Airports leading accessibility efforts in spite of the COVID-19 challenges

Jean-Sebastien Pard by Jean-Sebastien Pard | Dec 3, 2020

With the new imperative of healthy travel, sanitary measures are being implemented throughout the passenger journey like never before. When applying these new regulations to curb COVID and any future outbreaks  it is important airports keep in mind a holistic view which includes how these measures affect persons with disabilities, including those with reduced mobility.

In order to underline the International Day of People with Disabilities, we reflect on ways airports lead efforts on accessibility. Given the current climate in which all passengers appreciate the added reassurance when travelling, it is essential to mention how airports are working together with airlines and various partners in the passenger journey to provide the best possible experience for persons with disabilities.

In an airport environment, assisting passengers with disabilities usually implies close physical contact between the assistance agent and the passenger. Certain people, depending on their needs, may be impacted more significantly by COVID-19, but this impact can be mitigated when appropriate actions and protective measures are taken throughout the overall traveller’s journey.

Enabling a better experience for passengers with disabilities

As part of the procedures recommended by health authorities, physical distancing requirements have been implemented in the aviation recovery efforts, at least as a temporary measure, by widening queue lines and ensuring adequate spacing for safe distancing throughout the facilities. While physical distancing may threaten operational efficiency in some way, the role of airport operators is to find the right balance between performance and safety. This distancing may not be met at all times in an airport environment, as close contact between the assistance staff and the person with disability is sometimes unavoidable. Setting limits on the number of people seating in minicars, in apron buses, or using the elevators in the terminal at the same time, are some of the measures set forth by airports around the world.

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Airports who are leading the way

On the communications front, airports like Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky International have enabled messaging on their website that can be changed to a multitude of languages and the accessibility feature can be turned on someone’s device to have it read to them. Others, like Toronto Pearson Airport, launched a live-chat function directly from their website which allows all passengers, including those with disabilities, to use their own device to interact with the airport staff. SMS and WhatsApp functions are also planned to be deployed in the near future.

This fall, Winnipeg Richardson International Airport recently hosted a “Lived Experience” focus group with community groups representing people with a range of disabilities. This included persons with cognitive, intellectual and sensory disabilities. The goal of this exercise, hosted by the airport authority and sponsored by Air Canada, was to obtain feedback about the airport’s facilities and processes and help raise awareness of barriers that may exist for individuals with disabilities and accessibility services available inside the airport to support all travellers.

Winnipeg Richardson International Airport

Touchless processes are key

Touchless processes and technology innovations have become even more essential to limit the COVID risks. Touchless washroom doors and handwashing fixtures are more common in this day and age. Some technology solutions are going even further to enable airport restrooms to become intelligent data-collecting environments by alerting cleaning staff of potential issues and using this data to improve their operations.

The pandemic has certainly advanced the options of providing touchless payments in various areas of airport terminals. From Copenhagen Airport parking facilities where dedicated lanes are offered to assist with adapted payment equipment to concessions and retailers at Bangalore Airport who provide payment solutions where one can order and pay from a phone for a completely contactless transaction, the customers have more possibilities offered to them.

Wayfinding and apps

New wayfinding apps are also making their way to the market, along with assistive services for individuals who are blind or partially sighted, to make navigating an airport possible for many who are having more difficulty to use the traditional signage and information displays. This type of service is just one of the accessibility technologies offered by several Canadian airports like Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto airports to provide passengers with access to a live agent that can help them navigate the airport through their phone or video-equipped smart glasses.

Winnipeg Richardson International Airport

George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport have rolled out in October 2019 a free mobile app technology aimed at enhancing the airport experience for children with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. The Access Houston Airports mobile app helped families prepare for their trip. In spite of the financial challenges brought forth by COVID-19 and the shortcomings in demand for air travel, 3,300 app downloads have occurred through the App Store and Google Play over the first year of the app. CNN developed a story for the airport travel programing network that aired for three months at 60 airports in 2400 gate hold rooms across the United States.

Houston Airport mobile app

These airport examples show that the experience of passengers with disabilities will largely depend on how well the airport and its partners can make the customer feel comfortable, providing quality assistance, and customer service. Being empathetic to passengers with disabilities, allowing them some extra time, explaining the process, and using alternative and less intrusive measures will put the passenger at ease and make them feel comfortable continuing to fly.

Building back better post COVID

The current COVID-19 pandemic has provided many challenges for the aviation industry, but has also brought up much needed opportunities for a fresh look and a push towards accelerating the usage of technologies and new processes that can make airports even more accessible. The above are just a few of the new procedures that airports have been implementing over the past few months to reassure the travelling public that the airport journey is safe with enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols in place.

Good airport design and construction alone cannot ensure that persons with disabilities are able to board an aircraft smoothly. During these challenging times, there needs to be adequate operational procedures in place in order to assist all customers and the aviation industry must continue to work together to ensure passengers with disabilities are well-valued customers travelling though an airport.

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Jean-Sebastien Pard

Jean-Sebastien Pard

Director, Facilitation and Passenger Services, ACI World
Jean-Sebastien provides guidance and support to the airport community on a wide range of activities linked to the processing and clearance of aircraft, people, and goods. He also leads the development of best practices, implementation strategies, and initiatives in the areas of passenger process improvements and simplified passenger travel solutions while supporting the work of organizations such as IATA, WTTC, WEF and WHO.
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