Special Need Pax

May 8, 1999

'Special Need' PAX

First-hand suggestions on ways to accommodate passengers who bring with them special challenges


June 1999

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.

Battery powered and large heavy chairs or carts complicate the equation. These chairs require a great deal of time to disassemble and prepare for transport. Some of the smaller commuter aircraft have small cargo doors making it difficult if not impossible to load a large wheelchair. This is particularly true with charter operations where smaller aircraft are used. As a rule it's wise, at the time of the reservation, to ask if any special accommodations are needed.

Naturally the passenger has a great deal of responsibility in assuring a smooth trip and should inform the carrier at the first opportunity that they will require some special handling and assistance. But don't count on it.

Handicapped persons have often lived with their disability so long that they don't think of it until a problem develops. By learning of special needs at the time of the reservation it is possible for this information to be placed with the passenger reservation records thus allowing the carrier the opportunity to do the necessary pre-work and also assure a pleasant and uneventful trip for the passenger.

There is one interesting problem that can really challenge the special needs passenger. That is, a larger airport may have all forms of loading equipment, but a smaller commuter airport at the end of the trip may not be so well-equipped. In addition, the commuter airport and the airline are often short-staffed and may not have the personnel handy to unload the passenger. I have, in my years of flying, been loaded by airport staff who have been forced into service at the last minute and have had absolutely not the foggiest idea how to physically handle the loading or unloading.

Small Aircraft Challenges
Loading disabled persons into a small commuter/charter aircraft can create a new dimension to assisting passengers. Many commuter aircraft have restricted head room and very limited loading door size. In fact, some smaller aircraft are clearly not accessible to the severely handicapped passenger.

Often there is a weight problem in the door/stairs when you have, say, two people carrying a passenger up the stairs in an aisle chair. The weight of the two assistants and the total weight of the passenger and the chair may greatly exceed the allowed stress weight of the door/stairs. In addition, the height of the aircraft from the ground generally preempts the use of loading bridges. Many airports and airlines have invested in special assertive devices that can be moved to a commuter aircraft to allow the lifting or rolling of wheelchairs or can help in other ways a person who needs some assistance in loading. Many of these units are on the market now and can be used to load regular walk-on passengers and lift or wheel the disabled person with the same device.

(NOTE: Whenever it is necessary to lift or physically assist a handicapped passenger for any reason, it is most important that they be asked the proper method of lifting or what might be needed during the assistance. Many handicapped persons have conditions that can become exacerbated if handled incorrectly. This is a good rule for both the trained or untrained assistant.)

Once On Board
On board the plane there are several new problem areas. One is getting into the seat, where special care must be used. Again, remember to ask how to lift and move the passenger. An aisle seat is usually more accommodating than a window seat.

Not all aircraft have retractable armrests. Those that are movable make placement much easier. Bulkhead seats are more convenient for placement of a handicapped passenger than a normal row seat. However, in today's travel environment, bulkhead seats are often used by parents with infants, as a bulkhead allows the same easy access and some larger aircraft are equipped with bulkhead attachments for bassinets. Yet, I have seen deadheading and replacement crews using these seats because they offer more room for spreading out and resting, particularly on long international flights.

Other Considerations
One question not generally asked a passenger using crutches is, "Will you need the crutches during the flight to visit the restroom?" At commuter airports it's wise to ask this before boarding since many commuter aircraft do not have toilets. Also, the aisle can be so narrow on commuter aircraft that it's nearly impossible to make an assisted trip to the restroom.

At the arrival point the handicapped passenger is most always the last one off the aircraft. This makes sense because a handicapped person would be trampled during the disembarking process frenzy. However, due to this "last off" scenario the disabled can be extremely rushed to get to the next flight. To assist this passenger, a customer service agent should be assigned to assure an expeditious transit to the next flight. With a short connection, it's often best to check a wheelchair through to the destination, with the air carrier providing door-to-door service for the passenger. Keep in mind that often it is between flights that passengers, be they handicapped or abled, choose to use the terminal restroom facilities. Additional time must be allowed for this.

The 'Disabled' Pilot
Before closing out an article on the disabled traveler some mention should be made about the FBO and the pilot with a disability. I must interject a personal note at this point. I keep my plane at the second busiest general aviation airport in the nation — Centennial Airport (APA), located 15 miles southeast of downtown Denver. I also own a hangar that can hold three aircraft. I have never had a cross look when I have asked the FBO to tow my plane out and place it on the ramp. But then, my FBO is familiar with my circumstances.

It's a good gesture to advise, while some distance out, on unicom or the FBO's frequency if special assistance is going to be needed. The ranks of the disabled pilot are steadily growing and professionalism on the part of the FBO can help ensure that the joy of flying is not limited to the constrained seat of a commercial passenger aircraft.

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There is no universally accepted method for assisting special needs passengers. Often, a simple and logical system is the best.

Naturally a supplier wants to provide its service with the least cost and time expended. However, take time to step back from the problem and remember that such passengers are also paying supporters of the business and, despite special needs, are not any different from regular passengers. With the aging of travelers, there soon will be a significant increase in their numbers.