Designing for the Pandemic With Inclusivity in Mind: How New Procedures Are Affecting Passengers With Disabilities

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Illustration by Eduardo Leblanc

With the high rate of change to airport procedures over the past nine months, many travelers are feeling wary – those with disabilities perhaps even more so.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold this spring, airlines and airports had to act quickly to reorient themselves for a completely new world in which protection from the virus was of primary concern. New procedures that minimize touchpoints and interactions at airports and on board had to be implemented, but in the process passengers with disabilities have been left in a difficult position. 

Mary Doyle, an accessible-aviation consultant and founder of Rocket Girl Coaching, says COVID-19 has posed a number of challenges: “Disabled people are resilient, adaptable and used to solving problems on a daily basis,” she explains. “However, COVID-19 is very much out of our personal control, and many people with reduced mobility rely on assistance-team processes and procedures to navigate the airport, or on board to use the lavatory if possible or deplane. This means we come into direct contact with more staff members, and if we use wheelchairs, our hands are constantly in contact with floor contaminants. We often have to use airport equipment that is not our own, and may require more notice so we can adapt to changes in processes and technologies that have been quickly introduced.”

“Disabled people are resilient, adaptable and used to solving problems on a daily basis.” – Mary Doyle, accessible-aviation consultant

Throughout the pandemic, Pittsburgh International Airport has been maintaining its commitments to accessibility while heightening its cleaning. “Last year, we opened a best-in-class sensory room for special-needs children and adults – and we’ve kept it open during the pandemic,” said Bob Kerlik, Media Relations at PIT. “We’ve implemented deep-cleaning measures as part of our PIT Safe Travels initiative, as well as mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and enhanced cleaning measures.”

Companies that are now developing new technologies to combat the spread of the virus can build accessibility into their offering from the start. Elenium Automation, for one, has come up with a touchless self-service kiosk that can take differently abled bodies through check-in and bag drop and also detect vital signs in the process. “When we spoke to a number of European airports, we saw a clear need in the market to enable differently abled individuals and families with small children to enjoy the self-service airport experience,” says Ilya Gutlin, CCO and board member at Elenium. “That’s when our research led us to develop multiple channels of interaction – voice, movement detection and contactless scanning  – between the passenger and the technology, to suit their preference.” 

Gutlin says that when developed thoughtfully, technologies like touchless kiosks, virtual queuing and self-opening doors can serve everyone well. “The pandemic has brought a much-needed focus to these technologies, and we can build on this trajectory to ensure we keep improving processes for travelers with disabilities.”

But more can be done, he acknowledges: “Active dialogues with disability groups need to take place to ensure solutions are built with all passengers in mind.” Mary Doyle agrees that would be a win for all: “By planning for the customers with the most access requirements, aviation will actually be serving all customers to a higher standard, as accessibility and equality benefits every citizen.”

“Designing for the Pandemic, With Inclusivity in Mind” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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