A study by Dada and Wirasinghe showed that the two biggest factors that slow wayfinding is the number of decision points and the number of level changes. The study also showed that people who are visually impaired tend to orient themselves every 40 meters instead of every 100 meters like a normal-sighted person. With 17 million passengers with disabilities flying each year (De Lollis), airports must take this into consideration when designing spaces such as long corridors or large, open rooms. Check-in and Information desks are of major importance for the disabled; therefore airports should make sure these locations are clear, visible, and easily accessible. For those who are partially blind, color and tonal contrasts are key visual aids. However, an efficient sign system does little good for the fully blind that must seek alternate wayfinding.
Another challenge for persons with disabilities in airports is getting the assistance they need, while negative attitudes from the airport staff seem to be an ongoing problem that makes this even more difficult. According to the US Department of Transportation, passengers filed 10,193 complaints in 2004 with US airlines, and two-thirds of these complaints were wheelchair-related (De Lollis). One common problem is long waits for help. Once an employee is there to assist, they might be uneducated on proper procedures or not know how to work the passenger’s equipment. People with disabilities have complained that the Sydney Airport forces them to walk long distances before being helped by a wheelchair, or must stand for long periods of time waiting for a wheelchair (Goldberg Bellevue Hill). This is a problem of both the assisting employee and of the airport design that failed to take this issue into account. It is also up to the passenger to find his or her own help. Travel agent Jerry Lyon remarked, “The only thing we can do is put in a note to the airlines if a passenger needs a wheelchair or is blind. The passenger must contact the airport separately if extra assistance is needed.”
The government has done some to help travelers with disabilities by enacting policies relating to the less able in airports. The Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 made it unlawful for airport employees to either refuse to serve a person with a disability for a reason that relates to their disability, to offer substandard service to a person with a disability, or to provide a service on different terms than those who do not have a disability. Adjustments to the act in 1999 included the provision of auxiliary aids to services. After five individuals with disabilities sued Northwest Airlines for not providing adequate assistance during their travels in 2008, a federal judge ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act does in fact apply to airports under the ADA’s definition for “places of public accommodation”, and the people were entitled to proper assistance by the airport staff (Compart, 3).
The Transportation Research Board did a study in 1990 to improve airport access for persons that are disabled or elderly. It resulted in five formal papers that addressed, “the market for airport services among people with disabilities; the policy and regulatory framework for making airports accessible to people with disabilities; the state of airport design, technology, and operational logistics with regard to disabled persons; and International experience and practice in airport access for disabled and elderly people.”
The European Union implemented three rules in 2007: equality of treatment of persons affected by reduced mobility, free assistance in all EU airports, and free assistance on board. In the Irish Independent, columnist Bernard Purcell stated, “Until now airports and, mainly but not exclusively, the low-cost airlines have argued between themselves as to who must provide the facility and who should pay the cost, sometimes resulting in legal action by passengers.” Since 2008, European regulations entitle people to compensation for damaged equipment (Corner), but these reparations are just a “Band-Aid” solution to the deficiencies of the design. The way an airport is designed could solve these problems before the damage occurs. For example, The Department of Transport has made certain requirements for airports in regards to air travel for the disabled. These include proper signage, appropriate distance of ticket issue from driver’s hand, close proximity of help points, and fully accessible transitions to taxis and buses. While these requirements are significant to the assistance of the disabled, they may be unnoticeable to those who do not have a disability.
The Transportation Security Administration also does its part to assist the disabled, but they are only concerned with checkpoints. The TSA website reads, “TSA officers are trained to provide whatever assistance they can to persons with hearing disabilities.” It does not state, however, how many TSA officers are trained to provide adequate assistance to persons with hearing disabilities. Perhaps all employees should go through at least some training before inevitably working with issues they may not understand or know how to handle. AirAsia has taken this into account and put into practice “Disability Equality Training” for its cabin crew and staff to “give them a better understanding of the needs of disabled passengers” (Mokhtar).
Another factor that must be considered in designing an airport is the need of service animals for certain passengers with disabilities. According to TSA, to relieve a service animal one must leave the building and then reenter through security for a second time. This inconvenience is unavoidable during long layovers or before long flights. A small outdoor area past security may be a simple solution to this issue.
Modern technology is also providing assistance to the disabled. One group working in the Computer Science Assistive Technology Laboratory at Utah State University has invented a system of robot-assisted wayfinding for the disabled in indoor environments. It works through mobile robotic guides and small passive RFID sensors embedded in the environment (Kulyukin). This system of wayfinding could eventually be useful in spaces as large as airports. A group from Tokai University in Kanagawa, Japan developed a navigation system in 2001 that uses optical beacons set on the ceiling. Using an infrared signal, a navigator guides the user with an artificial voice. It has been tested in hospitals, and could likely be useful in airports if improved upon (Magatani).
Gerald R. Ford International Airport and the Birmingham International Airport are applying the latest technology to assist those wearing hearing aids (Airport Announcements). The Induction Loop, or hearing loop, is a system that amplifies flight announcements directly into the passenger’s hearing aid using a special receiver. James Koslosky, the airport’s aeronautics director, said that “adding a hearing loop would be a natural move” since many people with hearing disabilities already use hearing aids. Birmingham International Airport has also introduced the “Deaf Alerter” system for the hearing impaired. The Alerter is a hand-held device that is permanently connected to the airport’s fire alarm system. In the case of an emergency, the Alerter will vibrate and flash until the person holding it is outside of the building. BIA also uses a vibrating pager system for the hard of hearing to notify passengers when their escort is ready to take them from the special assistance area (Examples of Good Practice).
Each airline has its own way of tending to the needs of disabled passengers — some methods being more useful than others. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are two airlines that are doing their best to fulfill the needs of travelers with hearing disabilities. “Not only do they provide a textphone number and aircraft induction loops, they can also provide subtitled entertainment videos and cabin crew with sign language skills” (Starmer-Smith). AirAsia has implemented the use of an ambulift, which is a device that allows passengers with disabilities to be transported directly from the ground to the aircraft and vice versa (Mokhtar). This avoids accidents caused by the passenger being carried onto the aircraft by an employee who may or may not know the proper handling procedures. Some airlines provide information in Braille or large print, but many airlines including American Airlines and Ryanair do not. It is therefore up to the passenger to figure out which airline is most likely capable of meeting their needs.
Looking beyond assisting the disabled with just technological devices, some airports are using the concept of universal design to improve wayfinding for passengers with disabilities, passengers without disabilities, and everyone in between. The Sendai International Airport in Japan completed the construction of a new terminal in 2007. The Universal Design Promotion Committee was established to gather information and opinions to “achieve a continuous barrier free state between the railway station and the airport terminal” (Ichiro). It was built with human-friendly architecture in mind. This includes a hierarchical structure, traffic line separations, easy wheelchair traffic, bright and clear space, and good visibility throughout. Universal design is meant to be intuitive and provide equitable use for all. The Newcastle Airport has also taken this concept into account, providing wider access paths and ramps, low telephones and information desks, and revolving doors that can be slowed for wheelchair users throughout the airport (Disabled Facilities).
The airport system in regards to passengers with disabilities is complicated and broken up into many parts that all hold different responsibilities. Government programs, policies, airlines, airline and airport employees, passengers, and technology all play roles in a traveler’s experience. An airport that is efficient and accessible for passengers that are able and disabled alike is an ongoing design challenge. Although intuitive design and innovative technology are workable solutions, there is still much to come for improving wayfinding, accessibility, and the overall travel experience in airports for the disabled.
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