For millions of travellers worldwide, a host of permanent and short term conditions conspire to make air travel at best difficult, and, in many cases, all but impossible.
Accessibility barriers are not just mobility related but also stem from hearing, vision, and coordination problems that affect a passenger’s ability to hear boarding calls, read signage, and manipulate websites.
The vast array of air travel access barriers arise from a shifting web of safety, security, and cost/comfort/convenience factors that will ultimately require all of the stakeholders to compromise a little bit if any progress is to be made.
COMMON AIR TRAVEL ACCESS BARRIERS
For travellers with reduced mobility (and anyone with health conditions outside the “norm”) the hardest part of travelling is, by far, the uncertainty and capriciousness of an ever-changing system. Will I have to give up my wheelchair at check-in, or can I take it all the way to the gate? Will my medications, or assistive devices be allowed through security? Do I have the right documentation for everything? While regulatory agencies tell us that the answers to these questions are straightforward and clearly posted on their web sites, the practical application of regulations is inconsistent at best.
Disabled travellers report that procedures in the US and abroad vary widely from day to day, even within the same airline at the same airport. It’s this uncertainty that causes extreme levels of anxiety for many travellers. Even when they’ve done everything “right”, they may still be denied use of their chairs, or access to their medication.
And assuming they make it to the aircraft door with body, soul, and equipment intact, passengers with reduced mobility (PRMs) face the prospect of being unceremoniously hoisted up the stairs and onto the aeroplane if the gate has no jet bridge, or the aircraft has no aisle chair. It’s a process that many cite as being stressful on good days, and outright dehumanising on others.
Additionally, ticket consolidators and airline web sites that fail to offer online booking for assistive devices – or are unusable by passengers incapable of manipulating a mouse – often require these passengers to place toll calls to make reservations. This also means that they may be unable to take advantage of the best rates, or web only deals.
To be fair, airlines and airports work hard at standardising policies, but in a world of sub-contractors, and decentralized responsibilities, this is becoming increasingly difficult to control.
ACCESS IN AIRPORTS, AIRLINES AND AIRCRAFT
For PRMs, access issues arise the moment that they get to the airport. Are the elevators roomy enough to accommodate their chair? Once they’re inside the airport, if they are hearing or sight impaired, will they find alternative instructional signage to compensate for small print or inaudible public address announcements? Once they reach their gate, these passengers face another range of uncertainty. Will there be a jetway, an elevator, stairs, or some combination of all three?
But for passengers in their own wheelchairs, the most consistent access barrier comes at check in. Will the airline ask them to surrender their chair with their luggage? The airlines or airport may well provide a chair, but to satisfy a variety of needs, this equipment is typically basic at best. For many wheelchair users, their chair’s functionality and padding is the result of years of refinements and costly prescription customisation. Forcing them to hand over this piece of their lives at check-in is like requiring a grown man with size 11ft to walk to the gate in size four ballet slippers, do without his asthma medication, and ask permission to go to the bathroom.
At the gate, simply getting on board is the next hurdle. Will the airline have an aisle chair, or will members of the ground crew be required to bodily carry me to my seat? Once seated, barriers persist. If there’s no aisle chair, I better not drink in flight because I have no way of getting to the bathroom.
While there are a host of barriers that plague travellers, it would be wrong to say that airports, airlines, and manufacturers are doing nothing about this situation. Eric Lipp, founder of the Open Doors Organization (ODO) tells us that their biennial Universal Access in Airports conference brings together representatives from airlines, airports, aircraft designers, and airport contractors to discuss best practices, new technology, accessibility design, and regulations.
Lipp believes that this conference, along with ODO’s growing alliance with Airport Council International (ACI) are all signs of the industry’s willingness to take accessibility seriously. He cites Seattle’s coming terminal expansion (with accessibility woven into the fabric of the design from the very beginning), and Boeing’s full-time employment of an accessibility expert as positive signs.
Neither is it appropriate to say that money or market share are the main issues. According to Tanvi Vyas, Trailblazers Campaigns officer for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign in the United Kingdom, “This is not a premium airline versus budget airline issue, as many factors contribute to service delivery.” Thinking through the usability issues of a website, or whether or not you’ll let wheelchair users take their chairs to the gate costs nothing, and may ultimately save money. It’s about thinking differently, and approaching the problem with a fresh set of eyes.
For airports, airlines, and manufacturers, the balance in all things customer related revolves around the three “C’s” of cost, comfort, and convenience. Balancing those priorities is a complex calculus that focuses on the majority of passengers. For airlines the option of installing a larger lavatory often means removing seats and raising ticket prices. And in this era of instant price comparisons, passengers aren’t going to pay more for a two-hour flight on the off chance that they’ll need to use a disabled lavatory some time in the future. Most people don’t think that far ahead.
But according to Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, a London-based transportation design firm, that’s exactly what most of us should be thinking about. With advances in medical science, we’re living longer, if not healthier, lives. As a result, there’s a better than average chance that most of us will be relegated to some form of restricted mobility during our lifetime. Unless we want to write off the possibility of air travel, it behoves us to find ways of making it more accessible.
Inspired by Paralympic athletes during last summer’s London Olympics, Priestman and his team took it upon themselves, working in consultation with David Constantine and Motivation, his UK-based wheelchair training, support, and empowerment organisation, to design an alternative airline seating system that addresses many of the accessibility challenges confronted by aircraft manufacturers.
The Priestmangoode solution incorporates a modular seat that converts to an aisle chair capable of breaking away from a permanent seat base. The user need only transfer once (moving from their own chair to the aisle chair, which later docks securely with the permanent seat base on the aircraft). While it’s not a perfect solution, and still needs to be refined, several airlines have expressed a willingness to test it in service once a prototype is available. But with seat development costs running into the millions, that first step is often the toughest.
That said, improved accessible seating that helps ground staff get PRMs on and off the plane more efficiently will reduce turnaround time, and may reduce work-related ground staff injuries, both things that speak directly to the airlines’ bottom line. And once airlines and aircraft manufacturers realize that disabled/accessibility challenged travellers spend (according to the Open Doors Organisation) upwards of USD5 billion annually on air travel (in the US alone), they may decide that it’s an investment worth making.
It’s also possible that the solutions lie not in spending more money, but in applying existing knowledge in new ways. Airbus has, for example, used lessons learned in its widebody designs to develop Space-Flex, a lavatory system for the airframer’s A320 family of single-aisle aircraft.
The Space-Flex system reduces galley size and puts both lavatories on one side of the aisle. This allows a common wall between lavs to be collapsed, giving PRMs enough space to accommodate their assistive devices. One benefit for operators is that this new configuration allows airlines to install three additional seats, or increase the space between existing rows.
The Airbus solution is important to note because the design philosophy solves a tricky design problem in a way that also potentially creates additional revenue for the airlines. To date, Airbus has taken more than one hundred orders to equip A320s with Space-Flex.
But good design, in addition to being functional, usable, and cost effective, must also tick the boxes for safety and security. But whose boxes?
ALPHABET SOUP – LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL REGULATIONS
Most people in the United States have at least heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1990 US law that, among other things, requires businesses and municipalities to adhere to a strict set of guidelines meant to ensure that the disabled have equal access to commercial and public spaces. And, while the ADA does have a huge impact on accessible air travel, it is just one of many regulatory policies, instituted by a number of agencies around the world.
It’s important to note that the ADA regulates accessibility at airports, and is a US Department of Justice (DOJ) initiative, but the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulates access on board aircraft and is administered by the US Department of Transportation (DOT). Additionally, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is primarily tasked with air traffic control and flight safety (but oversees the ADA in air travel on behalf of the DOJ) while the US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is responsible for airport and aircraft security issues.
In Europe, guidelines for accessible air travel are spelled out by the EU 1107 document, which is quite different from both the ADA and the ACAA in the United States. For example, in Europe the airports contract ground handling (wheelchair pushing) companies. So there will usually be one company per airport. But in the US, the airlines contract the wheelchair services, so there may be half a dozen contractors pushing chairs in one airport.
For travellers there are benefits to understanding these regulations. Laurel Van Horn of the Open Doors Organization tells us that most travellers are not aware that the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires all airlines serving US markets to have a Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO) on call during their hours of operation. Airports likewise have an access officer charged with resolving complaints related to accessibility. At any time during the travel experience (even while booking a ticket), passengers can request assistance from the CRO, or the airport accessibility officer on duty.
Also, complaints about accessibility on airline web sites, at airports, or aboard aircraft should be made in writing to the DOT, because laws require that all written complaints be investigated, while complaints made through a “hotline” or directly to the airlines are not subject to the same level of oversight.
Knowing who to speak to, when and why is one of the most empowering actions that passengers can take to facilitate their travel plans.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Sadly there are no easy answers to the problems of accessible air travel. Airports should build accessibility (of all sorts) into their future plans, and the DOJ, DOT, and FAA must require that all new facilities and planned improvements be comprehensively accessible. Aircraft manufacturers should offer their customers accessibility options that benefit the airline and, in the long term, all of its passengers. And airlines should make their booking services more accessible, and insist that their contractors be trained to meet or exceed the same standards that they themselves are held to.
It’s true also that passengers with accessibility needs must plan ahead, and take the steps necessary to remove doubt and uncertainty from the travel experience. Hopefully, over time, those steps will be greatly reduced or mostly eliminated.
Vicki Curtis, an engineer and accessibility expert at Boeing reminds us that, “It is all linked; the aeroplane, the airport, the jetway. You can have the most accessible airplane in the world, but unless you can get to it, it is still inaccessible.”
An ageing population and longer life expectancy dictate that everyone will probably experience some level of disability and access limiting illness in their lifetime. So, unless we plan to simply write off air travel during those periods, it’s in all of our interest to make sure that the system is as accessible as possible.