Swiatek, himself visually impaired, stressed that common sense is the main ingredient for accessibility—having the openness and awareness to know that somebody needs help.
The next step is to ask what help is required. Too often, it is assumed that all visually impaired passengers have the same requirement, for example, even though there are numerous vision-related problems. Swiatek also noted that a special service request for assistance at the airport often comes with a wheelchair as standard and results in being left in a remote part of the airport—even if a passenger can walk or would like to enjoy other experiences.
Solutions can be low cost but high impact. Speaking into a smartphone to be shown as text can help communication with people with hearing difficulties, for example.
Swiatek highlighted a number of pain points from booking through to arrival. Getting from the curb to check-in is troublesome and often means relying on the kindness of others as special services are rarely activated before a passenger checks-in. And the problem extends to inflight as crew are often unaware of issues even if a passenger has requested airport assistance or had help getting onboard. A flight attendant may not have seen the passenger arrive.
Swiatek concluded that the market for passengers with disabilities is only going to grow and airlines need to account for this. Fully one in five people in the United States have some form of disability, for example. The market will be an important revenue generator going forward.
He reiterated the need, though, to understand that this is far from a uniform sector. Every passenger with a disability has a unique requirement. Airlines must be flexible in their accessibility thinking and planning.
“I prefer to think of it as different abilities rather than disabilities,” he said. “We can do many things better.”