Standardized services will help to reinforce the positive steps already taken by airlines to provide safe and reliable air travel to people with disabilities

Nearly 70 years ago, IATA member airlines agreed Resolution 700. It made air transport the first in the world to set standards on the acceptance and carriage of passengers requiring assistance.

In the years since, however, national or regional regulations covering passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) and various forms of disabilities have proliferated. The situation has become complicated with carriers subject to different rules depending on a flight’s destination.

As a case in point, the United Kingdom is considering a passenger charter, which, if adopted, could contravene international treaties.

“We know that many passengers with disabilities rely absolutely on their mobility aids and we recognize that any damage to them can be a serious, even traumatic, issue,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Our aim is to ensure that passengers with disabilities can travel with peace of mind knowing that their mobility aids will arrive undamaged and fit for use.”

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Airlines have committed to provide clear guidance to passengers with disabilities on their requirements for the carriage of mobility devices and medical equipment.

Also ongoing is staff training to ensure the proper knowledge, skills, and abilities are disseminated to provide passengers with disabilities a seamless and dignified travel experience. To clarify the situation further, IATA has focused efforts on a series of principles on passengers with disabilities and is urging governments to consider these in the development of national legislation and policies.

Our aim is to ensure that passengers with disabilities can travel with peace of mind knowing that their mobility aids will arrive undamaged and fit for use

These principles underpinned the unanimous approval of a resolution at the 75th IATA AGM in Seoul to improve the air travel experience for the estimated one billion people living with disabilities worldwide.

The resolution further requests that ICAO applies IATA’s core principles as the basis for its multilateral initiatives on accessibility for passengers with disabilities. This would help to harmonize national legislation and regulations that might otherwise confuse passengers and airlines. Core areas and process issues such as harmonization are covered by the principles.

For the consistent application of policies, it is fundamental that legislation at the national and regional level applies a common, inter-operable definition when referring to passengers with disabilities. In turn, this should facilitate greater regulatory harmonization on a global level.

IATA is also calling for regulators to consult with the airline industry and other air transport sector stakeholders before legislation, policies, procedures or practices are adopted. This allows a proper impact assessment to be made so that the costs and benefits of any proposed regulatory action are clearly defined.

“Airlines were ahead of their time when, 70 years ago, we set out standards to ensure passengers with disabilities had access to air travel,” says de Juniac. “But now we need to go further. We applaud the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The industry is committed to ensure passengers living with disabilities can travel safely and with dignity.”

At IATA’s AGM, Eric Lipp, Executive Director, Open Doors Organization, said that regulatory inconsistency is one of the biggest issues in providing passengers with disabilities with a safe, reliable, and dignified service.

In the US, for example, there is regulatory ambiguity surrounding emotional support animals while, more generally, wheelchairs and scooters have to account for strict guidelines about lithium-ion carriage by air.

30%- The total number of wheelchair requests in 2017 was approximately 15 million, representing a 30% increase on 2016

Decisions about how passengers with disabilities travel in the future need to be made today. Lipp noted this isn’t just a social and human rights issue but a financial one too. The group is already the largest minority and, as the world population ages, will only grow.

Technology has a big role to play. In Japan, some providers are working on an automatic wheelchair that can be summoned by smartphone, scan its client’s boarding pass, and then take the client to the correct gate.

“People want to be independent,” said Lipp, but noted that this independence will only be possible if the industry, governments and supporting organizations work together.

IATA survey

There has been a notable increase in requests for wheelchair assistance being received by airlines. Between October and November 2018, IATA conducted a survey of airline members to better understand the scale of the increase in wheelchair requests and whether these are limited to specific routes/geographies. The results of the survey suggest that:  

  • The increase in assistance requests is significant. The total number of wheelchair requests in 2017 was approximately 15 million, a 30% increase on 2016  
  • Many assistance requests come from passengers who need support at the airport but not necessarily wheelchair assistance, such as elderly passengers who do not feel confident navigating their way through busy airports on their own  
  • To assess this issue and properly assist airlines and passengers, IATA is holding information exchange workshops in partnership with regulators, airports, ground-handlers, manufacturers, and disability associations in Europe, India and the US. The first workshop took place in the UK in May 2019 in tandem with the Heathrow Access Advisory Group  
  • Requests are more prevalent in certain geographies, particularly on flights to and from India, the US, UAE and Europe