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Seventy-two percent of travelers with disabilities still encounter obstacles with airlines, a survey says. Image via Turismo Adaptado.

APEX Insight: A survey by the Open Doors Organization says that travelers with disabilities contribute $17.3 billion to the industry every year. As the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrates its 25th anniversary, we examine the efforts of airlines and airports to accommodate all travelers.

According to a recent survey from Open Doors Organization (ODO), travelers with disabilities contribute $17.3 billion to the travel industry every year, not counting their companions, which would double the amount to $34.6 billion.

“This new data, shows that the disability travel market has a greater impact than ever on the industry and the broader economy,” says Eric Lipp, director at ODO, the Chicago-based nonprofit that aspires to educate businesses on the disability market, in a press release. “In the past two years alone, more than 26 million adults with disabilities traveled for pleasure and/or business, taking 73 million trips.”

The survey, which defined disability as those having blindness, deafness, cognitive disabilities or “a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying,” found that 72 percent of passengers experienced physical obstacles or miscommunication with airlines, and 65 percent with airports.

In 2014, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) reported that 47 percent of disability-related complaints received were due to inadequate assistance provided to passengers using wheelchairs. But they don’t end there.

Geoff Ames, at Rocky Mountain ADA Center revealed in a radio interview with Colorado Public Radio that there’s often mishandling or lost baggage containing prosthetic parts, stressful pat downs for service animals, miscommunication and simple refusal to accommodate a passenger simply because the regulations that hold airlines accountable are lax. While transit systems operating on land, such as buses and trains are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), airlines fall under a different set of “more lenient” regulations called the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA)

“Perhaps the law needs to get a little bit more specific in terms of the standards, the dimensional standards of aircraft to provide access for people’s mobility devices,” revealed Geoff Ames of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center in the radio interview.

“Perhaps the law needs to get a little bit more specific in terms of the standards, the dimensional standards of aircraft to provide access for people’s mobility devices.” – Geoff Ames

And, “In defense of airlines,” Ames says, “the Air Carriers Access Act goes back to 1986, before the ADA.” He also acknowledges that accommodating passengers with disabilities, such as including a wheelchair-accessible washroom, is no easy feat on an airplane.

Not easy, but possible, easyJet will say, as the low-cost carrier announced that by 2018, its fleet of A320s – new and old – will be outfitted with Airbus’ Space Flex 2 lavatories, the only Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRM) friendly inclusive option offered for single-aisled aircraft.

Air Canada and WestJet, under the Canadian Transportation Agency’s, One Passenger, One Fare policy, also offer additional seating required to accommodate assistive devices, service animals or attendants, free of charge to passengers with disabilities. And at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, Turkish Airlines provides a separate check-in counter to better serve passengers who need special care.

Last year, Air Canada was the first airline to provide an in-flight entertainment (IFE) system with text-to-speech technology, allowing visually-impaired passengers to navigate the IFE interface. Further to that, the DOT is working with the APEX Closed Caption Working Group and National Center for Accessible Media to bring descriptive audio onboard.

“Wherever you go and however you travel, you should be able to expect the same quality of service and the same supportive assistance in every setting,” said David Blunkett, chairman of the easyJet Special Assistance Advisory Group. “For those requiring special assistance, this is not a matter of convenience but of critical necessity.”