An interesting fact I came about recently in a “Disability and Equality Awareness Training” is that the prototype, on which the design of buildings and cities has been based, is an able-bodied, healthy as can be, permanently 30 years old and preferably male citizen. The result is inevitably that this design is incapable of hosting people with a mobility impairment but also that it serves people for only a certain period of their life and not for its duration. This got me thinking about the importance of accessibility, as a vital ingredient in our structured environment, allowing every citizen to move about freely with safety and autonomy in all areas related to social life.
In this article I will focus on the care offered to passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility in the airport environment, describing the types of disabilities that exist, the regulation covering disabled persons rights, some data about passenger numbers as well as what we are doing in the two airports of Cyprus on this subject, of which we are particularly proud.
Let’s start with some definitions. A person is considered “Disabled” when he or she has some kind of physical or mental disability which has a long-term impact on the person’s ability to perform daily tasks. Such disabilities include persons with a mobility impairment, hearing impairment, visual impairment as well as persons with a developmental disability or mental illness. To these we need to add “Persons with Reduced Mobility” which can include senior citizens, overweight persons, persons with a temporary disability (e.g. broken leg), parents with young children and baby strollers, persons with learning disabilities as well as pregnant women. An interesting statistic is that around 18% of adults worldwide have some kind of disability, most of which may not be visible by simple observation. Another interesting fact is that less than 1 in 10 disabled people use a wheelchair, which is what most of us would immediately associate with a disability. Think of people with autism, epilepsy, low vision, hearing impairment, heart problems and many others we meet in everyday life who have no visible signs of a disability.
The rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air are covered by EC Regulation 1107/2006 which became applicable in all European Union member states on 26 July 2008. The basic principle of the regulation is that disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility have the same rights as all other citizens to free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination and that this applies to air travel as to other areas of life. Based on the regulation, airport managing bodies are required to adopt infrastructure and architectural measures as well as operational and organisational ones to ensure non-discriminatory access to air travel for all. Airports are allowed to charge for the services provided but should do so in a way that spreads the burden equitably among all passengers using an airport, while at the same time avoiding disincentives to the carriage of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility. The accepted method is for a charge to be levied on each air carrier using an airport, proportionate to the number of passengers it carries to or from the airport aimed to recover the cost of services offered to disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility.
Based on a survey carried out by Airports Council International (ACI) Europe in 2018, it appears that 0.7% of the total passengers travelling through Europe’s airports request Special Assistance. This means approximately 7,000 per 1 million passengers per annum. Our experience in Cyprus since 2010 indicates that indeed a percentage of 0.7%-0.8% of our annual passengers require such assistance. It is interesting to note that PRM passengers are increasing at the same pace as the rest of our passengers, growing by close to 50% between 2010-2017, thus maintaining their proportional relationship the same.
Most airports, including the two managed by Hermes Airports in Cyprus (Larnaca and Paphos) have adopted the “Social Model of Disability” as a way to address disability issues. This model, as distinct from the “Medical Model of Disability”, which considers the disability itself as the main reason for the isolation of disabled people, holds the environment responsible for the isolation of disabled people. In other words this model requires us to realise that the isolation faced by disabled people is not the result of their disability but it emanates from the way we design our environment, which is incapable of providing access to disabled people in a way that would enable them to develop their maximum potential. Accordingly, it requires that we revise the way we design infrastructure and processes by taking into account not the average of human strength but the facilitation of human weakness.
To give some practical examples of what this means in the airport environment let me talk about what we are doing in Cyprus, which makes us particularly proud and has enabled us to win Airports Council International’s (ACI) Europe Accessible Airport Award in 2017 for Larnaca Airport and in 2018 for Paphos Airport. The award aims to honour the best airport in Europe, amongst ACI Europe’s 500 member airports operating in 45 European countries, in terms of its level of accessibility as well as the range and quality of assistance services offered.
Starting from the Parking area of our airports, apart from dedicated parking places for authorised users who are holders of Blue Parking Cards, we offer lower height Parking Pay Machines as well as free parking for 120 minutes. At the entrance of the airports we have positioned dedicated Calling Devices / Help Points which are used by those needing assistance to notify the Special Assistance Team of their arrival at the airport. Assistance is provided by an experienced Special Assistance Team, operated by a dedicated subcontractor providing Special Assistance Services at our airports, whose staff is trained annually by Hermes Airports on Disability & Equality Awareness. All disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility are offered priority for all airport formalities including check-in, boarding pass control (e-gates), immigration, security screening as well as shopping at our retail outlets and aircraft boarding. Our electronic boarding card readers provide a fully accessible and wide-body entrance where PRMs and their families may scan their boarding cards with ease. We have recently added fully accessible BorderXpress kiosks, used for self-service immigration control purposes. In terms of aircraft boarding equipment, apart from dedicated ambulifts used by ground handlers, we have introduced an “Eagle Lifter” passenger hoist available at Larnaka Airport, providing a fully accessible, safe and efficient way of transferring passengers requiring a fully supported transfer to/from their aircraft seat. A dedicated Changing Place is on offer in Larnaca and soon in Paphos. This facility is separate to our fully accessible toilets and is designed as a restroom equipped with a hoist and a height adjustable changing bed to provide sanitary accommodation and changing/washing/toilet facilities for people with multiple and complex disabilities who have one or two assistants. The provision of Charging Stations with three types of sockets for battery powered wheelchairs in different areas of the terminal is also an example of the initiatives in place. Finally, our website will be upgraded by the end of the year to become fully accessible to people with hearing and visual impairments.
One of the reasons we are able to excel in our provision of facilities and services for disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility is that we work very closely with the local disability organisations. Throughout the years we have managed to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect which has led us to a better understanding of their needs, resulting in a more effective offering of services and initiatives to meet their own requirements and expectations.
Our top priorities when assisting disabled or reduced mobility individuals is to provide comfort, safety and dignity and this is clearly reflected in our actions and processes. Our guiding principle is that today we are a provider but tomorrow we might be a user.