Accessibility and recovery: Breaking barriers to travellers with disabilities as aviation rebuilds

Chair and CEO Keynote Address to the IATA Global Accessibility Symposium – October 27, 2020

The air transportation sector is going through its greatest crisis since the first international commercial flight a century ago.

That flight was operated by Aeromarine Airways, which in 1920 began a service between Key West, Florida and various locations in the Caribbean. It was an audacious effort, with an impressive fleet for the era. But after three years, Aeromarine shut down, due to financial losses.

Aviation has always been a boom-and-bust business, sometimes riding high on strong tailwinds, sometimes buffeted by storms beyond its control.

The collapse of air travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest storm yet. The skies have darkened for the industry as much of the world's population has sheltered in place. The scale of aircraft mothballing, employee lay-offs, and plummeting valuations for publicly-traded airlines dwarfs anything seen previously.

But after the night comes the dawn. Although many airlines have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, few so far have fallen, thanks in part to government measures. And there are initial signs of a tentative rebound in some segments of the industry.

The current challenges aren't structural in nature; they're the result of a specific, temporary factor: the rapid spread of a virus that can be passed by asymptomatic individuals and have serious and even fatal consequences. The day will come when either a vaccine or a combination of widespread testing, tracing, and treatment will bring the pandemic to heel. And when that day comes, pent-up demand for travel will translate into a resurgence of the aviation sector.

The question is what the sector will look like going forward. What will change in the way it operates and provides services as a result of this painful pause? Will airlines take advantage of the forced down-time and emerge stronger and better? Will they seize the opportunity to renew and rebuild in ways that enhance their reputation, credibility, and value proposition for publics that themselves have been battered by the events of the last eight months?

There's already discussion about the need for the industry to integrate environmental considerations into its recovery. I would suggest that the same emphasis should be placed on creating an inclusive flying experience and, specifically, on ensuring that air travel is accessible for persons with disabilities.

Why accessibility?

There are two core arguments for incorporating accessibility into the recovery process: basic decency and return on investment.

Let's start with decency. Every one of us has a grandparent, parent, sibling, child, colleague, neighbor, or friend with a disability. Many of us have disabilities ourselves. A disability isn't some departure from normalcy. It simply means that because of an individual's particular physical or mental characteristics, they have specific needs.

And just as disabilities aren't a departure from normalcy, barriers to persons with disabilities aren't inevitable. Barriers arise when the full range of human needs isn't taken into account when equipment and facilities are designed, built, and retrofitted, and when services are planned and delivered. If those needs are properly addressed, the barriers disappear.

Ensuring accessibility is about recognizing the worth and dignity of each person. It is about allowing everyone lives of autonomy and choice. It is about respecting the fundamental right to equal access.

A senior who uses a wheelchair should be able to fly to a different city to attend his granddaughter's graduation. A deaf backpacker should get the same information during a safety briefing as someone who can hear. A teen who grew up in a war zone should be able to get a seat location that doesn't trigger trauma-related reactions. A blind businesswoman shouldn't miss a meeting because there's inadequate floor space for her guide dog.

We all know these things are important and, in principle, want to ensure that persons with disabilities are able to fly. But a commitment to doing the right thing is just the first step. The next step is translating that commitment into concrete action.

When we do so, we don't just reap the reward of knowing we did the right thing and made the world better – although that in and of itself can be a very potent motivator. We also reap profits. The return on investment when we improve accessibility is real and sustained.

Globally, one in five people has a disability -- some permanent, some temporary, some visible, and some invisible. And as the population ages, that proportion increases. Barriers that make it difficult for persons with disabilities to fly keep an important and growing part of the market off planes – and as the industry struggles to recover from an unprecedented collapse in demand for its services, it can't afford to have anyone who wants to fly stuck on the ground.

A focus on accessibility should, therefore, be integral to efforts over the coming period to restore public confidence and interest in air travel. When the goal is to have more planes in the air and more people on them, no person should be left behind because of barriers that we have the ability to eliminate.

The elements of a strategy

What, then, is needed to ensure the accessibility of air travel? I would suggest – based in part on the experience of the Canadian Transportation Agency, the CTA, which I have the privilege to lead -- that there are five key components to a comprehensive strategy for advancing this objective.

The first – and the one that frames the others – is adoption of a "universal accessibility" lens. This means, quite simply, actively considering, at every stage, how equipment, facilities, and services can be made accessible to the largest number of people possible without the need for individual accommodations. Such accommodations will still be necessary, sometimes. But the closer we get to universal accessibility, the more individual accommodations become the exception – serving as a safeguard rather than a default.

We need to design for accessibility. Build for accessibility. Train employees for accessibility. Hard wire accessibility into planning, policies, and practices in the same way as we hard wire for safety and security.

The second component of a strategy is deep and ongoing dialogue between operators, regulators, and persons with a variety of disabilities. There's a phrase often used by the disability rights community that captures this imperative: "nothing about us without us". Nobody understands the challenges of travelling by air with a disability – and how those challenges can be dealt with -- as well as the individuals who have actually lived that experience. Dialogue and collaboration may entail robust debates among participants with different backgrounds and concerns; however, they aren't about arguments but rather, identifying real problems and developing innovative responses together.

Meaningful conversations start with the right framework and conditions. At the CTA, we have a standing Accessibility Advisory Committee that includes nearly 40 industry and disability rights representatives and gathers at least once a year to share information and ideas, give feedback, and build rapport and relationships. Its deliberations aren't without occasional sparks, but sometimes, those very sparks light the way to better understanding and more effective solutions.

The third element of an accessibility strategy is systematically sharing, learning from, and implementing best practices. Accessibility is about tangible measures that prevent and remove barriers. Experimentation helps us determine which measures are most effective in which situations. And experience gained over years in one context can help produce progress in just months in others.

To facilitate such sharing and learning, ICAO currently has a project under way, coordinated by the CTA, to assemble a compendium of best practices from around the world related to accessible air travel. The compendium should be of assistance to airlines, regulators, and disability rights groups alike. Although progress on it has been slowed by the pandemic, it is expected that the compendium will be posted on the ICAO web site before the end of 2020.

The fourth component of a strategy is setting out clear, detailed rules and standards. Rules don't solve every problem, and in the worst cases, they can discourage innovation. But for many issues – especially where we have enough data to know what works -- they offer clarity, spur progress, minimize disputes, and level the playing field.

Last year, the CTA finalized Canada's Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations. These regulations draw on experience and best practices from across Canada and around the world, incorporating and updating two older regulations and six voluntary codes into a single, modern, binding instrument. This was a major breakthrough. Around the same time, Canada's Parliament gave the CTA the authority to allow airlines and terminal operators to take alternative measures if those produce equivalent or better accessibility outcomes. Such "meet or beat" provisions help us strike a balance between creating clear and detailed requirements on the one hand, and leaving space for the design and implementation of innovative approaches on the other.

Binding rules, however, are easier to enact at the national than the international level. This brings us to the fifth and final element of an accessible air travel strategy: advancing common approaches across borders on a voluntary if not a mandatory basis. Common approaches are in everyone's interest. For airlines, they reduce the complexity and costs of steps to ensure accessibility: applying the same measures everywhere you fly is a lot less complicated that having to deal with fragmented and inconsistent expectations across jurisdictions. For passengers with disabilities, common approaches avoid the confusion and frustration that can result if accessibility-related standards and services are different in the place they board and the place they disembark. After all, a barrier on just one leg of a journey can ruin – or even prevent – the journey as a whole. And for regulators, common approaches eliminate the need to spend time and energy re-inventing the wheel in areas where there's no rationale for divergent approaches in different jurisdictions.

A recent effort to foster common approaches was undertaken by the international working group on air travel and mobility devices. Initiated by the CTA, this group included IATA, ICAO, various airlines, ground handlers, mobility aid manufacturers, organizations representing people with mobility impairments, and regulators. Over a series of seminars and calls, they examined how to tackle issues around the safe storage and transportation of wheelchairs – issues that have become more serious as wheelchairs have become larger and heavier, more technologically sophisticated, and more customized to users. The result was agreement on a number of concrete, short-term actions and identification of longer-term options for further study.

Among the short-term actions was creation of a Mobility Aid Passport that would include information on the bearer's mobility device – including its make, serial number, weight, and tie-down points – along with instructions for safe handling and the traveller's contact information. The idea is for this document to be accepted and used by all airlines, leading to consistent practices across industry and fewer cases of damaged or misplaced wheelchairs. IATA is playing a key role in advancing this important initiative.

Common solutions like this are common sense. The more we achieve them, the better it is for everyone.


As I prepare to wrap up my remarks and respond to any questions you may have, I want to acknowledge how difficult it can be, when we're in survival mode, to pursue longer-term objectives and to adopt a global perspective.

But when it comes to accessible air transportation, this is exactly the right time to lift our gaze and think longer term. Within a few years, the pandemic will be over and people will be travelling in much larger numbers. Do we want to simply restore the old status quo in terms of the ability of persons with disabilities to fly? Or do we want to do better?

Incorporating accessibility considerations into the renewal of the aviation sector is the right thing to do and, in terms of expanding the customer base and maximizing load factors, the smart thing to do. A strategy based on a universal accessibility lens, dialogue between industry and persons with disabilities, the sharing of best practices, the establishment of clear rules, and implementation of common approaches across borders will make air travel far more accessible to each of us, our family members, our friends, and our colleagues who have disabilities.

Just as the sector recovered from previous crises – from the early stumbles a hundred years ago to the fallout from 9/11 -- it will get past the present one. That much is certain. But what the sector will look like when it emerges is up to every person on this call. The current period of regrouping can be marked by a sense of purpose, not just worry, if we think carefully about what matters most and set ambitious goals. In the midst of extraordinary challenges, there is an extraordinary opportunity to make air travel accessible to persons with disabilities in every corner of the globe. Let's seize that opportunity, together.

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