GUEST COLUMN: How UK airports can get off the ground

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Accessibility in UK airports was a hot topic last year and with air travel becoming increasingly popular around the globe it is set to be a talking point in 2019. User experience expert, Sigma, offers its insight into the sector as it stands.

Travelling, whether for business or pleasure, should be easily accessible to all. From the moment a person checks-in at the airport, up until they collect their luggage at their final destination, the end-to-end customer journey should be straightforward, regardless of individual requirements.

However, in recent months, a number of travel hubs – including airports – have been criticised for not doing enough to help disabled passengers. For instance, the BBC’s security editor Frank Gardner was left waiting for nearly two hours on an empty plane after staff lost his wheelchair in March, whilst Paralympian Hannah Cockroft openly criticised an airport’s disabled toilets for their unhelpful design.

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Although developments, such as the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) new guidelines for ‘hidden disabilities’, are certainly a step in the right direction, airports are still a long way from being fully disability-friendly. This was evident in Sigma’s recent research, which highlighted a general lack of accessibility awareness across a range of venues in the UK’s tourism industry. It found a quarter of businesses could not accommodate for those in wheelchairs, and a third of companies were unable to accommodate for those with a cognitive impairment like autism.

To rectify these shortcomings, it is clear that airports’ online and physical accessibility need to be reassessed. Ensuring websites are user friendly and training staff to understand the needs of disabled passengers are just a couple of ways of achieving this.

Not only would this benefit the UK’s 11 million disabled individuals, but airports that accommodate for this demographic also stand to make the most of the ‘purple pound’, which is currently worth £250 billion in the UK alone. With this in mind, let’s explore what measures could – and should – be taken to make airports accessible to all.

Inclusive interiors

The interior design of airports must take into account the needs of everyone, not just the majority. Therefore, thought needs to go into what people with loss of mobility, hearing, sight, or those with various behavioral disorders will need to make their airport experience as seamless as every other traveller.

One great example of an airport leading the way in terms of accessibility is Gatwick. From its accessible toilets located throughout the airport – some of which have hoists fitted for physically disabled passengers – to its sensory room that aims to help travellers with disabilities such as autism and anxiety, the premises have been specially designed to cater for everyone.

Edinburgh airport is also making progress after adopting an app to facilitate great user experience for disabled passengers. Since implementing the new technology, the CAA has raised the airport’s accessibility rating from ‘poor’ to ‘good’.

However, given that accessible-friendly services are all too rare within UK airports, this indicates many travel hubs are still not properly designed for those with disabilities. There are countless modifications that could be made within airports to rectify this situation and become instantly more accommodating to disabled travellers. Some of which are outlined below:

• Become wheelchair friendly – ensure there is wheelchair access throughout the airport, ample reserved seating and disabled toilets designed with the user in mind – for example, with lowered sinks and hand dryers.
• Provide services for travellers with cognitive impairments – create quiet zones, implement a lanyard scheme so staff can identify those who may need additional support and allow individuals to use priority lanes at security.
• Adapt for the blind – provide braille signs, headsets outlining airport accessibility information, be guide dog friendly and have trained staff on hand to guide passengers through the airport if needed.
• Help those with hearing loss – make sure all information announced over airport loudspeakers is also clearly visible on screens throughout an airport, have sign language interpreters and install induction loops.

Developing a 360 approach

Not only do airports have to be physically accessible; their online presence also needs to reflect this strategy, too. Continually advancing technology is making passenger journeys easier than ever. Airport users can – for example – easily check whether their flight is delayed or opt to receive real-time updates via SMS.

However, if an airport’s website is not adapted to accommodate for those with disabilities, whether physical or hidden, these travellers will be unable to benefit; rendering them useless. To ensure that everyone has equal access to these services and information, user-friendly web design is key.

Fundamentally, this needs to be more than just a box-ticking exercise to meet the accessibility standards outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Instead, airports need to take into account everyone who will be using their website.

This involves researching and understanding people’s various needs and motivations and tailoring a website’s design accordingly. A good place to start is to ask questions such as: “How would this site work if someone couldn’t see?”; “What if they could not type?” or “What if they couldn’t hear informational videos?”

Inviting users with ranging abilities and needs to take part in usability sessions throughout the site’s design process can also be hugely informative. This will help assess how effective certain features are and highlight areas that need to be improved.

It is important that designers do not just copy and paste accessible features over the top of previously excluding design. This will never be as effective as tailored coding and will suggest accessibility is an afterthought as opposed to a necessary element of design.

Here are a few simple features that should be included to ensure full web accessibility:
• Text size – make sure this is adjustable
• Visual effects – make these optional by allowing users to turn them on and off where required
• Links – make clickable links larger than surrounding text
• Video accessibility – ensure videos are closed-captioned or there is a sign language version available

Sufficient staff training

Another priority for airports is ensuring all staff members are trained to understand customers with ranging abilities. The incident in which an airport’s employee refused assistance to a passenger because she ‘did not look disabled’, is just one example where insufficient staff knowledge around accessibility caused unnecessary distress to a traveller.

To avoid similar issues in future, airports must train staff to properly understand the various requirements of a wide range of passengers. Enrolling employees onto courses, such as those provided by the National Disability Authority (NDA), is a great way to achieve this.

The NDA’s e-learning module is a quick, affordable option for employers, but there are also dedicated trainers across the country that are available to meet staff and demonstrate how to effectively cater for disabled customers.

Regardless of which training method an airport chooses, it must ensure staff are educated on the following key points:

• Defining what “disability” is
• Outlining what language staff should use when talking with or about people with disabilities
• Explaining how employees can improve their own practices to be more inclusive of people with disabilities

The time is now

When it comes to accessibility, trying to modify existing systems and processes to fit disability-friendly models is simply not enough. Instead, there needs to be a complete shift in mindset towards accessibility within the aviation sector, ensuring everyone has equal access to all airport services and offerings. In many cases, this involves starting a fresh; going back to basics and rethinking the status quo altogether.

While this may seem costly and time-consuming, ensuring individuals with disabilities are given the same consideration as every other traveller is something that – in reality – should have always been taken into account.

By rectifying this situation, airports will not only enable the UK’s growing disabled community to achieve a stress-free, accommodating airport experience, but travel hubs can also expect to capitalise on the purple pound as it continues to increase
in value.

Image: Edinburgh Airport / Getty Images

Tags : Accessaccessibilityairports
Joe Peskett

The author Joe Peskett

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