'Special Need' PAX
First-hand suggestions on ways to accommodate passengers who bring with them special challenges
BY Norm Avery, AIRPORT INFORMATION RESOURCES
During the past several years there has become an awareness to the architectural and barrier-free needs of the handicapped traveler and consumer. This awareness is based upon two facts: 1) it is the right thing to do; and 2) it makes strong economic sense (maybe the strongest motivation).
In recent years the average age of the domestic traveler has increased, and a greater number of this sector is traveling. As this group ages, the challenge of walking also becomes greater. Therefore most major public facilities, including airports, have been constructed or modified to be barrier-free and handicapped friendly.
Designated parking has been moved in closer to entrances. Internal elements of the buildings have been arranged to allow free access to those using wheelchairs or crutches. And, Braille and specialized public address systems have facilitated the movement of the blind and those hard of hearing. These changes are particularly prevalent in large commercial and international airports.
The smaller commuter and general aviation airports have not been as rapid in making such enhancements for the special needs traveler. For one reason, the funds for such modifications are not as plentiful. Also, planners and operators often don't see the need for such change because of the less frequent use of the facility by the disabled. But this attitude is changing.
Large commercial and smaller commuter and charter facilities, however, have yet to see the full picture when it comes to the actual physical handling of the handicapped traveler. So, it is up to all members of the airport team — the fixed base operator, the air carrier, airport administration, or concessionaire — to make sure that the physical and handling barriers are removed and that the physical needs are met for all users of the airport.
With this in mind, it's worth taking a brief look at a few of the areas that cause the most concern to the special needs passenger and airport user.
The Security Checkpoint
One of the most difficult areas in an airport for the handicapped passenger is the security checkpoint. This is particularly true at large airports but can still be a major pain at commuter fields. What often makes it so difficult for handicapped passengers is the way these areas are arranged and operated. Often the handicapped traveler must enter in one area for a hand or wand check while their carry-on and assertive devices are forced to be checked, often by X-ray, in another area. Even a new airport like Denver International is plagued with such a problem.
This method of screening can result in the loss of personal effects and even the misplacement of assertive devices such as blind guide canes, crutches, or medication. Simple logic would suggest that placing the handicapped access nearer the regularly used access lines would make better sense and reduce the opportunity of loss. In addition, the door to the handicapped access area should be clearly marked and the security staff trained to assist at the first moment of opportunity.
Attention While Boarding
At the boarding gate there is often an opportunity for the person needing assistance to be neglected or totally ignored. I have noticed and experienced, both here and abroad, that due to the overworked nature of the airlines podium staff it is very easy to have a major breakdown of communications between them and the assisted passenger.
Many times the disabled passenger is placed in a standard hold-area seat and the wheelchair removed for placement in the aircraft. Now the passenger not only feels stranded, he or she is stranded. They cannot walk to the podium for flight updates or other information. And, they are often ignored at airports when a preboarding announcement is made. Whenever possible, it is better to let the passenger remain with the wheelchair and not remove it until at the aircraft's entry door if it is a full-sized aircraft. Then the passenger can be assisted to the seat via an aisle chair or other device. This plan works well with non-powered chairs.
September 2003 To an airline or ground handler, the term "Special Needs Passenger" can define a wheelchair-bound person, or a blind person with a service animal, or a child with a leg...
Air Canada has received a mild slap on the wrist for failing to provide a woman who had knee surgery with a wheelchair despite the fact she asked for one when she reserved her flight.
Air travellers who use electric wheelchairs know only too well what it's like to be buried in pre-flight restrictions.