Airport Accessibility is a Human, Societal, and Business Imperative

Nathalie Herbelles by Nathalie Herbelles | Feb 2, 2022

There are many reasons why we must enhance the accessibility of airports to persons with disabilities.

It is, first of all, a human imperative. Providing all individuals with full and effective access to society and with the freedom of movement are rights enshrined in the Untied Nation (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It is also a societal issue. According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population has a disability. This number is increasing due to medical advances and growing life expectancies. Anyone of us can now expect to spend an average of eight years living with a disability. How many choose not to travel, or travel less, because it might be too difficult?

This means that it makes business sense for airports to invest in inclusion and accessibility. It makes sense to remove barriers to travel for disabled persons, but also barriers to their employment. In many parts of the world, the job market is currently one of high demand and low supply. Airports are struggling to bring staff back to the workplace. In this environment, organizations should be active in providing the right conditions to attract a wide and diverse pool of talent.

The aviation industry has suffered the worst crisis in its history with the COVID-19 pandemic. Global passenger traffic in 2021 was only half of what it was in 2019. Survival and recovery have been understandable priorities for our airport members around the world, all the while ensuring the safety and health of travellers and staff.

But sustainability is also at the top of our agenda. ACI has adopted an ambitious goal that airports will reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Climate change will be a key topic at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO)Assembly later this year. But sustainability is not limited to the environment, it includes economic and social aspects. ACI and its members are taking concrete actions to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Target no. 10.2, in particular, aims to empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all by 2030, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status.

In 2019 ACI’s highest body, the World Annual General Assembly, adopted a milestone Resolution which affirms the commitment of airports worldwide to continuously strive for excellence in customer service and experience including accessibility for passengers with disabilities.

Leading airports in accessibility

These are not just words: airports are taking some great, pro-active steps towards inclusion. Vancouver Airport has a program which gives people on the autism spectrum (along with their family members and caretakers) the opportunity to tour the airport and become acquainted with its procedures before their trip. London Gatwick was one of the first airports to introduce a sensory room to create a relaxing environment for passengers with a wide range of disabilities and conditions. Hong Kong International Airport has a caring corner where persons can pause and relax while waiting for assistance.

Sensory Room, London Gatwick Airport

Many airports, from Heathrow Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, are part of the hidden disability Sunflower Lanyard program, whereby wearing a sunflower lanyard enables staff to provide support without the need to verbally declare the disability. More and more airports, such as Adelaide Airport, have accessible changing benches and facilities which allow non-ambulant persons to use toilets safely, comfortably, and with dignity.

Changing facility, Adelaide Airport 

ACI accessibility strategy

At ACI, our accessibility strategy is working on three levels: first, by making sure the regulatory framework is sound; second, by helping our members share and adopt best practices; and third, by forming partnerships.

On the regulatory side, we work closely with ICAO, the UN organization specializing in aviation, to enhance the global regulatory framework around accessibility. A set of common obligations for all governments are included in its Facilitation Annex. This Annex includes a good set of compulsory Standards with some additional recommendations—but in this case, the aviation industry is asking for a more comprehensive and ambitious regulatory framework. This was agreed by ICAO last year and we look forward to contributing to further work in the next few months.

Regulations are important because they constitute a baseline, and they level the playing field. Persons with disabilities expect a certain level of service throughout their travel, and good regulation can provide more seamlessness across travel modes. However, regulations also have the potential to discourage innovation when they are too prescriptive. They can do more harm than good when they create a mindset of compliance. This happens when operators and staff become focused on avoiding penalties instead of continuously improving. Regulations should allow airports to go above and beyond and do things differently. This includes deploying autonomous wheelchairs, wayfinding apps, and beacons. Innovation and continuous improvement can happen when regulations are focused on the outcome, that is, on what needs to be achieved, instead of focusing on “how” things need to be achieved.

On the second level, we are helping our members by establishing strong guidelines and best practices. The ACI Handbook Airports and Persons with Disabilities looks at infrastructure elements, such as the provision of barrier-free access points, ramps, and tactile paving, but it also considers operational components such as boarding and disembarkation processes for persons with mobility aids, personnel training and awareness, and evacuation plans.

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ACI Airports and Persons with Disabilities Handbook
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To sensitize airport staff directly, ACI’s Online Learning Centre offers two online training programs related to universal access and accessibility: a Certificate in Airport Accessibility for specialist staff, and a Disability Sensitivity Training course for frontline staff. More online courses that deal with providing accessible customer service to travellers with disabilities are also in works.

There are many reasons why I believe that we must enhance the accessibility of air transport to all persons, particularly to persons with disabilities. But I have another, simple motive: travelling by air is a wonderful thing and I wish more people could experience it. There is nothing like watching the sun rise in a tall airport terminal, or watching it set from an aircraft window. We tend to take for granted the technological and human advancements that make flights possible every day. We should allow as many people as possible to experience and benefit from it. 

Nathalie Herbelles

Nathalie Herbelles

Senior Director, Security and Facilitation, ACI World
Nathalie Herbelles' is ACI’s point of contact for global airport security issues, representing the world’s airports and helping deliver the association’s priorities. A French national, Nathalie has over 15 years experience in aviation security in different parts of the world, having worked for IATA, AEA, the European Commission and Air France. 
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