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Guest column: Improving accessibility for disabled passengers

Clare Jenkinson

Clare Jenkinson, senior destinations and sustainability manager at ABTA, looks at how airports are improving their accessibility for passengers with disabilities.

The recent Civil Aviation Authority review into the assistance facilities and services on offer at the top 30 airports in the UK, revealed most to be doing a good job in terms of their facilities and assistance available to customers with some form of disability or access need. However, it also named a few who need to raise their standards and provide more adequate resource levels.

ABTA representatives sit on numerous passenger service groups at airports throughout the UK and the need to give prior notice for assistance often comes up as an issue. Even with a generally adequate level of resourcing in place, having to deal with customers at short notice can be very challenging and also impact on other passengers, even to the extent of delaying departure times.

As the first point of contact for many travel arrangements TMCs need to have a communication process in place to identify customers who may need assistance at the time of booking, and then to feed this over to the relevant point of contact at both departure and arrival airports.

Pressure on resources is inevitable, particularly in peak periods, so a degree of diplomatic managing of expectations may be required at times, with passengers perhaps having to wait before their wheelchair or buggy arrives.

It can be tempting to fixate on disability issues such as wheelchair use or visual impairment. However, the issue of assistance also applies to a much wider demographic, particularly with an ageing population, or you may simply be a customer who has a short-term issue, such as a sprained ankle.

Other passengers may simply find the long distances that they may have to walk to get to departure gates, difficult or impossible to achieve without some form of assistance. The distances in some of the larger international airports, Barajas in Madrid for example, can be substantial and particularly when taking a connecting flight, arranging assistance could make the difference between your client making an important business meeting or missing it.

ABTA has put together substantial guidance for our members on how to service the needs of disabled and less mobile passengers. This guidance covers all of the requirements for travel companies under legislation such as the Equality Act. We drafted the guidance to ensure that staff at all levels can use it, with certain sections that will be more relevant for departments such as legal or human resources.

However, the most important tool for day-to-day use is a checklist, which emphasises the need for passengers to notify their travel company of any assistance requirements no later than 48 hours before departure, though preferably this should be done at the time of booking.

Having a tool such as a checklist, is an invaluable aid for staff helping them with a framework for a structured approach to customers’ needs and it also ensures that they pose necessary questions in a sensitive and non-intrusive fashion. Staff should also remember that assistance is not just an issue for air travel, but also others modes of transport such as rail or maritime, where travel providers have similar legal obligations to provide assistance, but also similar needs for pre-notification.

Under the new Package Travel Directive due to come into effect in 2018, operators will have to provide more information about accessibility of the entire trip, such as hotels and transfers. It remains unclear how much detail will be required, but companies are preparing for this legislation by putting processes in place and gathering information. ABTA, for example, provides members with a list of questions to ask hotels about accessibility. 

Jenkinson leads on ABTA’s sustainable tourism work supporting travel companies and destinations on issues spanning the environment, human rights, community impact, animal welfare and accessibility.  She has worked in sustainability with the public, private and not-for-profit sectors globally, including in Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

 

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