One size doesn’t fit all

Negotiating the airport – in particular security – can be a nightmare for travellers with more complex needs. Kirstie Pickering finds that some efforts to help are more equal than others

Clear signage is one of the easiest ways of improving the disabled passenger’s airport experience

UK-based actress and disability rights activist Melissa Johns was recently forced to undergo a full-body search at Manchester Airport.

The reason for this, she says, is that the scanner was ‘confused’ by her lack of a lower arm. Johns told the Manchester Evening News that the alarm was triggered as she underwent a full-body scan, with airport staff subsequently telling her that the machine ‘didn’t quite pick up her body’ and asking her to undergo a search. While Johns was quick to point out that the staff treated her well, she described the scanner’s design and its confusion over her missing limb as yet another example of the unconscious bias faced by disabled people.

Melissa Johns’ experience made it into the news because of her relative fame, but she is of course not alone in finding the airport security experience further complicated by a disability.

Security challenges

Airport security has long been an essential part of travel, but evolving equipment and updated regulations mean travellers with disabilities can face a fresh set of challenges on every arrival at an airport that is new to them.

Airport operators have put into place a number of measures to improve the experience – indeed they are often legally required to do so.

“We offer dedicated assistance lanes through security where staff are specially trained to take extra care of passengers who have additional needs,” said Pete Coombes, senior passenger operations manager at London Gatwick Airport. “Any passenger who would like help through security should make themselves known at the special assistance reception desk in the terminals and a member of the team will be on-hand to assist.

“Of course, passengers with additional needs are very welcome to use the assistance lane on their own and make their way to the special assistance desk in the departure lounge, where help to the gate can be arranged if required.”

Edinburgh Airport also has stringent measures in place to support passengers with extra needs.

“We know security is one of the areas that can heighten anxiety or stress,” said Ross Gilpin, operations manager for Edinburgh Airport Services Limited (EASL). “We have a dedicated special assistance and family lane in security so people who may need a little bit more time and attention can get that. Our staff are highly trained and will help people through the security process in as caring a way as possible.

Passengers waiting in the PRM lounge at Gatwick can be advised by staff or contacted via a buzzer when it's time to go to the gate
Gatwick Airport
The Edinburgh Airport Accessibility Forum helps influence staff training and provides feedback to management
Edinburgh Airport
Mobility scooter users flying from Edinburgh are required to inform their airline at least 48 hours before travelling
Edinburgh Airport
All Helsinki Airport staff receive special assistance training as part of their introduction

“We are also aware that some people are unable or concerned about using and going through our security scanners, so we have staff on hand to try to explain the reasons for the scanner and the importance of it, but they can also perform manual searches too. This allows passengers to pass through safely and in a way that doesn’t heighten any anxiety.”

Edinburgh also offers low-level benches at security, for disabled travellers to rearrange their luggage in more comfort.

Not all security-related issues are as easily resolved, however. A case in point is that of wheelchair users. The absence of suitable screening facilities does not mean that these travellers are exempt from scanning. They are instead subjected to a ‘pat-down’. In the US, for instance, according to TSA guidance, this must be carried out by a member of staff of the same gender as the traveller, behind screens if required.

Passengers who are not physically capable of moving their arms out of the way during the pat-down are obliged to inform the airport of this in advance. In some instances a metal detector is used, and wheelchairs may be swabbed for traces of explosives. All in all, this can only make an already difficult experience even less enjoyable.

Training for staff

Addressing a traveller’s physical and invisible disabilities should be approached on a case-by-case basis, but detailed training in special assistance is key to creating a positive passenger experience.

“Staff training plays a huge role in good customer experience, and it’s not limited to special assistance services,” said Hanna Hämäläinen, head of passenger services and development at Finland's Helsinki Airport.

“Everyone working here is required to go through training, as part of their introduction period, that includes basic information concerning special assistance. There is also additional PRM [Passengers with Reduced Mobility] training available for all employees working with passengers.

“The aim of the training is to make sure that employees understand passenger needs, how they change and what kind of special needs passengers can have. It is also important for the staff to understand that not all special needs are visible.”

Pete Coombes agreed: “Ensuring our staff are kept up-to-date with training is vital for enabling Gatwick to provide a bespoke, relevant and helpful service to passengers with additional needs.”

Edinburgh Airport’s Ross Gilpin echoed these sentiments. “In-depth training allows all staff to be comfortable with the level of service required for each passenger and their specific needs,” he said. “We regularly update and evolve our training through feedback from passengers and the EAAF [Edinburgh Airport Accessibility Forum]. Our practical training was developed by an external company with over 20 years’ experience in PRM operations at airports all over Europe.

What disabled travellers want

Working closely with disabled passengers and disability advocates is crucial to creating a successful experience for customers with extra needs.

“The one thing that would make the biggest difference for wheelchair users would be to enable them to stay in their wheelchair from departure lounge to arrival lounge,” said Andrew Robertson, a disabled businessman and full time power chair user.

“Disabled people have to be transferred into a plane seat, but these do not often meet support needs. There is also a lack of accessible toilet facilities in airports and there are none on long-haul planes other than on A380s or Virgin aircraft. Some planes have removable walls between toilet cubicles, but staff are often unaware of this as an adaptation. Even accessible toilets do not always have enough room for a carer to enter as well as the disabled person.

“There is such inconsistency between quality of care in airports. There needs to be a charter that airports sign up to with basic attitudes and behaviours they will adhere to in order to ensure consistency of care.”

Robertson added: “There is also little training in how to lift disabled people. Many staff refuse to use hoists to prevent injury, preferring to manually lift disabled passengers, denying them dignity and sometimes resulting in injury. Airports have equipment such as eagle lifts, but there is a reluctance to use them.

“Going through security, you are separated from carers. If staff ask disabled people to remove their shoes, there is nobody to help with this and staff will refuse to help. There is no comprehension of how disabled people cannot always participate in all expected aspects of security checks.

“Airlines need to provide staff to help disabled people and their entire party get through security. There needs to be a separate area for this to happen and to ensure that disabled people’s carers can be present at all parts of the process. Parties with a disabled traveller need to be kept together. This happens in some airports, but not all,” concluded Robertson.

“We want customers – regardless of ability level – to be able to get to where they want to go comfortably, easily and as quickly as possible. As a team, we rely on customers sharing their experiences so that we can amplify these voices back into the business. We don’t make the experience, but we use our customer insights to influence our service offerings and make strong recommendations for improvement,” Gilpin added.

The manufacturer’s role

While airports may have trained staff to explain the screening process to passengers with disabilities, there is no denying that the current lack of bespoke scanners means that these travellers’ experiences with security can be distressing, embarrassing and possibly even painful.

For instance, not all passengers are able to lift their arms to the level required by most full body scanners. Rohde & Schwarz may be about to change this. The Munich firm’s new Quick Personnel Security (QPS) scanners, which it has supplied to London/Heathrow Airport, were designed to enhance security screening and reduce passenger wait times. While they were developed with mainstream travellers in mind, one element in particular means that the new scanners could make a real difference to the security experience for at least some disabled passengers. According to Rohde & Schwarz, the QPS201 “allows an easy, hands-down posture for scanning” without compromising the thoroughness of the scan – and enabling passengers with difficulties raising their arms to be scanned in the same way as able-bodied travellers.

The problem remains

While the likes of the QPS201 will undoubtedly help some disabled passengers, few manufacturers of screening equipment have tackled the challenges head on – as was evidenced by the number of scanning experts who felt ill-equipped to talk to Airports International for this feature. One that did, however, was China’s Nuctech, which is partially state owned and supplies systems for X-ray inspection and integrated security checks at airports.

Robert Bos, deputy general manager at Nuctech Netherlands, admitted that the onus to provide a good security experience for disabled travellers still lies with the airport. He explained: “Nuctech equipment produces an image of an object – it is the airport staff that reads this image and detects a threat. For the time being, smooth travel for people with disabilities is ensured by airport personnel and engineers by creating – for example – larger security lanes or spacious areas.”

Bos added: “At the design phase, Nuctech engineers adjust to the needs of people with learning disabilities by using as little text as possible and relying on visual images and pictograms.”

He is hopeful of a more passengerfriendly screening experience in the future, and predicts that artificial intelligence will play a greater role in the process. Bos concluded: “Special algorithms could be introduced to recognise a person in a wheelchair or crutches and screen them efficiently without much disturbance. This would make the screening process more customer-friendly and comfortable.”

A wheelchair user undergoing a ‘pat-down’ at a TSA checkpoint
Transportation Security Administration
The QPS201 enables screening without the need for passengers to raise their arms
Rohde & Schwarz

Not just luggage

Andrew Robertson is a disabled businessman and full-time power chair user. He flies regularly and is often met with challenges en route. “Staff are often quite scared of wheelchair users, their chairs and their luggage,” he told Airports International.

There have been numerous claims of wheelchairs being damaged in transit on flights, treated by airlines as if they are any other piece of luggage rather than an expensive, essential form of transportation and physical support for their users. But while such stories continue to get traction in the press, the incidents are happening over and over again. Robertson explained: “Wheelchairs are often left unattended in the baggage department. These are high-value items, and essential for disabled travellers to maintain their mobility and independence. ”There is a risk they can go missing or be tampered with by staff, which can result in damage such as the electronics failing. When you don’t have sight of your chair and you rely on it for independence, it makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. My wheels are in essence my legs and time and again, they can end up broken by airlines. Many wheelchair users now print instructions on how to handle their chairs, often in multiple languages.”

Gatwick Accessibility Day includes demonstrations of the screening process for passengers with hidden disabilities
Gatwick Airport

“When wheelchairs are damaged, some airlines don’t address problems adequately, offering paltry compensation vouchers or refusing to fix damage. I once took a flight where, upon arrival, my wheelchair brakes no longer worked properly,” Robertson concluded.

The next steps

As technology and research progresses, so too must the passenger experience of disabled people at airports.

The Helsinki Airport development programme will conclude in 2023, but the needs of disabled passengers have been included since early in the planning phase.

“It has been very rewarding to be able to design completely new terminal areas and services that meet the passenger expectations of today,” said Hämäläinen.

Accommodating the anxious traveller

Due to the unknowns surrounding the airport experience for disabled passengers, travelling often creates anxiety and nervousness. Airports can help combat such feelings by putting simple systems and design elements in place.

“If you need special assistance and you feel nervous, it’s a good thing to check the locations of the service points before arriving at the airport,” said Hanna Hämäläinen, head of passenger services and development at Helsinki Airport. “You can also pre-book an assistant to help you at the airport. The assistant will help you at check-in, security control and all the way to the gate.

“Because of the Helsinki Airport Development Programme, we have been able to design a process to make travelling as stress-free as possible. We have paid attention to our design – for example, by using colours that reduce stress.”

“The support centre is always on hand to provide some extra advice where required,” said Ross Gilpin, operations manager for Edinburgh Airport Services Limited. “We can talk customers through the departure and arrivals process, offer advice on best places to park and also how to get in touch with the special assistance team once on-site. There is no silly question and when we don’t know the answer, we’ll find out and get back in touch.

“We are a disability-confident employer and we look to make our airport as accessible as possible for both staff and passengers. One of our customer support agents is a regular traveller who uses the PRM service and we use that first-hand experience to provide advice to passengers and calm any pre-travel nerves.”

Ensuring that disabled passengers are not separated from family members is a key part of an effective airport experience

“For example, there are barrier-free service desks at every service point and the corridors and walkways at the terminal are wider than usual. We also use tactile markings and strong colour contrasts in signs to help visually impaired people.

“Making an airport accessible for passengers with special needs actually serves every passenger. To ensure a smooth travelling experience at the airport, there is a need for good co-operation within the whole airport community, including all organisations operating at the airport.”

Working closely with disability advocates is essential when creating an airport’s special assistance strategy and staff training programme.

“A willingness to use adaptive aids for people with physical disabilities and for technology to be able to adapt to a range of bodies is essential,” said Anna Morell, communications manager at pandisability charity Disability Rights UK.

“Not all technology will recognise or fit a disabled person’s body or equipment – often, bigger, adaptable equipment is needed. And where some disabled people need personal assistants or carers, provision needs to be made as standard.

“Disabled people have differing needs,” concluded Morell. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach for us. Some of us have physical disabilities, some of us need mobility aids, some of us have sensory impairments, and some of us have learning disabilities or are neurodiverse. ”It is up to airports to train staff in equality, diversity and disability so they can help all passengers with parity of experiential standards. The quality of the experience of disabled people always starts with staff attitude.”

When it comes to improving disabled travellers’ airport experiences – in particular at security checkpoints – it looks as if it may be some time before manufacturers catch up with airports. AI