The recent audit of accessibility and assistance services at Zurich Kloten airport unearthed issues deserving immediate action.
Foreigners visiting Switzerland are easily fascinated and seduced by the palpable precision, meticulousness, reliability and thoroughness of this beautiful country. In one word, Swissness becomes the new benchmark in the eyes of many.
Susan Vogel-Misicka of swissinfo.ch describes Swissness as “synonym for innovation, exclusive products and excellent services”. Raising such high standards creates even higher expectations, whereby anything short than perfect is immediately noticed.
Reduced Mobility Rights visited Zurich Kloten airport on 7 May 2013.
Switzerland's largest international airport, Zurich Kloten served 24, 8 million passengers in 2012. During the same period of time Careport, the special assistance provider contracted by Kloten to support passengers with disabilities, helped little over 110,000 passengers with reduced mobility and other disabilities.
Unexpectedly low numbers of requests for assistance are easily explained by Zurich Airport Charges Manager, Hanspeter E. Spanhauer. Swiss nationals, representing 31% of all passengers, are not keen to ask for assistance. They will only if strictly necessary. It is one of the aspects of behavioural Swissness, being independent and, where possible, refraining from relying on others for help. However, even taking the percentage of Swiss citizens out of the total number of passengers, the number of travellers with reduced mobility assisted by Kloten is significantly lower than the EU average, currently .9%.
Getting to and from the airport is seamless, as all public means of transport serving Zurich Kloten are accessible. However, foreigners must take note that assistance for passengers in wheelchairs on Swiss trains is free of charge for Swiss nationals and residents only.
Using private means of transport is also facilitated by reserved drop off bays in the proximity of the entrance to the terminal building. However, there is a charge to access this area, and discounts are available to Swiss permit holders only.
The first issue requiring immediate attention catches our attention as we begin our assessment bysimulating the arrival of a passenger with reduced mobility at the airport. At the meeting point located in proximity of the train station, we notice that the calling column does not feature an induction loop.
Despite the alarming growth of the number of the hearing impaired population, little or nothing is being done to support deaf passengers in the vast majority of airports across Europe. However, this is the first occasion in 18 visits where we find calling columns without induction loops, an issue requiring immediate action by the airport authority.
We continue our walk towards the check in area following the tactile footpath for the visually impaired. However, as we get on the elevator, we notice the absence of embossed Braille elevator panels. It makes little sense to assist the blind make their way to the elevator, when the person will be unable to understand which button corresponds to which floor. This is common to all elevators at Zurich Kloten, bar the newest ones in Pier B. However, even in those, embossments have room for improvement. Airport management pointed us to the manufacturer, claiming to have raised the concern on many occasions without receiving a convincing reply.
The day following our visit we contacted Schindler, the manufacturer of elevators in service at Zurich Airport. With concern to the newest elevators, we asked how Schindler came to the conclusion that embossment of braille number used in Schindler elevator was adequate, and which blind association if any, was consulted in the process. We asked Schindler to reply within one day.
“We would require a longer time frame to enable us to fully consider the questions you have raised,” the company’s spokesperson said within hours. “In fact, having to respond so quickly is in this case a missed opportunity since we are very proactive in this area.”
Eleven days have been insufficient for Schindler, a Swiss company, to reply to a rather simple question, which remains unanswered to date. Meanwhile, most elevators at Kloten airport remain visually impaired unfriendly as blind users must rely on the help of others.
As we continue our accessibility assessment, we come across another critical issue. There are no emergency buttons inside most accessible toilets. Combined to the significant weight of the doors, this raises a serious safety concern.
“All PRM toilettes in the new Dock B and some toilets on landside have the buttons. Usually they even have two buttons – one 17cm above ground and another one next to mirror,” a spokesperson for Zurich Kloten said.” The older toilets don’t have the required buttons. We are aware that there is room for improvement and are actively looking for constructional solutions.”
At the meeting point by check in counters, manned from 5am to 9.30pm, we meet our assistance agent.He will escort us from there to the airbridge. While infrastructure waits to receive an urgent dose of Swissness, assistance services are impeccable.
During our simulation, also involving a short journey on the ambulift, we had the opportunity to test our agent in all possible ways, always receiving the right answers, and perfect support. Careport operates a fleet of five ambulifts to help passengers with reduced mobility board aircraft parked in remote stands.
In February 2013, Kloten purchased a state-of-the-art bus that can carry up to 16 passengers with reduced mobility. The specially designed bus can also host four wheelchairs thanks to a special loader capable of lifting equipment weighing 300 Kilograms.
Inside the terminals, there are a total of 147 wheelchairs in service. The official number is 154, but seven are missing, “forcibly borrowed” over time. Zurich airport operates a fleet of buggies to assist passengers with reduced mobility with tight connections or simply arriving at distant gates. Most buggies carry a maximum of 3 passengers.
Each airbridge is equipped with one aisle chair, to ensure passengers with severe reduced mobility can be helped on board the aircraft without delay. There are also a number of C MAX stair climbers in operation, notably at the gate where the Airbus380 docks.
Zurich Kloten airport operates an inclusive model of assistance. Passengers with disabilities are not separated from mainstream travellers other than upon arriving at meeting points located by the check in area. There are no separate lounges in the departure halls. In terminal E, there is a wide, spacious open seating area strategically located mid terminal, in proximity of food stands and toilets.
Airport management takes great pride in the assistance Kloten provides passengers with severe reduced mobility. On occasions, large numbers of travellers in need of catching early morning flights have been invited to spend the night in the Day Rooms located in proximity of the new Pier B.
Towards the end of our visit, we review the training of assistance agents, which meets and exceeds
The final assessment of our tour highlights an interesting picture. Services normally used by foreign nationals are impeccable, whereas support features that should be of greater use of the far more independent Swiss citizens have room for improvement. The happy note is that Zurich Kloten airport management is now aware of the issues, and will take opportune actions to restore full Swissness at this fine airport.
About the author
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reduced Mobility Rights, Roberto Castiglioni is an expert of airport accessibility, management and support procedures of passengers with disabilities and air travel related disability regulations. He has been a frequent flyer for the past three decades and has several years of experience as travelling partner of a passenger with reduced mobility.
Roberto provides accessibility and access consulting services to airports and airlines. He is a member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority Access To Air Travel Working Group. He is also a member of the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group. Esaag provides Easyjet with strategic guidance and practical advice on the evolving needs of passengers requiring special assistance.