I like to think of disability as a form of different ability and not as an impediment to go about ordinary activities like driving or flying.
I do realise my optimistic point of view is not always shared. Running an organization focusing on access to air travel makes it usual to come across problems people with special needs encounter when traveling by air.
However, assisting passengers with their complaints provides a wealth of revealing information that can be useful to operators to improve assistance services.
I have been doing this for several years, and it would be wrong to say there has been no overall improvement. Fact is, flying with a disability is much simpler today than it was few years ago.
There are ways to make the overall experience better. In this respect, access to information prior to booking a flight plays a crucial role.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting of powers that be in the world of facilitation. An array of so-called experts where endlessly discussing of issues disabled passengers come across when flying. Quite surprisingly, they all seemed surprised when I pointed out that the quantity and quality of information available remained widely insufficient.
Perhaps, thinking out of the box gives a wider perspective helping those paid to deliver facilitation in air travel understand that information is essential to provide a seamless travel experience to passengers with disabilities.
Travel Associations’ best efforts to disseminate information and guidelines for passengers with disabilities are discarded when members fail to publish information on their websites. Last August, my investigation into UK online travel agents found that all but two did not provide the most vital information for passengers with special needs. Travel agents associations must do more and better; they need to work more closely with their members to make sure key information is made available to the public.
Airline websites usually fare better on the technical aspects; however, they still lack the kind of information most relevant on the human aspect of the experience. Sometimes I assess airline websites and I think they are talking about cargo, not persons.
Airports are those who have the most room for improvement. I know the friends of ACI Europe, the airport association, are not happy with me when I say this, but merely complying with existing regulations and laws is simply not enough. This said, most information related problems can be brilliantly resolved in a cost efficient manner, a term that sounds like music to the ears of airport procurement managers.
I think 80% of all negative experiences could be avoided if relevant information were available to passengers with special needs at the time of booking or before. Turn the concept around, and 80% more passengers with disabilities could enjoy seamless air travel. Let’s translate this data into numbers.
In 2011, little over 775 million passengers travelled by air in the 27 member states of the European Union. According to statistics, 7.6 million had special needs. Approximately 5% of all passengers with disabilities experience some problem when flying, which means 380.000 people will not enjoy a pleasant flight. Availability of critical information can improve the quality of travel for over 300.000 disabled people.
In some cases, availability of information may not be sufficient. I am talking about those who had bad flying experiences. Statistically, four out of ten people with disabilities who have had a negative experience will call it quits and stop flying altogether. Other people will be frightened and wary, not the best state of mind ahead of an already emotional journey by definition.
My message to all those who are frightened and wary is simple: it can be done, you can fly. Last Spring, the mother of a child with special needs contacted me. She wanted to travel with her daughter, but had many reservations because of past experiences. Yesterday she sent me the following note.
"I can’t begin to express my thanks to Reduced Mobility Rights. The support I received from them when planning a long haul flight this summer with my daughter (who has severe cerebral palsy) was priceless. I received specific advice on how to plan my trip, the time I needed to allow in specific airports as well as how to talk with airlines to ensure proper assistance on-board. They even spoke directly on my behalf to service providers at Munich airport to help guarantee a smooth experience. I cannot emphasize how impressed I am with RMR and the work it is doing to advocate for individuals with special needs. Not only does Reduced Mobility Rights work with airports and public offices to bring about awareness and enforce rights - but it also spends time doing an excellent job of helping travellers individually to plan efficient and (hopefully) stress free travel. Thank you!”
Helping passengers like Heather and her daughter regaining confidence in traveling by air is the aspect of my work I love most.
Flying with a disability is a reality here to stay. Quality of assistance will continue improving, services will get better, airports will become friendlier places, and passengers will have access to more information before they book flights. No matter your ability, always remember you can fly.
About the author
Roberto Castiglioni is an expert in air travel facilitation for passengers with different abilities. Providing Civil Aviation authorities, airports, and airlines strategic guidance, practical advice, and cutting edge solutions to support the evolving requirements of passengers with special needs is his mission statement. Roberto is a member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority Access To Air Travel Working Group and the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group.