Are we considering the needs of all passengers?
Airports are currently challenged by the need to provide a seamless experience whilst making each passenger’s journey COVID-safe: 2 metre distance between queues, sanitising stations, etc. Initiatives range from the IATA travel pass to the introduction of biometric technologies and sensors to monitor and optimise queue times or the forthcoming EC ETIAS border control scheme. Last year, I reflected on how airports could adapt their processes to the COVID challenges from an operational point of view. I concluded that airport operations should be carefully analysed when a significant process or infrastructure upgrade is being planned. One of the most important considerations of this analysis is that not all passengers fall into a single category, there are many and overlapping categories: business, leisure, frequent traveller, unescorted minors, etc. Passengers with disabilities fall into one category that requires special consideration – their requirements must be carefully analysed in order to provide the appropriate service for all who wish to travel by air.
Airports and airlines around the world have adapted their processes to support passengers with disabilities by e.g. enabling an additional queue for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) in the security area or introducing a sensory room for passengers with hidden disabilities. However, those who regularly travel by air may notice that a passenger with a disability may take more time to process at check-in, security or border control. This potentially impacts their passenger experience vis-à-vis that experienced by other travellers as well as impacting overall airport process efficiency.
At Think, we recently had the pleasure of talking with Simon Miller, founder and trustee of “Enable My Trip”, a charity which aims to make accessible travel easier; they catalogue travel products and services suitable for travellers with disabilities. Simon has flown to and from many different airports around the world with children requiring assistance, being wheelchair bound and / or requiring oxygen or liquid food. He has shared with us some of the airport experiences that could be easily improved to achieve a seamless passenger experience. One clear example of this, is that passengers with disabilities are required to fill in a Medical Information Form (MEDIF) when making a reservation, providing clinical information, medication and / or required equipment. Simon’s experience reveals that despite providing the MEDIF in advance passengers can be repetitively asked for some of the medication or equipment details as they pass through the airport process. The lack of staff awareness of the MEDIF details suggests gaps in both passenger experience processes and staff training.
Innovation is not necessarily expensive
Technology upgrades in airports are on the rise; so can technology solve the poor experiences described by Simon? The challenge may lie in the MEDIF being provided to the airline as part of the flight booking and not the airport operator, handling agent, security provider or border agencies. Passengers do not see or need to understand the different actors involved in delivering a seamless passenger experience but it must be a reasonable expectation for a passenger with disabilities to pass seamlessly through the airport without repeating information already provided. Sharing of the information, via the use of technology, in a timely and efficient manner across all actors in the passenger’s journey will assist in providing a better seamless journey for all passengers and not just the passenger with the disability; avoiding delays and inconveniences.
In an environment of Airport Collaborative Decision-Making (A-CDM) and Total Airport Management (TAM) where operational data is shared between all airport stakeholders in a timely matter it seems entirely feasible that the relevant elements of the MEDIF data can be conveyed to the right parts of the operational processes at the right time. For example, when a passenger checks in, their ID is scanned – This could be pre-associated with their MEDIF data so paper versions of the forms are not required at check-in. Furthermore, the act of checking in should trigger a notification to the security process of the imminent arrival of a passenger who needs specific assistance as well as identifying, e.g. that they will have liquids that are accepted but need to be scanned. Personal data from the MEDIF does not necessarily need to be shared at each stage of the process, just the information necessary to allow each part of the process to be conducted efficiently and to a high standard. With the right information at the right time, processes can be optimised for efficiency and to provide the best passenger experience.
Similarly, other technological investments can provide rapid returns when appropriately analysed and implemented. A recent blog in International Airport Review, reflected on how the adaptation of current systems and real-time information can help airports and airlines to understand and tackle no-shows, which can be as high as 16% of all pre-booked passenger assistance requests. Airlines and airports could apply the same tools to avoid incurring needless costs by the misallocation of staff and provide a better service to PRMs by filling the gaps of those who experience a lack of assistance.
Assistance-related inconsistencies have been tackled by many airports and airlines throughout the years in order to achieve fully accessible processes and infrastructure. For example, the team at George Best Belfast City Airport have clearly understood the importance of staff training to meet the needs of all passengers and have taken initiatives that range from working with local community groups to understand the individual needs of all types of passengers to having facilitated training events for Guide Dogs in the airport environment.
Similarly, in 2018 Gatwick Airport introduced a sensory room; a space where individuals with sensory issues learn to regulate the negative reactions of their brain as a result of external stimulus; which aims to help calming passengers who may feel anxious due to the unfamiliar surroundings of the airport. Heathrow Airport has followed Gatwick’s lead. Sensory rooms have proven benefits but it may not be as viable investment for airports with less demand, available space or capital. A tranquil space, staff trained to identify and appropriately assist passengers, and the introduction of simple yet innovative ideas such as a Sunflower lanyard, also started by Gatwick, can supplement or provide alternative initiatives that are effective and more achievable.
A smoother process with higher levels of service and efficiency can be achieved if all categories of passengers are considered explicitly when designing airport processes, facilities and in training staff. Airports must be inclusive and strive to offer a seamless travel experience for all, yet that does not necessarily equal an identical passenger journey through and within the airport. As we have shown, innovation in technology, facility provision and customer service can and are helping to improve air travel for all of us and achieve that seamless experience. When investing in your airport every detail ranging from understanding and quantifying the problem, to identifying the most suitable location for a scanner, to the optimisation of the layout of a new area, to the flow of necessary information, to the inclusion of every single passenger type requires consideration and analysis.
A seamless journey for all passenger categories is one of the big challenges for the aviation industry and, at Think Research, we can support you by providing the necessary tools, techniques and expert advice to maximise the achievement. If there are any aspects of the terminal process you require assessing in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch!
Author: Irene Bravo, ATM Consultant
 Hidden disabilities should be considered to include, but not be limited to, dementia, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety issues, mental health conditions, visual impairments and hearing loss. Hidden disabilities should also be considered to include non-visible physical disabilities such as epilepsy, respiratory conditions and chronic pain. CAA, Guidance for airlines on assisting people with hidden disabilities, CAP 1603.