Busy airports around the world are working hard to take care of every traveller that passes through their terminals, including those passengers whose mobility is restricted in some way, writes Meghan Ramsay.
Each year global passenger numbers continue to rise and along with this comes greater need to cater for passengers with restricted mobility (PRM).
“Globally, the need for PRM services is growing by 8-12% every year,” says a spokesperson for ground services provider Swissport, whose majority-owned joint venture GVAssistance offers special services at Geneva Airport.
For instance, London Heathrow Airport provided assistance to over 1.4 million passengers with restricted mobility in 2018, and that figure is expected to rise by 10% for 2019.
“This growth is partly due to our ageing population, but also the improvements being made to assistance services which have given more people the confidence to fly,” says Sara Merchant, customer relations manager at Heathrow.
The situation across the pond at the world’s busiest passenger airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is very similar.
Steve Mayers is Atlanta’s airport director, customer experience, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VI coordinator. He explains: “My office is concerned with civil rights and ensuring staff adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. That includes passengers requiring wheelchair assistance and any official complaints of discrimination.”
PRMs are not limited solely to those individuals who need wheelchair assistance. It is also necessary to consider passengers with a hearing or sight impairment, for example, who might need to be accompanied or guided through the airport or may be travelling with an assistance animal.
Given that variation, it is vital that airport staff understand what might be required of them.
Mayers outlines: “Handling PRMs can be difficult if you don’t have a programme to assist employees. They have to be empathetic and they have to assist.
“If they are not aware of what to do, that can lead to frustration. We do a lot of training so staff know what is required by law, and how to refer people to someone who knows how to help if they are unable to answer a question themselves.”
According to Merchant: “Aviation is leading the transport sector for special assistance, and is seen as the gold standard internationally. With that said, there’s still more work to be done across our industry.”
Among initiatives at Heathrow is the launch of the Heathrow Access Advisory Group (HAAG). This group, along with other charities and support groups, works with the airport operator to critique its facilities and processes, so that it can improve its special assistance services.
Prior to formation of the HAAG, Heathrow was rated as ‘poor’ in the Civil Aviation Authority’s airport accessibility report, but since the launch of the group and after investing £23 million (US$30 million) in new equipment, facilities and training, the airport’s rating was restored to ‘good’ in 2018.
At Atlanta: “The biggest problem we have is wait times, because of the labour problems we have today,” Mayers says. The availability of staff has a ripple effect; wages in the US are rising, but those offered in the PRM sector are not attractive – and not all passengers give tips.
In order to address this, the airport discusses with its partners the wages of comparable staff that the airport employs directly. It also speaks with airlines – which, after all, are responsible for engaging subcontractors and often “nickel and dime” them to cut costs, Mayers notes.
A seamless experience
With many airlines operating on a 35-minute turnaround time, PRM services must focus on technological innovation to become more efficient.
“Those innovations will also help us to ensure the best possible travel experience for people with reduced mobility,” the Swissport spokesperson says.
“We are currently testing different wheelchair models that enable people with reduced mobility to travel more independently. Other examples we are looking at are a remote-guide-system for blind passengers and a lanyard system for people with hidden disabilities.”
Of course, the Swissport spokesperson points out: “The challenge with automation on PRM services is that the special needs of disabled travellers are very diverse. We would not be able to meet these needs with a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
“Our focus is therefore on optimising our infrastructure. By implementing more modern travellators, large electric cars or larger lifts we want to ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip for people with reduced mobility.”
Atlanta, meanwhile, is about to test new technology to help PRMs. “We will be starting a trial in the next couple of months, using autonomous wheelchairs and vehicles to get people from A to B in particular areas,” says Mayers.
For instance: “The definition of an accessible route at an airport ends at the door of the terminal; the distance between a car rental or a train to that point is not included, so there’s a gap. We already have driven vehicles for this but we could supplement those with autonomous vehicles.”
At Heathrow, Merchant also has plans to continue improving the PRM travel experience. “In future, we hope to offer a seamless experience to a growing number of passengers with reduced mobility,” she states.
“Technology will be key to us personalising our service and will play a role in bringing the aviation industry together, making the industry’s approach more joined up, so that service providers, airlines, the airports of departure and arrival and onward travel services all work in unison for the benefit of the passenger.
“We are keen for Heathrow to serve as a test-bed for new technologies and our teams are constantly trialling new technologies, which have the potential to transform our service in future,” Merchant says.
Among such developments: “The introduction of SignLive, a real-time British Sign Language interpretation service, and AIRA, a similar service to help people who have a visual impairment, demonstrate how technology is already making an impact on the service that we’re able to offer. Both of these services, which help to give passengers their independence when travelling, are free of charge and available 24 hours a day.”
Mayers predicts “a huge increase” in PRMs in the US over the next 20 years. The main reason for this is the ageing population that is already driving growth in this passenger group. Like Merchant, he also highlights the improvement in services to help individuals with restricted mobility and give them more opportunities to travel.
“The public is also more aware of the services available and the rights of disabled travellers,” he considers. “People aren’t ashamed to request help anymore, whether they need a wheelchair or they’re travelling with a child, or they’re an older passenger.”
An airport that does not prepare for the continuing rise in numbers of PRMs, especially elderly passengers, will face increasing difficulties in the future, Mayers warns. There is already a great deal of assistance for people who are blind or travelling with support animals, for example – but the population is going to keep ageing, so solutions like autonomous vehicles and educational campaigns about PRM services will be important.
As such: “I do a lot of outreach through our ADA committee via advertisements, podcasts and interviews with pressure groups. We want people to travel and explore,” Mayers concludes.
The main trend is to enable people with reduced mobility to travel independently, the Swissport spokesperson adds. “Service providers … and airports must work together to build an efficient infrastructure that meets the needs of travellers with special needs but also allows more freedom in the way of travelling.”
The British-Irish Airport Expo held in June this year described airport security as “the most complex touchpoint in the vulnerable traveller process”.
“The needs of travellers with reduced mobility are very diverse. Our staff is especially trained to identify the physical disabilities and special needs of travellers. Based on their assessment, the security staff is informed. The airport security then decides whether a person can walk through the metal detector, or needs to be searched manually,” the Swissport spokesperson says.
As Merchant points out, airports are required to search every person who enters the departures lounge. But, she says: “We understand that we need to take everyone’s individual conditions into account and we work with passengers to ensure that this is done with dignity and respect, whilst keeping the airport compliant.
“For example, people who have medical aids such as stomas may feel more comfortable requesting a search in a private room, a request we’re happy to accommodate.
“For wheelchair users, all our security staff are trained on how to search people in a way that satisfies our regulatory requirement, without requiring them to walk through a metal detector,” she adds.
Mayers elaborates: “If a passenger is unable to walk through an x-ray machine, they can be wheeled through, but this has to be followed by additional screening that is more imposing.”
That is, a person can be physically searched whilst in a wheelchair. “The agent must explain the process first, because s/he has to touch the passenger and may have to get close to some private areas. This can be done in a private room on request,” Mayers confirms – “but everyone has to be properly checked for security.”
Mayers is keen to point out that the travelling public “needs to ensure they understand what happens through security.
“Usually, if we have a complaint and I explain the process and why it has to be done that way, the passenger ends up nearly 100% understanding why things have to happen. It’s very important to have an active campaign to teach the public, including those with a disability, so that they understand the process, we get fewer complaints and everything is smoother.”
Between 5-6 November, Emirates hosted the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) first Global Accessibility Symposium in Dubai.
Referring to the resolution on passengers with disabilities made at the association’s annual general meeting that took place in June 2019, IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said: “Industry standards have made air transport accessible to passengers with disabilities for decades. But we recognise that more needs to be done to ensure the seamless journey that we owe our customers.”
Tim Clark, president of Emirates, said: “As an industry, we need to do more through championing a multifaceted approach to accessibility, and working with our industry partners to make bigger strides in responding to the diversity of disabilities, the multiplicity of access needs, and unique travel circumstances of an aging travel population.”