In recent weeks, not a day went by where an incident involving a disabled passenger didn't make headlines. Passengers who are forgotten on planes and people who were denied boarding because of their disabilities have become more prevalent in recent times. Airlines have also come under fire for lengthy waits to reunite passengers with their wheelchairs.
A bizarre story made headlines recently, of some people using disabilities as a means to avoid airport queues, and then there was the drug smuggler hiding his drugs in his electric scooter.
The accessibility of air travel is on a downward slope, due to a number of factors. This leads one to wonder how accessibility in aviation has taken several steps backward. But it would be wrong to think that the future is all doom and gloom.
To put things into context, it is estimated that up to 3 million disabled passengers travel by air every year in the United Kingdom alone. Heathrow Aiport Terminal 5 alone provides daily assistance to an amazing 2000 persons with disabilities. It would be unthinkable to believe that every passenger endures a daunting travel experience.
Everybody can have a trying day when traveling by air. There are many reasons that some passengers may not enjoy their journey, but it might be magnified and made worse because of their disability.
How did we get to this state of affairs?
There was global chaos caused by COVID-19 in 2020, which affected the aviation sector. When countries started closing their borders, the airlines faced a real tough time. There was no choice but to ground their fleet and keep the planes in storage. As a result, many airports shut down.
The direct consequence of aviation grinding to a halt was mass layoffs. In the U.K alone, over 60,000 workers in the aviation sector lost their jobs due to a lack of demand. Airlines and airports lost not only staff but also knowledge, expertise, and corporate memory.
As COVID-related restrictions eased, demand for air travel exceeded all forecasts, catching the aviation sector by surprise. The late hiring of new staff, along with the time it takes to conduct training and security checks on new employees, has resulted in fewer people being brought on board at a time when the aviation sector’s needs are high. This has caused an even greater delay in the staffing process.
What has really gone wrong?
Board rooms of air carriers and airports reacted to the pandemic in irrational ways; this often led to panic. It wasn't about preserving knowledge anymore. It was about making the cuts and saving cash.
Uncertainty about when travel restrictions would be lifted and air travel would resume became a customary scenario. Even with government financial support, the vast majority of airlines and airports chose to sit and wait instead of gradually gearing up for the restart of air travel.
The entire aviation industry was set up to sleepwalk into a new crisis. I vividly recall a high-level meeting of an international body that took place in the autumn of 2020. Communication around the table was to the point. Staffing concerns and uncertainties made inevitable foreseeing a restart of operations tricky if not messy and bumpy.
Complacency led to the shelving of proactive ideas, which could have seen the industry make the best use of forced downtime by overhauling processes and procedures that were deemed obsolete even before the Pandemic.
The Missed Opportunity
The aviation industry has always been known for its innovation and dynamism, and there is no sign of this changing any time soon. The downtime of the pandemic presented an opportunity for airports and airlines to rethink processes and procedures and shape the future of air travel through innovation and digitalization of the entire sector.
As a result of this, it would inevitably have had a massively rejuvenating impact on the entire concept of assistance for persons with disabilities traveling by air. For instance, the entire structure of conventional assistance for the disabled is designed around a patronizing model that does not take into account independence and dignity but rather focuses on operational performance.
However, most people only need a little bit of assistance at critical touchpoints, like boarding or leaving the aircraft. Redesigning processes and procedures before the restart of operations would have led to shorter waiting times as agents would only be made available where needed instead of escorting every passenger through the airport journey. Targeted investments in assistive technology would have allowed more persons with disabilities to retain their independence through their airport journey.
Where do we go from here?
“I am slowly becoming lost for polite words... I do not care what the excuse is anymore, and apologies no longer cut it - let's be honest, apologies from airlines and airports are meaningless!”, Josh Wintersgill, my friend, commented on a recent incident involving a person with a disability who had to wait over an hour and a half to be helped off the aircraft. “We continue to fail to learn from the past, we cannot entirely blame Brexit, we have had 6 years to plan and it's been 2 years since we officially left. COVID sure has made it difficult, but we have had down time to think about how we address the major problems affecting the most crucial passengers that need the most help as well as how we recruit as we come out of COVID to ensure passengers like this aren't exposed!”
I echo Josh’s frustration. The aviation sector was fully aware of the consequences that the pandemic would have on their customer experience, yet they failed to seize a golden opportunity to take things to the next level by remaining complacent and not adapting their strategy in line with customer expectations. So, we are left with a single question: When will lessons finally be learned?
There is still time to improve, drive change, and make air travel more customer-centric and inclusive. Let's not waste the opportunity to act now.