Senior airline executive and inclusion advocate Michael Swiatek outlines the changes required to enhance travel experiences for those with disabilities.
Air travel is particularly daunting for passengers with disabilities. Getting to and from the airport; navigating security checkpoints; moving through large, noisy crowds; and getting on and off an aircraft can all present unique obstacles for those with auditory, visual, cognitive, or other disabilities.
Longtime aviation executive Michael Swiatek wants to help clear the runway for travelers with disabilities—or, really, for any travelers needing assistance. “As societies age, more and more people are becoming less and less abled,” he notes. “Eventually, we’re all going to need some kind of help.”
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Swiatek is the chief strategy officer at Abra Group, a holding company for Latin American airlines Avianca and GOL. He is also legally blind. In this interview with McKinsey’s Eliza Cooper and Roberta Fusaro, Swiatek outlines the societal, operational, and economic considerations involved with improving air travel for all and conveys his optimism for the “golden age of accessibility” that he believes we’re experiencing now.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
McKinsey: Why are the topics of inclusion and accessibility so important to you?
Michael Swiatek: I’m a 60-year-old White male with a bald head and white beard. I have been blind/low vision since birth. The eye disease I have is retinitis pigmentosa, which is severe night blindness and a lack of peripheral vision. And I’ve slowly been getting closer and closer to total blindness over the past 60 years. And that has given me the opportunity, as a person with disabilities, to learn about this issue firsthand—and to navigate the tricky world of business and airlines.
McKinsey: How have society’s and the business world’s views on disability inclusion changed since you started your career?
Michael Swiatek: The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990—about halfway through my journey. Since then, the awareness has greatly improved—so much so that I personally believe that we’re in a golden age of accessibility. The supports available today are better than they were 30 years ago. A lot of that credit goes to smartphones and advances in their operating systems. The things I can do as a blind/low-vision person with my smartphone today are incredible. I can take a snapshot of a menu in a restaurant, and my phone will read back to me what’s on the menu. I can use AI to ask questions such as, “How many dishes on this menu have chicken in it or are vegetarian?” It’s getting better every year. But it does take time.
McKinsey: Can you talk a little about how your visual impairment has affected you professionally?
Michael Swiatek: Well, early in my career, when I had a little more eyesight but still not enough to drive a car, my biggest challenge was getting to and from the office. I didn’t want to disclose [my visual impairment] to everybody, because 30 years ago, it did feel like there was some bias. As soon as I would mention it in an interview, for instance, the tone would change. People would focus on the wrong things. They would ask, “But how are you going to get to work if you don’t have a driver’s license?” And I would say, “I’ll take care of myself with public transportation, or my wife will drive me.”
But one of the advantages that I get from being a blind/low-vision person is it has really enhanced my ability to memorize. It’s made me a planner. And I believe it’s made me a better listener. Authenticity, empathy—these are buzzwords for leaders today. Well, I can’t help but be empathetic because I need other people’s help. I’ve worked for a lot of CEOs in my career, and they have all responded favorably when I’ve asked for their help and said, “Hey, can I put my hand on your shoulder, and can you lead me to the conference room?”
Through that sort of interaction, I get this quiet time alone with CEOs, board members, managers, analysts, secretaries, janitors. They remember me and bond with me a lot quicker. There’s no reason to feel sorry for me—in many ways, I feel like this has been a benefit to building my career, not a disadvantage.
McKinsey: What air travel obstacles do people with disabilities typically face?
Michael Swiatek: At Avianca, we looked at the touchpoints in a typical customer journey across four major categories of disability—auditory, cognitive, mobility, and visual. We found about 90 pain points—things as simple as getting off a plane and finding a restroom or other services if you are a blind/low-vision passenger, and as complicated as trying to fit a wheelchair on board a plane.
The overall sensory experience of an airport, including going through security, may be especially challenging for someone who is neurodiverse. Some airports have sensory rooms, which provide a calming space where someone can go if things become too stressful.
“I have trouble hearing airport announcements.”
Because gate and in-flight announcements in airports are made over PA systems, someone who is deaf or hard of hearing might miss important information about boarding times, gate changes, flight delays, or other diversions.
“I find airplane aisles and lavatories tricky tonnavigate.”
For someone who is blind or low vision, it may be challenging to locate seat numbers, signs, and buttons on an aircraft. Some airlines are starting to add braille numbering to each row of seats, as well as LED lighting in lavatories that highlights the “flush” button.
Wheelchairs probably pose the biggest challenge for the industry and a real engineering challenge for manufacturers. Wheelchair users can’t take their own wheelchairs on board an aircraft, and the process for loading wheelchairs into the cargo hold of an aircraft varies depending on who made the chair, how it’s been designed, the manufacturer of the aircraft, the size of the cargo door, the size of the cargo hold, the layout of the airport on the tarmac, the training of the ramp agents—it goes on and on. And if you load all the weight in the back of the plane first, sometimes the tail of the plane tips down. A wheelchair can weigh more than 300 pounds. Someone has to be thinking about how to load multiple wheelchairs on a plane so that the process doesn’t create flight delays, damage to the plane, or damage to the chairs. We’re identifying more and more of these kinds of pain points. We just need to tackle them one by one.
McKinsey: You’ve developed a perspective—actually, a framework—for how to do exactly that and create more disability inclusion in air travel. What does it involve?
Michael Swiatek: There are five key tools: we need to raise awareness of the issues people with disabilities face. We need to provide ongoing training for airline employees—in leadership and on the front line. We need to explore process reengineering. We need to take advantage of digital technology. And we need to manage what I call the “hardware” of accessibility.
McKinsey: What does “hardware” refer to in this case? The actual nuts and bolts on a plane?
Michael Swiatek: A good example of hardware is an accessible lavatory, which airlines can buy as a unit from a supplier and install on their planes. The lavatory has expandable walls, which allow enough space for a wheelchair to be able to turn 360 degrees or for two people to fit inside. This would allow wheelchair users to get in and out by themselves.
Here’s another example: I recently noticed that the flush button on the plane I was on was outlined in LED lighting, and I was amazed because finding the flush button on most airplanes is very difficult for blind/low-vision people. Using LED lighting in this way, or using braille on seat numbers, is a great help.
Here’s one more example of what I mean by hardware: airports could offer autistic passengers a dedicated sensory room that would help them feel comfortable traveling, so the two hours spent in a terminal wouldn’t be as stressful.
McKinsey: Is there sufficient time, management attention, and funding to invest in this hardware, given everything that the travel industry has been through the past few years?
Michael Swiatek: Accessibility, like any issue, is always difficult to prioritize and find time for. It’s a hard balancing act at all companies and in all industries, and ours is one of the more complex industries to manage through. For example, the average profitability per passenger in 2022 was $2.25, which, to have the return on capital to invest, should be something more like $10 or $12. And if we need to account for the cost of assistants who can push wheelchairs and help people with physical injuries or disabilities get to the gate, that one trip can cost up to $60. The finances are tough, no question. But transportation is a human right; we need to make accessibility affordable.
McKinsey: How do you envision collaborating with other stakeholders to do that?
Michael Swiatek: Well, it definitely needs to be a collaboration rather than a competition—from the wheelchair manufacturers to the aircraft manufacturers to the airports to the airlines, and so on. It’s starting to happen. I was at the International Air Transport Association’s World Passenger Symposium in Chicago. Accessibility is a track, or topic, that they started offering in 2018, I believe. The attendance is growing every year, and the ideas are getting better and better. My contact list now is over 1,000 people and reaches all over the world. The start-up environment, the entrepreneurism—there are hundreds of smart people trying to solve [accessibility] problems. For instance, there are now autonomous wheelchairs that can guide passengers through the airport rather than passengers relying on humans to push the wheelchairs. The collaboration is already happening.
McKinsey: What metrics or indicators will you use to track progress against accessibility goals in air travel?
Michael Swiatek: The key performance indicators [KPIs] are clear: we want to reduce the number of complaints. We want to reduce the number of broken wheelchairs. One KPI we’re developing involves circumstances in which stairs are used instead of a jet bridge to get passengers on and off the plane—that is, we want to ensure that the flights with more passengers with disabilities are the ones that get assigned to the jet bridges. The outcome we want is better-served passengers who are happy and will fly with us again.
McKinsey: We’ve talked about how airlines can help passengers with disabilities. What can airlines do to build awareness and empathy among their own employees?
Michael Swiatek: That awareness really needs to start with our educational system. I get a little frustrated that, when I’m hiring a 25-year-old flight attendant or check-in agent, I have to teach them about disability awareness and inclusion. It feels like this is something they should’ve learned when they were six years old, nine years old, 12 years old. According to various resources, about 15 to 20 percent of the population has a disability. You’re going to run into these people. You’re going to work with these people. We need to build that awareness through our societal institutions, not just wait until someone has a customer-facing job and choose that time to teach them about disability.
But what companies can do is start talking to people with disabilities, and start including them in their C-level board discussions. It’s important to build external advisory committees of people with disabilities to use your products, give you feedback, and help you design products in a more universal, commonsense way.
You need that representation. In my humble opinion, my company has been able to make the progress it has, in part, by my being in the C-suite. The CEO is my colleague and my friend, and he can’t ignore the fact that people exist who are blind and low vision. And because he’s super engaged in it, guess what? So is the rest of the company.
Companies also need to emphasize ongoing training in this area. It can’t be, “Here’s a 400-page manual. Read it.” That’s not going to stick with people. At Avianca, we’re building very short, 45-second clips where I explain what a mobility cane is. We’re filming short videos with members of our external accessibility group, which includes people with different disabilities, and they are reminding people, for instance, “This is my wheelchair. It’s like an extension of my body—please ask permission before you touch it.” We’re also in the process of creating a laminated card with dos and don’ts that employees can use when interacting with people with different kinds of disabilities.
McKinsey: What advice do you have for other leaders—inside and outside the travel industry—on how to promote more disability inclusion?
Michael Swiatek: You can’t regulate human kindness. You can’t regulate common sense. You can’t regulate empathy. But I do think we all just need to be a little more kind with one another. If you’re at the airport, and someone is sitting there quietly, and you notice that everyone else has left the boarding area, and that one person still sitting there 15 minutes later, maybe they didn’t hear the announcement that the gate has changed. Ask if they could use a hand.
We just need a little bit more civility in the world right now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Michael Swiatek is chief strategy officer at Abra Group. Eliza Cooper is an editor of inclusive publishing in McKinsey’s New York office, and Roberta Fusaro is an editorial director in the Boston office.
Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.