with airport personnel and customer service.
The road ahead is still long, and it will be some time before travellers with disabilities are treated equally and all public facilities are universally designed.
In comparison to where the United States was ten years ago with barriers and accessibility, the progress and additions at airports are encouraging to travellers with disabilities.
People with disabilities are travelling more and more thanks to assistive technology and the many improvements that proactive airports have implemented. And, as the baby boomers age and develop age-related limitations, they will continue to appreciate the care that airports and airlines take to make their travel experience the best it can be.
About the authors
Andy Kennedy and Eric Lipp are key members of Open Doors Organization, a non-profit group based in Chicago that is dedicated to enhancing the travel experience for people with disabilities.