Passengers with restricted mobility (PRM) require particular attention to make their travel experience hassle-free and enjoyable. We spoke to Ajay Agarwal, president of New Delhi-based Aviaxpert, to find out more
Aviaxpert has 10 years of experience in providing meet and assist services for PRMs at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, as well as performing a range of other ground handling services. Established in 2006, it has provided PRM services to Air India through the airline’s subsidiary, AI SATS, since 2009.
The handler’s network covers Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Indore, Jammu, Mumbai, Ranchi and Chennai.
Looking back, Agarwal considers: “The number of differently-abled passengers has increased tenfold during the past decade. All governments internationally, being concerned about the differently-abled, have come up with regulations which have to be adhered to by the airlines and airport operators.
“With the growth of the airports worldwide and the airports becoming bigger and bigger, senior citizens or elderly people who otherwise could walk a short distance, today are not able to cope up with the long distance that they have to cover and hence need PRM assistance,” he adds.
Those increased distances mean that pregnant women, asthma sufferers or passengers with joint pain, for example, are increasingly using PRM services. A wheelchair service enables them to avoid long queues or having to carry hand luggage.
Agarwal also points out that changing travel patterns are having an effect. For instance: “A lot of Asians who are residents of Europe and USA also request wheelchairs for their parents who are old or first-time travelers, as their children feel relieved that their parents will be escorted as and when they fly.”
There are many challenges that PRM staff face in the course of their normal working day as they provide assistance to the passengers in their care.
“Many passengers have a lot of expectations from PRM assistants,” Agarwal says. “They travel with heavy hand baggage, at times two to three bags, and expect the PRM assistants to carry these while pushing the wheelchair.”
Plus, as airports increase in size, the PRM assistant is “virtually on his toes throughout the working hours” and is pushing passengers for extended periods. Often, PRM staff struggle to take sufficient breaks during their working day. As a result, back injuries are becoming more common, particularly among staff who have been employed as PRM assistants for several years.
Another challenge relates to the sharing of information. Agarwal notes that airlines and airport operators do not supply details of the degree of mobility of a given passenger. PRM assistants must often, therefore, cope with unexpected challenges on the fly.
“For arriving passengers no detail is available about the number of checked in bags. The wheelchair assistant is expected to carry the check-in baggage and push the wheelchair – which is not possible. The passenger does not book the porter, and neither the airline nor the airport operator pay for extra help,” he points out.
But things are changing for the better in some respects. Alongside that tremendous increase in demand for PRM services, technology is being used to improve operational efficiency. Electric wheelchairs are replacing manual wheelchairs, for instance, and RFID or GPS technology is in use to locate wheelchairs within the airport.
Aviaxpert’s Airport Kruz motorised wheelchair service is just one example of this trend for automation.
Other developments include the use of buggies within the terminal to transfer passengers; the designation of a special handling area for PRM passengers; and the introduction of standard operating procedures and trainings for PRM assistants to help them understand the psychology of differently-abled passengers. This enables staff to have the right attitude to cater to PRMs’ needs, Agarwal says.
At New Delhi and Mumbai airports, Aviaxpert uses Rsmart web-based software to monitor and control the entire operation, from planning to delivery, from its PRM desk. Staff are equipped with GPS-enabled smartphones that they can use to scan a passenger’s boarding pass, scan their location for real-time data that is relevant to the task in hand, or add updates manually.
Rsmart Meet Assist “ensures the assist activities are planned in advance, executed well with the utmost satisfaction of the passenger and the carrier”, according to the company (which has offices in Mumbai and Helsinki). It adds that the software logs “facts, not anecdotes” so that any complaints can be resolved quickly.
Looking to the future, Agarwal believes: “With the increase in the demand, PRM operations will see a dramatic change in the next few years.”
Automation – the use of buggies and motorised wheelchairs – will no longer be an option as the distances within airports are likely to continue to increase, placing an unreasonable strain on PRM staff if manual wheelchairs remain in place.
Another development that will be necessary is the setup of more ‘meet and assist’ designated points in different parts of the airport. RFID and GPS technology is another must.
“With the increase in demand and more and more low-cost carriers (LCC) coming in, the day is not far when the LCC may have to charge a fee for providing wheelchair services, similar to what is being done by Air Arabia presently,” Agarwal concludes. |