Universal access at airports: it could happen

My “At the Airport” column for USATODAY.com this month is about what airports and airlines are doing – or not – to make it easier for people with disabilities to make their way through airports.

Researching the story was an educational and quite sobering experience.

And as the column title says: Travelers with disabilities face obstacles at airports.

Sadly, that’s the case far too often at far too many airports. But if you read through the column a bit, you’ll see that there have been some improvements.  And a lot of those fixes end up making it easier for everyone to travel.

Here’s most of that column:

With laws such as the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, you might assume that people with disabilities no longer encounter obstacles at U.S. airports.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. “Frankly, there isn’t enough policing going on to go look at all these airports to see if they’re 100% compliant,” notes Tim Joniec of the Houston Airport System. “So at some airports it may take a traveler complaining about a service that isn’t there before attention is paid to a problem.”

And even if a traveler does lodge a complaint, “you’d be surprised at how many airports, including some enormous ones, just don’t care,” says Eric Lipp, the executive director of the Open Doors Organization (ODO), a non-profit that works with businesses and the disability community.

For those that do care, next month the Open Doors Organization (ODO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will host a conference about universal access in airports. On the agenda: tools, technology and training to help both airports and airlines do a better job of serving travelers with disabilities.

One topic sure to be discussed is money. About 55 million people in this country have some sort of disability. This community spends upwards of $14 billion a year on travel; more than $3 billion a year on airplane tickets alone.

With medical care and life expectancy improving, the number of travelers with disabilities is predicted to increase to more than 80 million in the next 20 years. Yet, when the Open Doors Organization surveyed adults with disabilities about travel, more than 80% reported encountering obstacles at airports and with airline personnel.

Universal access universally helpful

Lipp and others point out that removing obstacles at airports makes traveling easier for all passengers, not just those with disabilities. And there are plenty of examples of how making changes makes sense.

Curb cuts help those with strollers and wheeled luggage as much as they assist travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, canes or scooters. Family bathrooms are great for parents traveling with small children, but special lavatories at airports also offer grab bars and other amenities that a disabled traveler, or one traveling with an attendant, might find useful. Many general-use airport bathrooms are cleaner due to ADA-compliant self-flush toilets, automatic faucets and motion-sensing paper towel dispensers. And weave-through entryways reduce germs by eliminating the need for everyone to grab the door handle.

Visual-paging systems, like the high-tech ones now installed airport-wide at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, were originally created to assist hearing-impaired passengers. But all passengers can benefit from having an additional way to receive emergency messages and courtesy pages.

And of course, air passengers must be able to get to the gate before they can fly.

At George Bush Intercontinental Airport, passengers must now either walk or negotiate elevators, escalators or a bus when trying to reach Terminal A from Terminal B. That barrier will disappear in October when the airport’s above-ground train finally links Terminal A to the other four terminals. “Those with mobility challenges will certainly benefit from this,” says the airport’s Tim Joniec, “But because 70% of our passengers make a connection at IAH, this will definitely be noticed by all travelers.”

Some airlines embrace universal access

Airlines, which are responsible for providing wheelchair services at airports, have also made some special accommodations that end up smoothing out the journey for all passengers.

If you travel with a pet, you’ve probably noticed more fenced, landscaped animal relief areas at airports. Those pet parks are popping up because the Carrier Access Act now requires airlines to make relief areas available for service dogs accompanying travelers.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air often uses ramps instead of stairs to board all passengers, not just those using wheelchairs, onto smaller Horizon planes at gates where jet bridges are unavailable. “That way no one has to negotiate steep steps to and from the airplane and everyone can enter the airplane the same way,” says Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines’ director of Customer Advocacy.

And for the past three years, Continental Airlines (which will legally merge with United Airlines on October 1st) has been getting feedback and advice from a thirteen member advisory board made up of passengers with disabilities.

Before the board was in place, the airline would wait for a passenger with a disability to complain about an access issue before a policy would get tweaked.  Continental’s disability programs manager Bill Burnell says “Now we can anticipate problem areas before they become complaints. And try to go beyond the minimum ADA requirements. We’ve learned there’s a big difference between something being ADA compliant and it being universally accessible.”

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One thought on “Universal access at airports: it could happen

  1. WildKat says:

    I’ve been blind since birth and had a spinal cord injury in 2004 (leaving me a wheelchair user). I’m the CEO of a company and travel quite frequently.

    I think in general a lot of airports are slowly becoming better at handling passengers who have disabilities, but there is still a long way to go.


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