Business travel is full of obstacles – but for those with accessibility needs it can be downright impossible. Why is that still the case in 2023 and what is being done to fix it?
Imagine being stranded at an airport, not being able to use the bathroom on an aeroplane, or lacking access to the IFE system. For many travellers, such instances would prompt a flurry of outrage, but for those with accessibility needs – which includes people with mobility issues, visual and hearing impairments, neurodivergencies such as autism or ADHD, and other special requirements – it’s all too often a normal part of the travel experience.
British TV presenter Sophie Morgan is no stranger to the issues faced by travellers with accessibility needs. After her wheelchair was broken on a flight between London to Los Angeles in March this year (for the second time), she become the face of Rights On Flights, a national campaign to reform the industry and make it more inclusive.
“From beginning to end there are barriers when it comes to flying,” says Morgan. “I think it’s something that non-disabled people take for granted, and when you begin to understand the pain points, people are surprised that it’s still such a nightmare in this day and age – but it is.
“This includes everything from navigating airports, which can be quite overwhelming if you are neurodiverse or have ADHD, for example. Then there are examples of people who are blind being put into wheelchairs to get them through the airport because that’s all the assistance seems to be.
“Once you get onboard you deal with a whole other level of issues, especially if you are a wheelchair user, but also for people who carry oxygen, or travel with service dogs. You get turned away if you have the wrong-sized battery, and if you’re a wheelchair user, you run the risk of your chair getting broken or lost or damaged – or even your body being damaged in the transition processes. And there’s no accessible toilets really, so that means that you often have to starve or dehydrate yourself on the flight, which can obviously be very bad,” Morgan points out.
To put the fear of a broken wheelchair into context, not only is that essentially a person’s legs, but the costs can be astronomical. Wheelchairs are specialised pieces of machinery that can cost up to £40,000. And yet, according to statistics from the Department of Transport, roughly 28 wheelchairs were damaged or broken every day in the US in 2021 alone due to the lack of provisions and them being lumped in the cargo hold without protection.
Access for one, access for all
Though it may be treated as such, this is not a niche group of people. According to the World Health Organisation around 15 per cent of the global population, or 1 billion people, has a disability, with that figure set to rise as the travelling population ages. In other words, roughly one in six of us will likely have accessibility issues at some point in our lives. So even from a purely selfish point of view, this is an issue we should all have a vested interest in tackling.
The business case is also compelling. Michele Erwin, founder of All Wheels Up, a US-based organisation dedicated to creating safer and more dignified accessible air travel says: “Sixteen per cent of the entire global population is impacted by disabilities, and 40-60 per cent of that community doesn’t travel due to the risk of their physical self, or risk to damage to their wheelchair, or any additional hardships.
“So, looking at the business case, the disability community already spends around US$17 billion on travelling, and if we’re looking at 40-60 per cent of that community not travelling, we’re definitely looking at a significant bump up for the airlines if they were able to sell additional passenger seating.”
Morgan agrees: “I think there’s always been this perception that we cause more trouble than we don’t, and the business case is not new. It’s called the Purple Pound and it’s the spending power that we have that is completely untapped – it’s considered the largest untapped market in the world really.”
Not to mention, tackling accessibility issues can often bring about betterment for all. As Erwin points out, SMS text messages were inspired by the deaf community and offer one example of how creating something for one group can improve the lives of the entire community.
Hope on the horizon
While there have been a number of positive developments (see box), airlines are to some extent restricted in what they can offer. Products to enable safe harness of wheelchairs, for example, currently don’t exist, and airlines are disincentivised to allocate space for wheelchair access at the expense of regular seats as this could affect the bottom line.
Whose responsibility it is to create the solutions is almost a chicken and egg question – if airlines don’t want it, then aircraft manufacturers have little incentive to create a product. But if there’s no product, airlines can’t install it even if they wanted to.
Iris Kowen, customer relation and accessibility specialist at El Al Israel Airlines, says collaboration is key. “When you’re a single player it’s very hard to reinvent the wheel. But together, airlines and manufacturers can brainstorm, think of technical solutions and reduce costs”. She points out that often there are simple solutions to problems that just require a change in thinking: “When I flew with my son, the most difficult part was the transfer from wheelchair to aisle chair. I thought there must be a better way to do this and found that there are slings we could give away to passengers, or they could purchase for minimum cost, that would mean they could be lifted in a more dignified and quicker way.
“We’re also talking about digitising a database to include everyone’s data, like a frequent flyer system, to tie all the departments together and ensure a smooth flow of information from reservation to ground staff, so all departments know things like: What is the wheelchair like? Is the battery OK to fly? That’s something we could work on globally.”
Airbus is also active in this space, having first launched its Space-Flex wheelchair accessible lavatories in 2016, which are included on carriers including easyJet and LATAM.
Pierre-Antoine Senes, cabin marketing director at Airbus says: “Today one of the main issues is that a person with reduced mobility wants to stay in their wheelchair in the aircraft. So we’ve been looking at the reality of having a restraint system attached to the seat, where you can quickly remove if it’s not in use, so you don’t lose a seat for the airline and it’s a win-win. We’ve showed the concept to airlines and gotten feedback and now we are working on a version two.”
Airbus has also developed the “Airportainer” to address the issue of damaged wheelchairs. The simple solution is to store wheelchairs in an aluminium-like box before being placed in the hold. For airlines they can then be treated just like luggage, but with added protection to prevent them from getting broken.
Another concrete development was announced at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg this June, with a prototype unveiled by a consortium formed of PriestmanGoode, Flying Disabled, SWS Certification Services and Sunrise Medical. The Air4all system is set to transform air travel for powered wheelchair users, as it enables passengers to remain in their wheelchairs on aircraft in compliance with safety regulations. The product crucially also enables airlines to retain the design and seat count of their cabin by only transforming when required.
“An innovation like this provides those with reduced mobility a safe, comfortable way to travel and remain in their own power wheelchair,” says Chris Wood, founder of Flying Disabled. “It has taken a collaborative effort to develop this seat and we believe this product provides an optimal solution for all parties.” While these innovations are a positive step, the frustrating reality is that they are still in the theoretical realm. Disabled travellers want to see real-life change, and they want it now.
Morgan believes enacting legislative change could help to quicken the process, which is one of the major goals of Rights On Flights. “I think the airlines have got away with not having to accommodate our needs because the laws are not strong enough to actually force their hand,” she says. “One of the first goals that we set with Rights On Flights was to introduce stronger enforcement powers to the regulators when it comes to punitive measures that might protect disabled travellers,” adds Morgan.
The campaign has already made headway. After a signed petition was delivered to 10 Downing Street earlier this year, the government announced it would look to enhance protections for passengers and grant the CAA tougher enforcement powers. “It’s certainly not the ultimate solution but it is one step closer and sends a strong message that the government is supporting disabled travellers,” says Morgan. And if it proves one thing, it’s that the more noise made about an issue, the faster change will come. So, let’s start shouting.
RECENT ACCESSIBLE WINS
In July, United launched new tactile signage to help people with visual disabilities better identify row numbers, seat assignments and lavatory locations independently. Some aircraft have already been equipped with Braille, with the entire fleet expected to be outfitted by 2026. The airline has also improved its inflight app to accommodate visually impaired travellers, with increased contrast colours and better integration with screen reader technologies.
British Airways partnered with Learning Rose in March to launch a visual guide designed to assist customers with autism, with simple icons and texts to describe the sights, sounds and smells passengers can expect from each part of flying. The partnership also includes staff training to help ensure team members can best assist passengers.
In April, Virgin Atlantic launched a partnership with the Guide Dogs charity to train cabin crew on how to create a more inclusive air travel experience for those with sight loss. This included how to navigate narrow cabins and the best way to access their seats.
Earlier this year, Emirates launched a major training campaign for 24,000 cabin crew and ground staff to support passengers with hidden disabilities. The airline has also collaborated with Dubai airport to create a travel planner and autism friendly route to make the pre-boarding experience more seamless.