“Hey Siri”: Technology and Barriers to Equal Access at Airports

Kirk Goodlet by Kirk Goodlet | Sep 27, 2023

Solomon Wong, President and CEO, and Kirk Goodlet, Senior Director at InterVISTAS Consulting, explore leveraging technology for inclusive air travel

In his 1991 article, “The Role of Technology in Removing Barriers”, John De Witt wrote that “in the last decade, the application of technology to the particular needs of persons with disabilities has slowly gained momentum so that it is developing as a field in its own right”. Over 30 years later, technology continues to be a force that enhances services and supports people with disabilities in living  more fulfilling lives.

While technology is not the answer to every barrier to equal access, it’s important that airports develop programs that can mitigate the risk by identifying, removing, and preventing barriers from being introduced into facilities and services. Technology is a key element in supporting a barrier-free passenger experience.

Focus on the barriers, not the disability

When solutions are designed based on the type of disability rather than the barriers people encounter, they run the risk of not addressing the systemic challenges faced by passengers with disabilities. For that reason, technology represents one of the most important enablers of personalization. Personalization helps individuals restore control over their travel journeys.

In the past, airport programming has often centered on specific disability types. This approach is based on an outdated notion that individuals with  disabilities are defective or helpless. It’s much more effective and appropriate to recognize that a person with a disability may face disadvantages when encountering barriers in their environments. Therefore, barriers are ideal lenses through which airports evaluate all facilities, products, and services.

It’s useful to provide an overview of barriers to accessible experience. There are five main categories:

  • Physical barriers: These prevent  physical access for some people with disabilities. For example, the lack of a sloped ramp for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM).
  • Attitudinal barriers: These result in people with disabilities being treated differently than people without disabilities. They can be overcome by providing comprehensive training and awareness campaigns.
  • Information & Communication barriers:  Occur when a person with a disability cannot easily receive or understand information that’s available to others.
  • Systemic barriers:  These are policies, practices, or procedures that result in some people receiving unequal access or being excluded.
  • Technological barriers: Occur when technology, or the way it’s used, does not meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The end-to-end journey consists of many processes co-managed between airlines, airports, and government agencies. While the aviation ecosystem strives to deliver as seamless a journey as possible, airports can play a leading role in integrating each stakeholder. The below graphic highlights key elements in the passenger journey, often burdened by barriers to equal access:

Addressing barriers using technology

To address barriers to universal access, the industry must efficiently and effectively harness the power of technology. For example, travelers who encounter barriers often plan their journey well in advance. A passenger with autism may want to know in advance some of the sensory stimuli at check-in in a particular airport, while a passenger with Chron’s disease may need precise information about washroom locations. This requires airports and airlines to prioritize website accessibility, address information and communication barriers, typically by adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (Level AA). Some airports have even started to offer augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) familiarization tours to enable pre-trip preparation from the comfort of home.

While pre-planning and digital tools are critical for supporting universal access, on-airport processes and technology are considerably more advanced. These technologies include check-in kiosks, baggage drop, and other infrastructure components. However, there are still many questions about the best way to design, deploy, and operationalize technologies in a live environment to enhance the experience for all passengers. For example, airports and airlines must consider width and height of devices in practical use, especially for passengers who use mobility aids, prostheses, or have auditory and sensory disabilities. Additionally, features like on-screen ambient lighting or functional performance related to usage without vocal capability, hearing, or limited cognition must be considered in any technology.

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Tied to personalizing the travel experience is making it more predictable and reliable. Automation and machine learning can provide greater autonomy, dignity, and independence throughout the passenger journey. While several airports globally have experimented with autonomous wheelchairs, airports in Tokyo and Winnipeg have adopted them as a full service for passengers. Incorporating autonomous technologies enables a passenger to reach their destination in a safe, predictable, and independent way.  The latter represents a critical point in a paradigm shift for so-called disabled individuals, moving from absolute dependency on another human being to a significantly greater level of liberation supported with appropriate technologies for independent choices.

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“Hey Siri”: Voice assistants and the power of generative AI

Voice-assistants have profound potential applications for air passengers, particularly when combined with other types of technologies like Open AI’s ChatGPT. Assistive devices like screen readers have existed for some time, but the power of artificial intelligence, voiceprint analysis, and machine learning will shape how passengers can request assistance or book travel. For example, it is now achievable with today’s technologies to say to a device, “Book me a flight next Thursday to Edmonton after 12 noon for less than $300”.

Simultaneously, airports and airlines must also improve web accessibility to ensure that pre-travel, booking pages, and other information are barrier-free. All of this leads to hyper-personalizing the experience for passengers and has the potential to enhance accessibility across the aviation ecosystem.

Technology without “solutionizing”

There is a tendency to deploy or operationalize technology solutions to address specific disability types at airports. This can lead to a proliferation of apps or solutions without a coherent and comprehensive strategy on accessible travel. Additionally, this approach often focuses on disability before addressing barriers. It’s, therefore, essential that we work together to ensure we address barriers to accessible transportation in a systemic and consistent manner. As technology evolves at lighting speed, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that the industry is aligned on how best to approach accessibility, barriers, and how to drive consistency across our industry to ensure that people with disabilities receive services with dignity, respect, and autonomy. Technology is just one part of the puzzle.


Don’t miss out on a session moderated by Kirk Goodlet titled: ‘New Paths to Accessibility for People with Disabilities’ at Airports Innovate in Muscat, Oman. Join us on Wednesday, November 22nd. Learn more

Article is co-authored by Solomon Wong, President and Chief Executive Officer at InterVISTAS Consulting.

Kirk Goodlet

Kirk Goodlet

Senior Director at InterVISTAS Consulting
Kirk Goodlet is Senior Director at InterVISTAS Consulting. Prior to joining InterVISTAS, Kirk worked in the aviation industry for 10 years. Kirk has extensive experience in strategic planning, border and security facilitation, airport accessibility and barrier-free travel, biometric technologies, and passenger experience. In addition to his work in the aviation sector, Kirk helped establish the Office of Biometrics and Identity Management (OBIM) as part of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Kirk serves on the Board of Directors for Inclusion Winnipeg and is a champion of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). He holds a masters and PhD from the University of Waterloo and is a designated International Airport Professional (IAP) by Airports Council International (ACI) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) .
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