July 14, 2024

Access denied?

Being on top of your inclusivity and accessibility policies is becoming as critical to your reputation as clear sustainability credentials. Julie Baxter discovers how the onboard hospitality sector is beginning to wake up to this priority

The International Disability Alliance estimates 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability. That’s over one billion people that could require special assistance. And that’s not just at the airport, station or cruise terminal but onboard too.

The Alliance brings together over 1,100 organisations representing people with disabilities worldwide. It works with the United Nations to support its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which explicitly include a mission to promote the mainstreaming of disability: Goals many transport providers now insist they actively support.

But IncluCare, which has developed a set of accessibility and inclusion verification standards for the travel industry, isn’t so sure. Richard Thompson, its head, says: “The global spending power of the disabled market is an estimated $10 trillion per year. This is an important market, not least because only 17% of disabled people are born disabled. One of the main contributors to disability is ageing so the disabled market of the future could well be your current customers. 

“We predict that within two years, stakeholders will be demanding that inclusion credentials are up to scratch, much as they do with sustainability now, yet currently many brands aren’t even aware they have discriminatory policies. The travel industry is on thin ice and needs to improve. Inclusion is not just about the width of doors – it’s a culture, not a compliance,” he adds.


Airports have upped their special assistance provision. Beeping buggies are now ubiquitous and schemes such as the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard – identifying those who may need help – are now widely operational. But airline offerings vary greatly and always need pre-booking.

Despite years of campaigning, wheelchair users are still not confident about travelling, not least because of bad press around the transportation of their aids. UK TV presenter Sophie Morgan is highlighting this with her new #RightsOnFlights campaign in collaboration with Disability Rights UK. She’s calling for airlines to be held accountable for damage to mobility devices and wants a law change to fine carriers that fail to give proper service.

Morgan believes current charters and codes of conduct are not working and says: “Enough is enough. Disabled people need to be able to trust air travel. We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for our experiences to match those of non-disabled people. How many more people need to get hurt, lose vital mobility equipment or even die before we see change?”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has countered with new guidance for its 300 airline members, designed to improve this track record. Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior VP for Operations, Safety and Security insists: “Airlines are committed to ensuring passengers with disabilities can travel with dignity, confidence and comfort. We established that new protocols to improve the transport of mobility aids were urgently required and this new guidance will improve service, and significantly reduce damage to these vital devices that are often an extension to the body of a passenger with a disability.”

He believes communication is key and the guidance sets out processes for information exchange at every stage of the journey. 

Mobility onboard

But the risk of damage to mobility aids is just the start of the worries for those dependent on them. Once onboard, there are also the challenges of moving around the cabin, accessing seats, lockers and lavatories.

Some aircraft do have removable armrests to make seats more easily accessible and some carry aisle-accessible wheelchairs to aid access to lavatories. Newer aircraft even have wheelchair-accessible toilets but the biggest challenge for travellers is that they just don’t know what will or will not be on offer. Information provided is variable and not always delivered on the day. The complaints mirror those already well rehearsed by those with serious allergies who need certainty around catering. 

Accessibility is not just about wheelchairs and mobility aids acknowledges British Airways’ Chief Customer Officer, Calum Laming. He says: “More than half a million customers require special assistance each year and we’re committed to making sure our service is accessible to all whether they have visible or non-visible disabilities.”

Most recently, the carrier became the first airline in the UK to produce a Visual Guide to Flying endorsed by the National Autistic Society. Using simple icons and text it describes the sights, sounds and smells passengers can expect en route, to take the anxiety out of the process. 

British Airways has also embedded British Sign Language (BSL) in its customer engagement centres by partnering with SignLive, and is working with Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People to enhance accessibility support for passengers.

Crew engagement

Critical to any progress is crew engagement and a wider societal shift in attitudes towards difference. Leading UK disability charity SCOPE is trying to lead the charge on this through humour with its End the Awkward campaign giving straight-talking advice on how to make it easier to approach and interact with people who have disabilities.

Other experts at Ethos Farm and the Open Doors Organization have worked with BA to train staff and raise awareness of the challenges.

Emirates too has specialised training to support travellers with hidden conditions and says more than 24,000 staff have now completed its Introduction to Autism and Hidden Disabilities course. Online modules cover recognising autism, practical tips on helping, empathy and information on the official support systems available.

Virgin Atlantic is working with Guide Dogs, a UK charity, to create a more inclusive air travel experience for people with sight loss. Again, crew receive bespoke training on how to approach someone with sight loss and how to help them with skill and empathy.

In the US, Airlines for America last year jointly committed to improving accessibility, recognising this as a fast growing traveller sector.

Delta works with disability groups to provide safe spaces in some airports for those with sensory challenges. It has a mock cabin for practice-run visits for anxious travellers and support dogs and runs disability training activities for crew.

United put the focus on supporting these passengers through its redesigned IFE system, in collaboration with Panasonic Avionics. Created after more than 20,000 hours of research, the bespoke system includes audio descriptions for blind passengers, text-to-speech functions and – for deaf and hard-of-hearing customers – subtitles on movies and TV programmes. Passengers with limited vision can adjust the text size, turn on higher-contrast text and invert screen colours to cut glare. There is also a magnification feature that enlarges parts of the screen and a colour filtration to aid colour blindness. Passengers can also navigate the IFE using the text-to-speech function. The volume, speed and pitch of the voice can be changed according to preference. 

Cruise beacons

This kind of drawing board consideration of disability needs makes all the difference. Cruise companies, traditionally popular with an older market, have been designing in accessibility for several decades and purpose-built cruise ships have wider promenades and gently sloping corridors rather than lots of stairs. Centrally located lifts cut distances to negotiate.

Ships operated by the likes of Celebrity Cruises, P&O Cruises, Cunard, NCL and Holland America feature accessible cabins on every deck, complimented by extra staff and precise assistance procedures. Electric doors and flat threshold entries give access to theatres, restaurants and shops and onboard pools usually feature hoists. Obviously they have more space than aircraft but ships are now designed to be barrier-free and, as a result, the cruise industry has become a beacon of best practice for the disabled traveller.

Rail redesigns

Progress on the rails is being driven by a new generation of rolling stock which is being designed with accessibility needs in mind. Adjustable tables mean spaces can work for both wheelchair seating and standard seats, and wheelchairs can generally be stowed nearby, cutting fear of loss.

Carriage layouts increasingly maximise space for manoeuvrability while push buttons for door opening and locking, braille touch buttons and audio instructions are becoming standard. Toilets with extra wide doors, turning space and chair-level facilities also make life easier.

Thompson concludes: “Some transport providers are making a difference but there are still far too many disabled travellers being treated badly, especially inflight and on river ships which have been very slow to adapt. That has to change. 

“It is not only good training that is needed but also proper procedures ready and in place to help these passengers both on a standard journey, and also when things go wrong. The pressure of social media and the live streaming of terrible treatment means reputations are now at stake if providers don’t get this right. They really do need to take note and act urgently.”