Over the past few years airports and airlines have become much more accessible to people with a disability or reduced mobility, allowing many more people to travel by air. Much of the focus from airports and airlines has been on helping people with physical disabilities and the sight of airport staff pushing wheelchairs or driving buggies to help people move around the airport is now common. But there are a large number of passengers who have 'hidden disabilities', such as autism, dementia and hearing loss who often find that airports, with their loud announcements, busy spaces and necessary security checks, can be equally as challenging.
Research commissioned by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) found that 23 per cent of respondents considered that they had a condition that might affect their ability to travel by air and of these people, 30 per cent defined this as non-physical. So that's seven per cent of all people potentially not wanting to travel because of a hidden disability, which can also include mental health problems and visual impairment.
In the UK, the CAA is charged with protecting the important legal rights air passengers have and wants to ensure airports and airlines do more to help people with hidden disabilities. Earlier this year we carried out a review of airports' current services and assistance for this group and noted that the extent and type of assistance on offer at UK airports varied significantly, with some businesses under prepared for providing appropriate help.
Our work so far
Over the last year we have worked closely with a number of disability charities and organisations to develop a series of new key guidelines for airport operators to make their facilities and services more accessible to people with hidden disabilities.
View our guidance for airports on providing assistance to people with hidden disabilities.
Our engagement has told us that there is not a “one size fits all” solution as people's needs vary. Passengers with hidden disabilities may want help going through security or avoiding large crowds; they may want to be easily identified as needing assistance; or they may want clearer information about the airport before they travel.
As a result, our guidance is intended to help airports meet these needs. Key areas include requiring airports to train security and other staff so they can recognise different behaviours, providing quiet routes and giving passengers an option to wear aids such as lanyards and bracelets so they can be subtly identified.
Of course the guidance is not the end of the process. We expect airports to continue an ongoing dialogue with organisations that represent people with hidden disabilities. We will continue to monitor the quality of the assistance available and next year we will publish a report on what each individual airport has done to improve things for passengers. We will also soon turn our attention to airlines, where again we will be looking to work closely with key charities on making aircraft more accessible.