EXCLUSIVE FEATURE: How airports are reducing the stress and danger caused by poorly designed wayfinding initiatives

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Finding the way through an airport can be demanding for all passengers. But for some, the struggle and stress can be life-threatening. In February 2023, IATA released new guidance to help airlines and handling agents transport mobility aids safely and improve the travel experience for passengers with disabilities.

This initiative followed years of consistent lobbying by organizations representing people with disabilities. For example, in February 2022, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) petitioned the Department of Transportation to improve the transfer of passengers into and out of aisle chairs. This was three months after the death of disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa, whose power wheelchair was destroyed during a flight, forcing her to spend weeks in a borrowed chair, which caused a fatal pressure sore.

Key elements of IATA’s 2023 guidance include best practices for the preparation, loading, securement and return of mobility aids, as well as revised training of ground handlers and airline staff. It also recommends using an electronic mobility aid tag, which contains relevant information to help airlines and ground handlers transport the aid safely. Alongside this, IATA issued advice to help airlines develop a communication toolkit to effectively engage with passengers with disabilities, including a clearly signposted and accessible website area.

IATA also highlighted better processes for booking and information exchange, including the use of special service request codes (SSR) and passenger name requirement (PNR) to give advance information on the specifications of mobility aids. Furthermore, the organization went on to recommend that dedicated and specialized ramp personnel be trained and deployed to handle mobility aids, and offered guidance on how to properly resolve situations where mobility aids are damaged.

“To create a safe and dignified travel experience for passengers with disabilities, IATA recommends that airports and airlines follow the universal design principle,” says Linda Ristagno, assistant director of external affairs at IATA, who helped write the guidance manual and, in October 2022, received the Open Doors Organization’s Disability Access Professional Award. “The universal design concept is a set of international processes – laid out by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – for built environments, infrastructures, products, services and communication.

“The basic principle of universal design is that everything in a built environment has been thought about with accessibility in mind for everyone, not only for passengers with disabilities. When it comes to safety, it’s paramount to consider passengers’ navigation of the airport. The main things we’re tackling at the moment are carpets, narrow lifts and sloping bridges. These are safety issues because they inhibit the easy movement of disabled passengers,” Ristagno adds.

Intuitive thinking
Brad McCannell is the vice president of access and inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF), an organization dedicated to removing barriers for disabled people. He weighs in on the universal design ethos and how it should be realized to ensure safe and accessible passage through the airport. He says, “The key mission of universal design is to work for everyone, and wayfinding is a key example of the practical application of universal design. Design is supposed to be as intuitive as possible. People shouldn’t have to work out how to open the door – there should be a big button that says ‘open door’. If you’re doing wayfinding right, it will not only visibly elevate the passenger experience, but also make everyone safer.”

To elucidate his point, McCannell points to airports’ glaring emergency evacuation issues. “Building codes, in the US and Canada specifically, work so hard to be very accessible and help get me – a wheelchair user – into the building, but they don’t care at all about getting me out in an emergency. There is no requirement for an emergency egress to be accessible. When you walk into the airport, there’s probably a little plaque on the wall that says ‘In case of fire, take stairs’. Where’s the little plaque that tells me what to do? ‘In case of emergency, good luck.’”

Despite already being the proud owner of the Autism Friendly Spaces accreditation and in the middle of designing wheelchair-accessible wayfinding kiosks, Malta Airport (MLA) decided to put its accessible wayfinding standards to this ‘intuitive’ test by taking a walk in the passengers’ shoes. To do this, the airport’s operations quality team carried out an accessibility gap analysis in early 2023. They assessed MLA’s premises, processes and front-line staff, in relation to disability and accessibility. Primarily, the team uncovered problems in the airport’s wayfinding services for blind passengers. In response, MLA is introducing braille at call points; making information available in different formats rather than just on display screens; and ensuring that its website conforms to the European standard EN 301 549, which requires that all information and communication technologies (ICT) services must meet to enable their use by persons with disabilities. Moreover, a new automated voice system will be launched later in 2023 – mainly to ensure that blind passengers can receive all the necessary information that is displayed on screens by ear.

Universal design is beneficial for all – but it is fairly challenging. When creating safe and accessible wayfinding, airports need to accommodate a range of disabilities and requirements at once. McCannell explains, “People forget that wayfinding is more than signage. Wayfinding can be anything. It can be color, scent, sound or even texture. For example, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) uses tiles of terrazzo to indicate to passengers with vision loss that they are connected to an exit, and carpet to indicate they’re connected to a gate. Additionally, carpets can be great to control noise and reduce the likelihood of triggering autistic people’s environmental sensitivities. However, the problem with carpet is that it makes it harder for wheelchair users to roll. So, when I put carpet in that terminal building, did I remove or create a barrier?”

Ristagno concurs: “It’s important to think about which disabilities you’re catering to when offering any accessibility assistance. A lot of airports try to deploy a one-size-fits-all solution and offer disabled passengers a wheelchair when they don’t need, and didn’t ask for, a wheelchair. The passenger may be blind and only need guidance through the airport, in which case you’ve wasted a resource and made the experience more difficult for that passenger. Or they might have a mental disability. In this case, being sat in a wheelchair is a painful and dangerous experience. I, myself, have seen children crying because they were scared and left waiting to be screened or to board.”

Nuance needed
One airport that struggled with these complex accessibility requirements was the UK’s London Luton Airport. In its Interim Airport Accessibility Report, released in December 2022, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ranked eight airports as ‘poor’. However, following significant progress, seven of these airports were rated as either ‘good’ or ‘needs improvement’ by the end of the reporting period. Only Luton continued to be ranked as ‘poor’. Indeed, the UK regulator ranked Luton as the worst-performing airport for its failure to reach performance targets or make any significant improvements to the assistance that it provided between April 1 and October 31, 2022.

James Fremantle, consumer policy and enforcement manager at CAA, says, “Usually we report yearly. However, because of the challenges of 2022, we decided to do a report at Christmas time to push certain airports to improve the accessibility of their services. Wayfinding in particular is really important. It’s written into UK legislation that all airports must have a ‘designated point’ where passengers can request assistance when they arrive. Too many times, we go to airports and see that it’s not obvious where any assistance can be gotten from or how to get there. Most passengers have to make their own way to check-in and can only request assistance when they get to those check-in desks. This can be extremely stressful. Luton didn’t come out well in the report, but I’m pleased to say that the effect the negative report had was brilliant. The airport took our advice on board and improved the accessibility of its wayfinding services.”

Clare Armstrong, head of guest experience at London Luton Airport, responds, “Our aim is to provide a simple and friendly experience for all. We have been working with the CAA and our service provider, Wilson James, to improve assistance times for arriving PRM [passengers with restricted mobility], the one area in which we fell short. A number of improvements have already been made and despite all post-pandemic challenges we will continue to work with all of our partners to achieve the highest standards to improve the end-to-end passenger journey.”

To increase the safety of its wayfinding for its passengers with disabilities, Luton hosted its annual accessibility familiarization day with easyJet, giving passengers with hidden and visual disabilities an opportunity to experience all aspects of the airport’s end-to-end passenger journey. Held in February 2023, the day included an opportunity to experience Luton’s check-in, security search, departure lounge and terminal facilities, and to board an easyJet aircraft, which was hosted by volunteer cabin crew. The event attracted more than 40 attendees and was hosted by members of Luton’s guest experience, security and operations teams. Further support was provided not only by Luton’s fire service but also the airport’s key partners including the local Bedfordshire Police and Menzies Aviation. Alongside this, the airport also made sure to consult local charities, passengers and disability groups on the design of its APM – the Luton Direct Air-Rail Transit (DART) – which was opened in March 2023.

Key players
On the other end of the scale, IATA’s Ristagno highlights Istanbul Airport (IST) as “one of the best airports that we have in terms of universal design”. The airport has no carpet, which it makes it smoother for people with wheelchairs to navigate. There are sensory rooms for autistic passengers with environmental sensitivities. Furthermore, in the lavatories there are push buttons with braille in case of emergency. In addition to using the universal logo for disability to clearly point out access points, the airport has used lots of colors in its signage and interior design to create a more accessible wayfinding service for those with low vision.

Similarly, the CAA highlights London Heathrow’s use of restaurant-style buzzers as an innovative and accessible wayfinding solution. With this service, passengers are given a buzzer at check-in that pings when it is time for their flight. This tells them when to come back to the central area and get staff guidance or physical assistance to go to the aircraft. This reduces passenger discomfort (by not requiring them to stand up and queue for too long), gives passengers confidence and offers airports more commercial opportunities for revenue by freeing up travelers to explore the terminal rather than waiting alone in an empty room.

Beyond the essential target of creating a safe and stress-free environment for all, many accessibility authorities emphasize the huge advantages of implementing universal design principles – for all users, not just for passengers with disabilities. Ristagno explains, “If the airline knows exactly which kind of assistance the passenger needs, how to assist the passenger, board them with dignity and respect, help them navigate the airport in a smooth way and assist them throughout security, they tend to want to always ensure they go through that airline and airport. Similarly, where they find that the process is more painful for them, they tend to switch to what they find [to be]better airports for them. For example, they look for devoted security lanes, non-offensive rules for searching and quiet rooms to wait to board and be boarded first in a dignified way.”

McCannell agrees, adding, “Not only will making your airport safe and accessible give you access to a large, loyal customer base, but you will also tap into a highly educated, highly motivated, incredibly loyal workforce that is just waiting: 57% of the disabled community are unemployed. They are ready, willing and able to work, we just need a built environment that is appropriately responsive to our needs.”

What is also clear is that this is not a small market. According to the World Health Organization’s latest World Report on Disability, there are 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world: 75 million people use wheelchairs every day, 253 million people are blind or have vision loss and 466 million people are deaf or have hearing loss. Additionally, there are approximately 79 million children who have autism around the world. Passengers with disabilities also rarely travel alone, meaning airports need to cater to the family and friends with whom they travel. These numbers, alongside the fact that populations are aging and developing disabling conditions, highlight the sheer number of passengers that these measures will inevitably touch.

McCannell concludes, “What comes as a surprise for many is that the cost is minimal. Most accessibility improvements come down to what we call ‘low-hanging fruit’. There are so many easy things that can be done to improve things for the significant number of the world’s population. For instance, HCMA Architecture + Design’s feasibility study revealed that creating an RHFAC [Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification] Gold level of accessibility during the planning stages only costs an average of up to 1% of the project’s total budget. I don’t want airports to create more safe and accessible wayfinding systems because they feel sorry for those with disabilities; I want airports to wake up and see the huge financial disadvantages they’re giving themselves by not being accessible.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Passenger Terminal World. To view the magazine in full, click here.

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As the latest addition to the UKi Media & Events team, Elizabeth combines research skills from her English degree with a keen interest in the meteorological and transportation industries. Having taken the lead in student and startup publications, she has gained experience in editing online and print titles on a wide variety of topics. In her role as Assistant Editor, Elizabeth creates new and topical content on the pioneering technologies in transportation, logistics and meteorology.

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