Taking People to New Heights in Accessible and Inclusive Airports

Guest Author by Guest Author | Dec 3, 2022

Cover image credit: Riley Smith

By Brad McCannell, Vice President of Access and Inclusion, Rick Hansen Foundation

Despite the industry’s best efforts, travelling can be stressful. Air travellers can experience apprehension even before arriving at the airport, and the unease may not disappear until arriving at their destination. Getting to the airport on time, checking in, dropping off luggage, passing through security line-ups, boarding the aircraft, and finding a spot for carry-on luggage can all be nerve-wracking experiences.

And for people with disabilities, the feeling is amplified by encountering seemingly endless and unnecessary barriers along the way. I know this firsthand as I am a wheelchair user.

Air travel is becoming increasingly the preferred mode of travel, democratized through the onset of low-cost airlines. This means accessibility in airports is increasingly in demand by the largest minority group in the world – the one billion people with disabilities.

Let’s put this number into perspective: according to the World Health Organization’s Report on Disability, 75 million people use wheelchairs every day. That’s twice the number of Canada’s population. 253 million people are blind or have vision loss, twice the number of Mexico’s population. 466 million people are D/deaf or have hearing loss. This is how many people live in the European Union. In addition, our populations are aging and bringing with them more disabling conditions that must be accommodated by the physical and built environments that support air travel.

It is abundantly clear why it is more important than ever that we ensure that all travellers have equal access to the skies and why airport operators need to be proactive in creating meaningful access as part of their normal design and operating processes.

Developing more accessible and inclusive airports

Leading terminal operators in Canada have recognized the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program™ (RHFAC) as a key tool for developing a more inclusive approach to terminal design and operation. Some of these include Victoria International (YYJ), Vancouver International (YVR), Ottawa International (YOW), and Halifax Stanfield International (YHZ).

RHFAC provides a measurement that bridges all building codes and site standards. It provides a perspective through the experience of disability that simplifies the issues while guiding industry professionals to ensure barriers are identified on a cross-disability basis. RHFAC delivers needed training to the planning, design and construction industries as part of their normal professional development. It is an avenue to create in-house knowledge of the practical application of Universal Design while allowing projects to measure themselves against a national scale. It creates consistency. It makes inclusion efforts measurable. It makes being accessible meaningfully accessible.

The Rick Hansen Foundation was pleased to provide input on Universal Design principles during the development of ACI World’s first-of-its-kind Accessibility Enhancement Accreditation program as we work towards the common goal of improving accessibility. The program is intended to provide a continuous path of improvement for airports in the area of accessibility for passengers with disabilities.

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Making air travel accessible to older travelers and people with disabilities is ultimately about being inclusive. It is about enabling everyone, regardless of ability, to enjoy the freedom that air travel offers.

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is not only about designing for people with disabilities; it’s about better design that benefits all ages and abilities. Making travel accessible helps everyone, from parents with strollers, to older adults and seniors.

Credit: Riley Smith

For instance, accessibility is part of YVR’s approach to health and safety. Canada’s second busiest airport earned an RHFAC Gold rating in 2018 for its seamless and comfortable experience with 93 points out of 100 on its RHFAC rating survey. Since then, Victoria, Ottawa, and Halifax Stanfield airports have followed suit, scoring over 80% on their rating surveys to achieve RHFAC Gold.

Some of the accessibility features typically found at these RHFAC Gold-rated airports include:

  • Universal food and service counters for people using wheeled mobility devices
  • Low-resistance carpeting – easier for wheeled mobility devices while providing improved acoustics for people who are hard of hearing
  • Using texture and colour to assist with wayfinding 
  • Curbside assistance on request
  • Accessible parking and shuttle bus services
  • Universal seating throughout the terminals
  • Universally accessible common washrooms and dedicated accessible family washrooms
  • Pre- and post-security pet relief areas for individuals travelling with assistance animals 
  • Public address systems that are friendly to people using assistive listening devices, including hearing aids
  • Back-lit directional signage and consistent wayfinding techniques throughout the terminals
  • Management and customer care staff that have received disability awareness training

These airports are not only success stories in accessibility but also lead the way in showing that being inclusive can often be developed through even the smallest changes. It comes down to having a creative approach to moving people through spaces.

Not being accessible means missed opportunities

Many airports are typically more accessible by design than your average office building. But the push to open the doors to even more passengers sometimes falls short for several reasons: airport terminals are generally large spaces, and updating aging infrastructure is no small task. There is also the question from many of where to start or how to prioritize upgrades.

There is also a misconception that accessibility is only about accommodating a handful of wheelchair users. Many terminal operators assume their facilities are covered by adherence to building codes, which typically provide a minimum standard for meaningful accessibility.

But like a backcountry hiker who relies on a compass, a proven accessibility tool is needed to successfully navigate the practical application of Universal Design. RHFAC gives organizations an accurate picture of their facility’s current accessibility along with a roadmap on how to move forward to make improvements. It makes implementing a plan for improving accessibility for all ages and abilities over time as part of the normal planning and operating processes.

And, what comes as a surprise for many, the cost is minimal. Most accessibility improvements come down to what we call low-hanging fruit. There are so many easy things that can be done to improve things for the significant number of the world’s population. For instance, a feasibility study conducted by HCMA Architecture + Design revealed that creating an RHFAC Gold level of accessibility during the planning stages costs an average of zero to 1% of the total budget.

It’s key to remember that the aviation industry needs to account for more than just people with disabilities; it’s also their family and friends with whom they’ll travel. Thus, a large segment of travellers chose destinations based on levels of accessibility. That’s why places such as Playa del Carmen in Mexico, with its accessible hotels and accessible beaches, is a popular destination, as is Peggy’s Cove, a landmark attraction in Nova Scotia, Canada, with its accessible trails and viewing platform that earned an RHFAC Gold rating. And let’s not forget Melbourne, Australia’s compact city centre, which calls itself one of the most accessible cities in the world.

While more and more destinations are striving to meet the needs of this growing population, let’s ensure airports establish themselves as leaders of accessible travel for people of all ages and abilities. When it comes to accessibility, reaching the skies shouldn’t be the limit.


Brad McCannell is the Vice President of Access and Inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with physical disabilities by raising awareness, changing attitudes, and increasing accessibility in the built environment.

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