Room for improvement

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Consumer research recently published by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) suggests that the quality of assistance airports and airlines give disabled passengers has been improving over the past few years but there is still room for improvement.

The study, which was conducted by the CAA between November 2014 and January 2015 in London, Manchester, and Bristol, found that about 80% of people with a disability traveling by air are satisfied with the quality of assistance airports and airlines provide.

The research also revealed that accessibility issues are not just limited to airports. For example, passengers with special needs and older travelers find the process of booking online confusing and stressful.

Participants said they were anxious about “getting something wrong” and as a result being liable for hefty fees to put things right. Offline booking sources were much less used overall, but they were important to package holiday buyers, those aged over 65, and passengers with a disability.

The research highlighted that people with mental health conditions and cognitive disabilities face many access issues when traveling by air. These include anxiety in crowds or during long waits; strong preferences about where to sit on board and who they sit next to; and interactions with other people that seem rude but are symptomatic of their condition.

They may also find it difficult to process and remember information, become disoriented or have other additional conditions that make navigating airports difficult.

The research uncovered variations in the nature of assistance provided between different airports, with some airports providing wheelchair assistance at or before check-in, and other airports requiring people who rarely use a wheelchair to navigate check-in and security procedures before accessing wheelchair or buggy assistance.

On the point of arrival some airports provided assistance at baggage reclaim while others did not. This can cause gaps in assistance that can be problematic for passengers retrieving luggage on arrival, negotiating security procedures and accessing onward transport.

Waiting for wheelchair assistance to arrive both on the aircraft on arrival and in the airport is considered acceptable where passengers are free to wait wherever they like in the airport before flying. It is less so in airports that require passengers to wait in a specific area or when passengers are kept waiting for long periods on the plane having arrived at their destination.

Passengers using wheelchairs feel uncomfortable being asked to stand up at security checkpoints as they are at risk of falling even where they can technically stand up. Participants suggested a private area should be provided for this purpose.

It was also noted that passengers with mobility restrictions may find removing and replacing shoes, belts and other items of clothing problematic, and are not always assisted in doing this. Passengers complain about a lack of help replacing items in their luggage if they have been removed for screening.

Participants also mentioned the need for better information on: transport to and from and parking options at airports; distances and procedures inside airports; baggage allowances and hand luggage restrictions; assistance options at airports and on board aircraft; and on-board aspects such as food, legroom and entertainment.

The findings of this study are quite comforting and clearly highlight the critical areas where solutions need to be swiftly rolled out.

On the training side, there is a clear indication in the ratings of the importance of perceived quality of service. To bridge this gap, some PRM service providers are considering including general customer service training to their disability awareness training to make sure assisted passengers do not feel like they are being handled like a piece of luggage.

An example passengers often mention is overhearing the wheelchair helper report to colleagues, “I am taking a ‘Charlie’ (WCHC passenger) to gate so and so.” Hearing, “I am helping Mr Smith make his way to gate so and so” instead makes a completely different impact and helps improve [their]perception [of the airport].

Clearing security checkpoints is also high in the negative perceptions held by passengers with disabilities. Some airports, like Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), USA, are testing ways to ease the process. LAX is running a voluntary program for passengers with cognitive impairments. Passengers who wish to participate are given a discrete colored wristband that identifies them at different point of contact throughout the airport journey, crucially at security checkpoints.

The wristband helps staff immediately identify the passenger’s condition so that the right interaction is used, making the process smoother. The more frequent use of enclosed search areas give passengers with reduced mobility an added level of ease and dignity.

These findings have been crucial in defining the core themes of next year’s Passenger Terminal Conference 2016 (held at Passeger Terminal Expo 2016, March 15-17 in Cologne, Germany) track on ‘Passengers with Reduced Mobility and Ageing Population’.

As chair of the track, I aim to see a cracking group of speakers come together to give the audience a better insight into these gaps and explain how leading airports and service providers manage to close them.

Click here to find out more about Passenger Terminal Expo 2016 and Conference.

As father of a son with Cerebral Palsy and lifelong frequent flyer, Roberto Castiglioni found the need to get involved in air travel facilitation for passengers with special needs to improve access to air travel for passengers with disabilities. In the last few years he has worked with the UK Civil Aviation Authority on intelligence, policy, and compliance. He has also given consulting services to several airlines, airports, and PRM service providers to improve access to air travel for disabled persons.

Castiglioni has been a member of the UK CAA Access to Air Travel Advisory Group since December 2012, and the easyjet special assistance advisory group since May 2012. He also chaired the PRMs and Ageing Population track at Passenger Terminal Conference 2015 and has been confirmed in the same role for next year’s PTE 2016.

July 24, 2015

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