Samantha Berry, head of innovation and regulatory compliance at OmniServ, discusses the need for collaboration to improve and expand the options available to all passengers traveling with a disability
Airports and aircraft can be hugely disabling environments, not just in terms of the sheer size and scale of buildings, but also because of the processes that passengers need to go through in order to get on or off their aircraft.
People without disabilities find navigating modern airports difficult and stressful enough – just imagine how daunting the experience and environment can be for a wheelchair user, or for someone with sight or hearing impairments, or a range of less obvious, ‘hidden’ disabilities.
To deliver the best possible services for passengers with disabilities, we need to make sure we involve all interested parties – first and foremost, people living with disabilities and organizations that support them, then airports, airlines, regulatory bodies and the companies, like OmniServ, that provide assistance service to passengers.
Incidentally, the technical term used in the air travel industry is ‘People with Reduced Mobility’, or PRM passengers; while it’s useful shorthand, and I’ll use it in this article, I want to stress that there is a danger that disabled people aren’t necessarily aware of the services available to assist them; that is, it’s not limited to providing mobility assistance.
In my view, the term PRM focuses too much on people in wheelchairs or who need help walking. As I’ve mentioned above, there are significant numbers of passengers who have ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as autism, or they live with medical equipment such as colostomy bags. We must ensure they are aware of the assistance we can offer them and their needs must be included in discussions that focus on future strategy at airports, such as expansion at Heathrow. Just because someone’s assistance needs aren’t immediately obvious, doesn’t mean they don’t need help.
There are both moral and economic reasons as to why our industry needs to get accessibility right. First, the moral reason. Everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, sex, creed, lifestyle and disability, and most countries around the world recognize those rights and have enshrined them in law. In the European Union and the USA, disabled passengers have a clear legal right to be given the same opportunities to travel by air as anyone else.
But we need to do more than just pay lip service to the legal requirements; we need to make it part of our DNA to try our hardest to give PRM passengers – whether they have a visible or invisible disability – access to the same experience as everyone else. Twelve million people in the UK have a disability of some sort. That’s one in every five people.
But as well as the moral reasons for doing the right thing, there is also a very compelling set of business reasons for making sure disabled people enjoy the best possible airport and airline experience.
According to Civil Aviation Authority statistics, UK air travel grew 19% between 2010 and 2017. During the same period of time, the numbers of passengers requiring assistance has grown an incredible 47% – clearly a hugely growing market sector.
London Heathrow is the world’s second busiest airport in terms of international passenger flights. As the special assistance provider at Heathrow, the OmniServ team assisted 1.2 million passengers in 2017. Nearly 10% of those passengers required non-mobility support as they traveled through the airport.
One in five people in the UK have a disability of some kind and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority commissioned research that found that 7% of respondents avoid travelling by air because of a hidden disability – such as dementia, autism or because they live with a colostomy bag.
In the UK alone, the so called ‘Purple pound’ – the spending power of people with disabilities – is estimated at around £247bn (US$320bn) and research by the Papworth Trust found two-thirds of disabled passengers would travel more often if they believed it were easier to do so. It is for our industry to improve that perception and we can only do it by working collaboratively.
In fact, research shows that disabled people:
• Have the tendency to become a brand advocate for a brand that looks after them and their specific needs;
• Become regular customers after finding a tourism facility that suits their needs;
• Tend to take longer holidays (13.9 days) vs short breaks (3.6 days); and
• Tend not to travel alone – 50% with a partner, 20% with family and friends, and 21-25% with a companion.
I’ve mentioned five key stakeholder groups that should be involved in the development of best practice in delivering PRM services for air travelers – the disabled community and support organizations, airports, airlines, regulators, and the companies actually delivering the services. I also believe we need to add two more stakeholder groups – the medical community and academics, and the high-tech industry (although often, these two groups work together).
Technology is revolutionizing all our lives and can provide massive support for disabled people through the use of assistive technology. OmniServ is always assessing new technology and investing in anything that can help us deliver a better quality of service for PRM passengers. So, in addition to big ticket items like new lifting vehicles to speed up embarkation and disembarkation for disabled passengers, we are also rolling out new electric wheelchair movers, which can push multiple chairs, either with or without passengers.
But there are even more exciting ideas we’ve been testing – like the revolutionary Japanese-designed WHILL high-tech wheelchair that Heathrow and ourselves recently trialled to mark the 10th anniversary of International Wheelchair Day.
The WHILL was designed by a startup created by a team of engineers from Japanese companies Sony, Toyota, Olympus and Panasonic – a perfect example of collaboration.
When used in conjunction with beacon technology, mobile devices and other high-tech systems, WHILL wheelchairs can be controlled using smartphones, giving PRM passengers more autonomy and control over their own journey.
Our industry shouldn’t be waiting for people to come to us with solutions – we should be working together with disabled people to create new products and training, driven by the latest technology.
This, along with new ways to deliver PRM services, will ensure that everyone, no matter what their ability, has the same chance to enjoy air travel. We need to drive that collaboration across all stakeholders so that disabled passengers consistently receive safe, enjoyable and dignified experiences, wherever the airport, whichever the airline, whoever the service provider.
Samantha Berry is head of innovation and regulatory compliance at airport services provider OmniServ. Her remit is to drive service enhancements across the company’s people with reduced mobility (PRM) operations. She has extensive experience in the aviation industry working at British Airways and OCS Group UK and has wide experience of airport management and delivering PRM services.