Are we entering a golden age of accessibility?



According to the World Health Organization, there is an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide who experience “significant” disability. This represents 16% of the world's population, or 1 in 6 people.

Wheelchair silhouette at airport Gilmanshin shutterstock 83625031 - Uncredited

Despite the numbers, ensuring accessibility to aviation is a difficult challenge.

“To begin with, it’s established that income inequality is associated with disability and so this is not a sector that follows normal travel purchasing trends,” says Michael Swiatek, Chief Strategy Officer, ABRA group, which has ownership interest in Avianca and GOL. “Furthermore, a request for a wheelchair push can cost an airline up to $60 and yet at Avianca, for example, the average fare is $100. Ensuring accessibility is a costly business for an airline.”

Nevertheless, Swiatek—who is responsible for accessibility at Avianca and has low vision himself—stresses that airlines have always done the right thing and will continue to do so. Moreover, there are encouraging signs that the business model may turn in the airlines’ favor.

Most obviously, on average a person with a disability travels with 1.9 other people, making the financial equation far stronger from an airline point of view. Working from home and the gig economy are also on the increase, allowing more people with disabilities to enter the workforce and reduce income inequality.

Swiatek also suggests that costs could be shared, noting that accessibility is “a travel issue and not an airline issue.

“We should view accessibility like safety,” he continues. “Everybody should benefit from the latest innovation, they should collaborate to share best practice because we are talking about ensuring accessibility to aviation.”

Situational disability

Although the economic viability of accessibility is growing, the cost-benefit analysis is near impossible to unravel as every disability is unique to the individual and their needs can vary from journey to journey. Training costs would have to be extrapolated from general customer service, for example, and solutions might alter depending on the journey.

“You get situational disability,” says Swiatek. “On a good day with the right lighting I may be able to see seat numbers but, on another day, or if the seat numbers are displayed in a small font, I won’t be able to see where I should sit.”

There are hidden disabilities too. Someone who suffers from epilepsy may not wish to advertise the condition through a lanyard but may nevertheless want someone onboard an aircraft to be aware and to have the relevant skills. Or a person who is deaf in their right ear may not want to be allocated an A seat as this places their good ear furthest away from the cabin crew.

Swiatek uses the example of curb cuts to illustrate the choices airlines must make in accessibility. A curb cut is a sloping curb, ideal for wheelchairs and even baby strollers or wheeled suitcases. But for a blind person using a stick it is more difficult to negotiate.

“That doesn't mean you shouldn’t have curb cuts, but you have to understand that there are rarely straightforward answers in this sector,” he says.

Different experiences

At Avianca, Swiatek breaks down the accessibility question into five key areas:

  1. Awareness
  2. Training
  3. Processes
  4. Technology
  5. Hardware

“Because every person with a disability—be it visual, auditory, physical, or neurodiversity—has a difference experience and different requirements and designing universal solutions is near impossible,” he says. “But that is what we have try to do.”

Technology will certainly ease the path forward. A smartphone app, for example, allows voice communication to be turned into sign language or vice versa. Airport wayfinding can also be transformed, a smartphone again turning information into an acceptable format for the user. And there are many more innovative ideas out there, some already live, others in development. In general, these are low-cost high-impact answers to a multitude of disability questions.

“That doesn’t mean we will lose the human touch,” Swiatek suggests. “Often, accessibility is simply a matter of having an airline employee ask the right question.”

Hardware is a more difficult challenge. Consider getting wheelchairs into the cabin. That is the aim for the industry, but it comes with myriad problems. Wheelchairs are available in a huge variety of styles and sizes, but they would need to be secured somehow. They could complicate weight and balance calculations and airlines would have to decide exactly how much room should be allocated and on how many aircraft.

This also crosses into the training sector. Because every wheelchair is different, they require different handling and that makes training problematic. Unfortunately, wheelchair damage continues to be a problem for ground handlers.

Solutions first, regulations second

Although Swiatek agrees that the pace of accessibility improvements must accelerate, he is adamant that regulations can’t get ahead of solutions. “If governments said wheelchairs must be allowed onboard, it would be impossible,” he says. “Regulations should only be a backstop. Governments must let companies try to solve accessibility issues. The industry has the right attitude, has demonstrated a clear commitment to resolve any issues, and as long as that remains the case then we don’t need regulation.

“Besides which, how do you regulate?” he asks. “You cannot regulate empathy, kindness, common sense or comfort. What is the right level of kindness or comfort? This is a very subjective area.”

Looking ahead, Swiatek suggests that getting wheelchairs in the cabin will be the big-ticket item, but most accessibility issues will be solved by multiple smaller solutions. Perfection will only ever be an aspiration, but the industry will continue to make significant progress.

“I believe we’re entering a golden age of accessibility,” he sums up. “Awareness is growing all the time. Yes, it could be better, and this is a complex sector, but every day we are improving.”

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