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Airports are having to raise their game to cater for passengers with reduced mobility and conditions such as autism

The number of passengers with reduced mobility (PRMs) traveling through airports is rising fast. This is partly because of the aging demographic, which brings multiple challenges. Not only will airports have to cope with greater numbers of physically frail passengers, but they will also have to cope with a rise in hidden ailments, such as dementia.

“We are on the eve of a cultural shake-up because the way assistance services are designed has reached capacity,” says Roberto Castiglioni, director of Reduced Mobility Rights and an advocate for access to air travel. “At peak traffic times, big airports inevitably have some PRMs waiting for assistance. They may have well-trained staff, plus wheelchairs and other equipment, but this will never be enough to cater for PRM demands. PRM numbers are growing at a rate of 10-12% per year, which is double passenger growth figures. There will be inevitable shortages unless we rethink all aspects of our airports, including infrastructure, training, technology and flow management.”

Federico Bonaudi, manager for Regional Airports at ACI Europe, thinks that the major issue is the “baby boomer retirement crisis”. In 1990 elderly travelers represented 10% of passengers, but that number is expected to grow to 18% by 2040. “Elderly passengers can face a multitude of challenges while passing through airports, including walking long distances, wayfinding in terminals, reading signage, standing in queues, understanding announcements, managing stairs, dealing with health conditions, carrying heavy baggage and understanding new processes,” he explains. Bonaudi says that ACI will publish a special chapter suggesting solutions to the aging demographic in the forthcoming volume of its Guidelines for Passenger Services.

In Europe, airports have been responsible for providing assistance to PRMs since 2006, whereas in the USA the responsibility still lies with the airlines. European airports normally contract out the service to a specialist operator, and resident airlines pay money into a pot based on their total numbers of passengers rather than PRMs. In practice, there is a triangle made up of airlines, an airport and a service provider, with the PRM in the middle. “Although the airport is legally accountable in the UK, if one side of the triangle breaks down, the passenger suffers,” says Mark Hicks, business manager for OmniServ, which provides PRM services at the UK’s Heathrow, Stansted, Liverpool and Edinburgh airports.

Right:OmniServ provides terminal transport services for passengers with reduced mobility at Heathrow Airport

Communication is key

The crucial element in facilitating the smooth running of PRM operations is pre-notification. At London Heathrow

and its other airports, OmniServ’s contact details are listed on the airport website, and disability organizations often make direct contact. But most PRMs tend to get in touch with the airlines, or even the airport, and the messages have to be passed on. Virgin Atlantic is unusual in employing a passenger accessibility manager who communicates closely with OmniServ at Heathrow to create care plans.

But the pre-notification process is complex and can break down. When that happens, collaboration is the best way to sort out the problems. Hicks explains, “It is easy to cast aspersions on the other parties, but it’s no good saying to an airline, ‘Your pre-notification is terrible. Fix it.’ We sit down with the airline and show them data about routes for which we are not getting pre-notification.

“It could be because the station manager is not doing it, or there’s a system failure. Then we have conversations with the station manager. Although pre-notification is the airline’s responsibility, our philosophy is that we are all in it together, so if we can help out, we will. One major airline stopped pre-notifying us about PRMs on two routes and we fixed the issue in two hours,” he continues.

On many occasions, however, the public fails to inform airlines of hidden disabilities, such as dementia and autism. Breakdowns in communication make it much harder to provide an optimum service. When its operatives are pre-informed, OmniServ’s team of 550 at Heathrow can deal with any condition. For many years, OmniServ catered for a young man with severe autism and obsessive compulsive disorder who traveled to the USA four times a year to attend Boston Higashi High School. Operators had to recreate the same conditions every time he flew, or he would not have boarded the airplane. This meant meeting the same staff at the same check-in desk, visiting the same shops and leaving from the same gate, A10, to the same seat reservation.

“For conditions such as dementia and autism we will move heaven and earth, but it’s much better if we know in advance,” says Martin Benfield, OmniServ’s general manager. “But we find it’s rare we get notification when passengers have those conditions. We get asked for assistance, but we may not know the person has dementia. This is one of the highest profile issues in the industry. All staff employees have training, but we like to be able to assign specialists.

“We also help a lot of blind passengers. We need to know when and how they are turning up for their departing flight at 12:00pm. They could arrive at the airport at 9:00am, 10:00am or 11:00am, by any means of transport. It’s hard to have someone waiting hours for each individual passenger.”

The aviation industry is aware of the dangers of reputational risk if stories about the mistreatment of disabled passengers hit the headlines. There have been high-profile cases of passengers with dementia going missing, some of which have ended tragically. In 2013, for example, 83-year-old Victoria Kong landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington DC and walked past the American Airlines representative sent to meet her. She got lost outside the airport and her body was later recovered from the Potomac River.

“Airports are gearing up to deal with the growth in passengers with cognitive impairments and changing the way security checks are carried out,” says Castiglioni. “But they need to be informed in advance and operatives have to be trained never to let the individuals out of their sight, or they can wander off in a split second. Technology can also help. Some airports are trialling a scheme where they can track passengers’ boarding passes, which is legal, whereas tracking individuals is not.”

Left: Staxi wheelchairs are easier to maneuver around the terminal

Investing in the right equipment

Developments in technology have to be weighed against rises in costs. Providers have to make their case to airports. OmniServ and its US parent company, AirServ, for example, have introduced Staxi wheelchairs, which can be 10 times more expensive than traditional wheelchairs but are more comfortable, have superior braking systems, and provide space for hand luggage. OmniServ believes that they will pay for themselves over time as porters are not often required because the chairs are easier to maneuver and processes are speeded up.

Another technology some airports have embraced is the use of medical grade hoists. Castiglioni says they are one of the best investments the industry can make. Manual handling, he argues, is dangerous for passengers and helpers alike, and back injuries are rife. Medical grade hoists enable passengers to be lifted in a more dignified, controlled and speedy fashion. Haycomp Eagle Hoists, for example, have been designed to fit into the narrow aisles of aircraft and are in use in Canada, the USA, Australia and Dubai.

Similar hoists are in use at UK airports, as well as at Poland’s Krakow, Tirana in Albania, and Norway’s Oslo airports. In Norway, legislation has banned manual handling of disabled people at airports. “I am astonished at how slow the European industry has been to start using hoists, as it would be a major leap forward if they were to become standard,” says Castiglioni. “WestJet has introduced them in Canada, so we know that they can work even for low-cost airlines. They cost £10,000 to £12,000 (US$14,500 to US$17,400) each, but this is a price worth paying to prevent injuries to staff.”

Existing regulations and infrastructure can complicate attempts to introduce new technology, however. For example, Milan-Malpensa Airport is trialling a scheme between March and August 2016 to introduce fleets of mobility scooters. The scooters are available to rent for passengers struggling with the large walking distances in Terminal 1, but could potentially be provided free of charge for use by passengers who are registered disabled. There are, however, questions about how to deal with such vehicles at passport control. “At the moment, Frontex [an agency of the European Union that manages the cooperation between national border guards securing its external borders]says the vehicles cannot pass through border controls because the police have to be able to check the identity and age of individuals easily,” says Giorgio Medici, head of customer care at Milan Airport. “We are looking at alternative solutions such as duplicating the fleet on either side of customs and using codes or keys to enable people to pick up another scooter.”

Technology can also help to optimize the PRM operatives’ use of time. OmniServ recently introduced ‘eye beacons’, which can inform an agent who has just delivered a PRM to Gate 50 that another PRM is about to arrive at Gate 51. Castiglioni also thinks the Happy Flow self-service process being trialled at the island of Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport has the potential to make life easier for PRMs. Designed by Vision Box, passengers show passports only once, then move through the airport by looking at a biometric face camera.

Right: PRM numbers are growing at a rate of 10-12% per year according to Roberto Castiglioni, director of Reduced Mobility Rights

Benfield says a lot of the work of OmniServ and other providers focuses on making processes more efficient, to cope with the anticipated growth in PRM numbers. OmniServ also uses the services of disability advocate Andy Wright to assess its services and holds passenger forums with disabled communities. Fortunately, the airports are committed to addressing the issues.

“The reality is that while a lot of general complaints from passengers are ignored, those from passengers in wheelchairs are dealt with fairly quickly. Airports know they have to address the issues and we’ve seen great investments at airports such as Stansted and Edinburgh in infrastructure to help PRMs. The ultimate goal is always to give PRMs the same experience of an airport and its commercial areas as everyone else,” Benfield concludes. 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Passenger Terminal World magazine.

June 15, 2016

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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