Features

Right of passage: Accessibility in aviation

2 Mar 2020 by Jenni Reid
Accessible aviation. Credit: iStock/lappes

We all put up with inconveniences to jet around the world – hurried walks across labyrinthine airports, onerous security checks and being crammed with hundreds of others into a small metal tube for several hours.

Few of us, however, will have deliberately dehydrated ourselves before a flight because we know there will be no way to access a toilet on board. Or watched from our seat as every other passenger disembarked, waiting for our assistance to arrive. Or been left immobile in a new city because our wheelchair has been damaged or lost in transit.

For “persons with reduced mobility” (PRMs) with a permanent or temporary physical disability, the whole experience of flying – from passing through the airport and getting on to the aircraft, to travelling in a cramped seat and then getting off on the other side – can be fraught with difficulty. In a recent survey of disabled people commissioned by Which?, almost half of respondents said that a lack of confidence in accessibility services had limited their ability to fly in the past two years.

A Business Traveller reader who regularly flies using a wheelchair told us that while Emirates provides excellent service when getting PRMs on and off the plane, once luggage has been collected from the carousel at Dubai International, porters will not provide assistance unless paid in cash. On a recent trip, not having any money on him, he was refused help and had to be aided by police. He described the experience as “unbearable”. Emirates, which manages the service at the airport, confirmed to us that porters require a fee, adding that last month it introduced card payments.

The Which? survey highlighted that it is not just PRMs for whom accessibility is a concern. A traveller who is blind and has Alzheimer’s was reportedly told at Manchester airport that he could not use the priority queue as he did not use a wheelchair, and was then left humiliated when a staff member shouted to a colleague that the passenger “couldn’t cope” with the boarding pass scanner.

Another of our readers, Brian Pope, struggles to walk long distances because of his age. He says that on a recent London-Bangkok trip – despite assurances from his airline that he would be assisted with a buggy while transiting – he was offered a wheelchair on his outbound journey, which he did not want to use, and no assistance at all on the inbound one.

Access for all

Passenger numbers are on the rise, and they include not only PRMs but older people who may find airports overwhelming and planes uncomfortable; people with conditions such as dementia, autism or anxiety; people with visual or auditory impairments; or those recovering from an operation or stroke. According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), passenger numbers have increased by 25 per cent since 2014, while the number of people asking for airport assistance has risen by 49 per cent.

Adjusting to this demand is no small task. As Sara Marchant, Heathrow’s customer relations manager, points out, the airport is the size of a small city. Marchant is responsible for ensuring that the 80 million passengers moving through it each year come out with a positive impression, and at the latest count, about 1.5 million of them required special assistance.

In 2017, the CAA told Heathrow it was failing these people. In the regulator’s second annual Airport Accessibility Report, it ranked the airport’s service “poor”, along with that at Manchester, Exeter and East Midlands. Marchant accredits Heathrow’s rise to “good” in the 2019 report to measures such as establishing an advisory committee and extra staff training. She also chairs meetings several times a year with 12 other UK airports for sharing best practice.

East Midlands was also ranked “good” last year, and Exeter “very good”. Manchester was judged “needs improvement”, amid reports that disabled passengers had been left waiting on planes for more than an hour for assistance to help them off. Last year the airport told Business Traveller that it was working with its own disability engagement forum to improve service, and has hired a new external special assistance provider.

This points to one of the key challenges for airports. Jack Bigglestone-Silk, Gatwick’s accessibility manager, says the airport has more than 20,000 members of staff, most of whom are employed by third-party partners. He says Gatwick has introduced a new accessibility training system for all staff, including security agents and other employees who may be external, and spread awareness of schemes such as hidden disability lanyards, which indicate that a passenger may need extra help. Gatwick has enlarged its special assistance seating area and is looking at how new technologies could help.

“There is a great appetite for innovation and so many people working on solutions,” Bigglestone-Silk says. He cites the location beacon technology now integrated in the Gatwick app, allowing passengers to look up a facility such as “accessible toilet” and then follow a route mapped out as a line to follow.

Heathrow has pledged to spend £30 million on new equipment and technology for accessibility this year, and is trialling an app called Navilens, which provides audible navigational information to visually impaired passengers in various languages. Despite improvements, it has evidently not solved all of its issues. In the Which? survey, 28 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with the special assistance at Heathrow.

Since 2006, European Commission regulation EC1107 has required airports and airlines to provide PRMs with “opportunities for air travel comparable with those of other citizens”. The UK has no legislation related specifically to air travel, although the 2010 Equality Act requires businesses to make “reasonable adjustments” for PRMs. Adherence to EC1107 is overseen by the CAA, although the future of this beyond 2020 will be decided during the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

James Freemantle, the CAA’s head of consumer policy and enforcement, said at a recent London event that he believed “reputational regulation” worked well to force change at airports, hence the launch of the annual report. Heathrow’s Marchant also believes social media has had an impact, providing an immediate way for airports to get feedback (and for passengers to highlight poor behaviour).

It goes without saying that passengers often don’t want to – and shouldn’t have to – use media or social media to demand better standards. Yet people we spoke to who had tried to report complaints said they had been passed between airports, airlines and third-party assistance providers, or told to use generic email addresses, often failing to get an adequate response.

Accessible aviation. Credit: iStock/Rich Townsend

Getting on board 

Once it is time to board, things can get even more difficult. Personal wheelchairs must be placed in the hold, which is both inconvenient and potentially disastrous if chairs are lost or damaged. When no airbridge is available, PRMs must get up a set of narrow stairs using devices such as a stairclimber – a separate chair that can be lifted up and down – or a lift. At the door of the aircraft, they swap to a narrow onboard chair that can fit down an aisle. All of this is generally overseen by third-party assistance providers employed by the airport.

Passengers must then find a way to manoeuvre on to their seat, either alone or with the help of a carer or assistance providers (crew are not permitted to lift passengers, and the more spacious bulkhead rows can often not be used by PRMs for safety reasons). The onboard wheelchairs are then folded and stored until required to take passengers off the plane or to the washroom – unless they are travelling on a single-aisle aircraft, in which case it is all-but impossible for any wheelchair to get into the toilet.

Emma Muldoon uses a powered wheelchair full-time, and blogs about her experiences at simplyemma.co.uk. Boarding and deboarding is generally “stressful and unsettling”, she told us, but especially when there is a lack of training, staff, equipment or just basic empathy and communication. She cited a recent experience at London City: support staff who were brusque; being put into a stairclimber with no headrest, which she requires; being asked to wait in a small, cold corridor alone before the flight. The airport told us it was addressing the points raised and investing in its services.

Once on board, she says the main issues are the seats, which “lack any kind of support for disabled people who are immobile”, and toilets. She, like many others, dehydrates herself before a flight despite the health risks.

Christopher Wood, whose two children use wheelchairs, describes a 2015 flight to Mexico with his daughter as “horrendous” – so much so that he eventually left his job to become a full-time aviation accessibility consultant. “I thought, how can we be so behind?” he says. “For 30 years, the aviation industry has reconfigured cabins with more seats and adapted them. Yet, probably because it hasn’t had to as it is self-regulating, nobody has come up with solutions for improving mobility onboard.”

The ideal for both Muldoon and Wood would be for passengers to be able to stay in their own wheelchair, but this would require airlines to take radical action. Almost no chairs would fit down current aisles or be able to be adequately secured to the floor. Brian Richards, who invented the Airchair used by several carriers, estimates it would cost US$100,000 to certify one chair for use on board (he would like to see several seats on each aircraft with more room around them for PRMs to get comfortably in and out).

A concept for a process somewhere in between was unveiled by design firm Priestmangoode in 2012. Its Air Access seat sees passengers use the same chair in the airport and on the plane, which can be attached and detached to a fixed-frame aisle seat on the aircraft, avoiding the discomfort of passengers being lifted on and off.

Yet the firm says that despite “really positive feedback” from the industry and the public, there have been no orders to date, and further investment into certification will still be required.

Change in the air

The US has led the way on legislating for change. Since 2009, all airlines operating into and out of the US have to fit all new aircraft with at least 50 per cent moveable aisle armrests that allow “reasonable and dignified access” into and out of the seat.

Geraldine Lundy, an aviation accessibility consultant who worked on initiatives for Virgin Atlantic for 21 years, says that in her time at the airline this led to significant change. It became a given that when they approached manufacturers, more accessible seats would be readily provided (although many question how “dignified” the access in and out of such seats is).

The US Department of Transportation is seeking input on a plan to require airlines to include one accessible toilet on all narrow-body aircraft entering their fleets, as they must on wide-bodies. The lack of accessibility on these single-aisle planes is of increasing concern as they fly longer distances than ever before.

For the past year, UK firms ST Engineering and Acumen Design Associates have been collaborating on such a product, which is set to be shown at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg at the end of the month.

“Even on a wide-body right now, the toilets are essentially just bigger with a second seat that comes down. They don’t give easy access, they don’t have proper grab handles,” says Daniel Clucas, senior designer at Acumen.

Acumen’s design fits in the same footprint as a standard toilet on a narrow-body such as an A321 or B737, but the back wall can be expanded into the aircraft door area to allow enough room for both a PRM and a carer, increasing the space by about 40 per cent. When needed, crew would de-latch and pull out the extension.

Access is through the corner, providing more space for wheelchairs, and the door can be fully closed behind two people. Inside it has numerous grab rails, bright lighting, clear signage, and taps that can be reached from the toilet. A prototype has been trialled by a group of PRMs, whose feedback is being used to fine-tune the concept.

“We’ll be interested to see if airlines proactively pick up on it before any new legislation kicks in,” says Michael Crump, Acumen’s brand experience director.

Firms create accessible toilet for single-aisle aircraft

Speak to many in the field and you do get the sense that change is in the air. Geraldine Lundy says that five or six years ago she would never have found herself having schedule clashes when giving talks on access. Yet recently she has found herself speaking at three events in a day, an indication of “how seriously people are taking these issues”.

In November last year, IATA (the International Air Transport Association) held a symposium in Dubai devoted to accessibility. Used to seeing the same 30 or so people at events for years, Lundy says it was “amazing” to see more than 150 attendees, including senior executives and stakeholders, getting together to discuss access.

It came after IATA, which includes 290 airlines, unanimously passed a resolution committing members to providing “safe, reliable and dignified travel” for passengers with disabilities. It also asked the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation to “help harmonise national legislation and regulations which otherwise could create a patchwork of confusing or even contradictory requirements for passengers and airlines”.

In short: to produce a clear rulebook on the standards and services airports and airlines should provide, wherever a passenger leaves from or lands in the world.

Heathrow’s Sara Marchant believes the outlook is positive. “We’re on the crest of a wave, there’s such momentum behind it,” she says. “People’s expectations have changed, rightly so, and they expect things to be done in a way that suits them best.”

Christopher Wood is more cautious. “There were a lot of soundbites [at the IATA meeting] but we will see what actually happens,” he says. “This is a trade association with 290 airlines. If they turned around and said we are going to make our aircraft accessible, something would immediately get done. I was at the symposium, and I had lots of conversations. But I’m getting a little bit tired of conversations. We need to stop talking and start creating.”

Tips for air travel 

■ Check airline policy before booking. Can everything you need be accommodated in the hold or on board?

■ Let your airline or travel agent know during the booking process of any access requirements. Some airports require 72 hours’ notice to provide assistance.

■ View airport maps online in advance. Check for any tools you can use, such as Heathrow’s Navilens app.

■ The CAA has told UK airports that they should provide clear and detailed information for people with disabilities ahead of time, and provide clear images and audio messages throughout the airport to help you navigate. If they have failed, let them know.

■ Useful websites and blogs about accessible travel include tryb4ufly.co.uk, wheelchairtravel.org, spintheglobe.net and simplyemma.co.uk.

■ Share your experiences at businesstraveller.com/forum, or email [email protected].

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