Despite tough laws and adaptable facilities on the new generation of aircrafts in service, travelling by airlines with a disability has remained pretty darn tough. It can be a frustrating experience. The scenario is changing with People with Disabilities having an opportunity to criticize the airlines for negligence in meeting their needs appropriately and on time. In June 2019, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) unanimously approved a resolution affirming the commitment of airlines to ensuring passengers with disabilities have access to ‘safe, reliable and dignified’ travel. The global body, which represents 290 airlines comprising about 82 percent of global air traffic, requested the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to apply IATA’s core principles as the basis for its multilateral initiatives on accessibility for passengers with disabilities.
A study, Voyage of Discovery, revealed aviation still has a long way to go to meet the needs of passengers with disabilities. Spanish IT provider for the global travel and tourism industry, Amadeus, which commissioned the report, revealed most of their needs are not being fully catered for by either the travel industry or the public sector. The overall travel experience and how this is adapted to different needs is rated at just 6.2 out of 10. Airlines are working to improve the ground realities. In the US, anti-discrimination laws oblige airlines to pay the full cost of mobility equipment damaged on domestic flights. The European Commission currently “encourages” airlines to voluntarily pay more than they are legally obliged to. Under EU law, airlines cannot refuse to carry passengers, or to take bookings, on the basis of reduced mobility.
Many airlines have specific policies and procedures to improve accessibility and assist those who are traveling with them with a physical disability. Singapore Airlines has equipped all its wide-body aircraft (Airbus 330, 350, 380 and Boeing 777, 787) with wheelchair-accessible lavatories and a wheelchair that can be used to bring a passenger from the seats to the lavatory. The aircraft seats also have movable armrests to make it easy for passenger to transfer between the seat and the wheelchair. Alaska Airlines conducts “mock” flights to help orient blind and visually impaired passengers to the different locations and features commonly found in airplanes. Staff and volunteers verbally describe and guide passengers through the cabin and cockpit. They also walk individuals through the different knobs and buttons above airplane seats.
Delta Airlines announced employees who speak any of the 300-plus types of sign language will be identified by a notice on their employee nametag. Virgin Atlantic Airways has introduced a “hidden symbol,” included on a slip with its tickets or worn as a pin, which allow people with disabilities that are not apparent to identify themselves to employees. Southwest do not list their specific services for deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers on its websites but provide a phone number with relay service or teletypewriter service. Many airlines, including United, ask deaf and hard-of-hearing customers to identify themselves to staff. Hearing loop technology, a system that transmits audio from public address systems directly to certain hearing aids, has been offered at eight US airports. All Nippon Airways (ANA) has partnered with Panasonic to test the latest generation of personal mobility self-driving electric wheelchairs, as part of a far-reaching plan to increase mobility and accessibility options at Tokyo Narita International Airport. Incorporating robotic elements, these wheelchairs will be able to safely navigate through the airport independently, making them an ideal mobility solution for passengers with connecting flights. The UAE airlines Emirates and flydubai have been in the front in implementing rules and regulations governing the passengers with disabilities.
Flying passengers with reduced mobility (PRMs) and other disabilities is fully supported by IATA. It is promoting Make Travel Inclusive campaign to advance the accessibility initiatives. It is working to harmonize the process of requesting special needs assistance to ensure a consistent delivery of services. The IATA Resolution 700 was first adopted in 1952, making the global body the first industry association to set standards on the acceptance and carriage of passengers requiring assistance. The IATA, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and Airports Council International (ACI) are aggressively working their ways to make the aviation industry more and more accessible to people with disabilities. A survey has found that 72 percent of passengers experienced physical obstacles or miscommunication with airlines, and 65 percent with airports. The ICAO, which codifies the principles and techniques and planning and development of international air transport, has, way back in 1969, passed a provision on direct aircraft-aircraft transfer of invalid passengers in transit and in 1990 added elderly and disabled passengers.