Speech from CTA Chair and CEO, Scott Streiner, at the IATA Global Accessibility Symposium 2019, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on November 6, 2019


Speech from Canadian Transportation Agency Chair and CEO, Scott Streiner, at the IATA's Global Accessibility Symposium 2019 , in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on November 6, 2019

No Person Left Behind: Working Together to Advance the Accessibility of Air Travel

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I'd like to thank IATA for inviting me to speak today, and congratulate the organization and each of you for organizing and participating in an international conference focused specifically on the accessibility of air travel.

During the two days of this event, some 24 million passengers around the world will have flown. That's the equivalent of every single person in Denmark, Libya, Costa Rica, and Singapore -- combined. It's an extraordinary number. The volume of air travellers has doubled since 2005, and is projected to double again by 2037.

Whether we're crossing the ocean to do business, traversing continents to see loved ones or experience different places, travelling from remote communities to larger centres to seek medical care, or flying off to start a fresh chapter of our lives in a new city, air travel has become integral to modern life.

More and more of the people getting on planes have disabilities. The global population of persons with disabilities now stands at approximately one and a half billion. Almost one out of every five people has a disability -- and as the population ages, that proportion is growing. In 2016, 8.5 per cent of the world's population was aged 65 or older; by 2050, that percentage will double. An IATA survey found that between 2016 and 2017 alone, air passenger requests for wheelchair assistance jumped by 30 per cent.

All of us have persons with disabilities in our lives. Maybe you have a grandmother who uses a walker or cane, a father who's hard of hearing, a spouse with chronic pain, a child with a severe allergy, a colleague who's blind, or a neighbour with post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps you have a disability yourself.

Accessibility isn't someone else's problem. Removing barriers to persons with disabilities – so that they have equal access to the benefits and pleasures of travel -- is everyone's concern.

Accessibility is about human dignity and inclusion. That's why it's recognized as a fundamental right in a number of international instruments and treaties, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

But making air travel accessible isn't just the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing to do. People accustomed to travelling will not want to stop flying just because they develop a disability as they age – and people with longstanding disabilities who've limited their travel in the past will be interested in flying more. Accessibility is key to stimulating demand and raising load factors as the number of persons with disabilities who have disposable income and a desire to travel grows. Improving accessibility puts industry ahead of the curve. Failing to do so leaves money on the table.

Air carriers and airports increasingly recognize that improving accessibility is both inherently good, and good for business.

Earlier this year, the general assemblies of both IATA and Airports Council International unanimously passed resolutions underscoring their commitment to advancing accessible aviation. And accessibility was a major topic of discussion during ICAO's triennial General Assembly, which took place a month ago in Montréal. During the General Assembly, there was broad support for a paper authored by Canada and co-sponsored by Australia, IATA, and ACI that emphasized the importance of accessible aviation and cooperative action to achieve it.

We have momentum. There's a shared will to move forward on accessible air travel. Now, the question is: what's the way? What are the key factors that will allow us to take concrete, meaningful steps forward?

The answer to this question has two parts: innovation and alignment.


Let's begin with innovation.

The saying, "necessity is the mother of invention" exists in many languages. The imperative of accessibility should spur us to mobilize our inventiveness in order to remove barriers to travellers with disabilities.

Progress has already been made, thanks to the commitment and creative thinking of operators, engineers, regulators, and persons with disabilities. Three decades ago, someone who needed a mobility device, guide dog, or oxygen canister to travel independently would have faced many obstacles during their journey, and might have opted to simply stay home. Today, they have a much easier time flying. But more needs to be done.

Innovation can take place in a range of areas.

We can innovate in policy by establishing the right mix of norms, expectations, and incentives. Accessibility should be a matter of forethought -- not an afterthought. We should get as close as possible to universal accessibility by designing for accessibility, building for accessibility, and training for accessibility. Sound policy can help ensure that, like safety and security, accessibility is hard-wired into both our planning and our practices.

In Canada, we've just completed a major regulatory overhaul aimed at accomplishing precisely this goal in respect of transportation. In June, after three years of consultations with industry and persons with disabilities, an examination of best practices, extensive drafting, and careful impact analysis, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) finalized new Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations.

In Canada, we've just completed a major regulatory overhaul aimed at accomplishing precisely this goal in respect of transportation. In June, after three years of consultations with industry and persons with disabilities, an examination of best practices, extensive drafting, and careful impact analysis, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) finalized new Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations.

Those regulations integrate and update the provisions of two old regulations and six voluntary codes of practice into a single, robust, binding instrument. It sets out the accessibility-related obligations of airlines, airports, and other transportation service providers, requiring, for example, that:

  • transfer seats, mobility aid spaces, lifts, ramps, exits, and washrooms be designed for accessibility;
  • wheelchair assistance be provided by airports and airlines from the moment someone reaches a terminal at the start of their journey until the moments they leave a terminal at its end;
  • relief areas for service dogs be set up in terminals;
  • websites, self-service kiosks, safety instructions, and in-flight entertainment systems be accessible;
  • passengers on domestic flights who need two seats to travel because of a disability – perhaps because they can't fly without an attendant – pay for just one; and -- personnel who interact with travellers with disabilities be trained to do so in a way that’s well informed, responsive, and respectful of those travellers’ dignity.

Of course, innovation doesn't stop with policy. Policy provides a framework that's intended to shape action – and that action needs to include innovation in equipment, facilities, and services.

Here, too, Canada has taken the initiative.

As we considered the results of our regulatory consultations and analysis, we realized that there was one issue where new rules alone wouldn't be sufficient: the storage and transportation of wheelchairs and other mobility devices. In recent years, those devices have been getting bigger, more technologically complex, and more customizable. While this is clearly good news for persons with mobility limitations, it also means that air carriers and ground handlers are finding it increasingly difficult to store and transport those devices. Mobility devices are like an extension of the individual with a disability and too often, they're sustaining damage in transit.

The CTA thought that dialogue among stakeholders might identify innovative responses to these challenges. So in June 2018, we convened an international working group that included carriers, IATA and other industry associations, aircraft manufacturers, mobility device manufacturers, ground handlers, regulators, and disability rights groups, and asked it to explore options. That group's deliberations resulted in a thoughtful final report, which is posted on the CTA's website and that includes four practical recommendations for implementation in the near term:

  • development of a universal "mobility aids passport" containing information such as dimensions and handling information that travellers with disabilities can use with any air carrier;
  • creation of a standard mobility aids handling checklist that personnel of all carriers and ground handling companies can use;
  • focused efforts to improve communications between passengers and carriers on mobility aid issues at the time of reservation, before the trip, and on the day of travel; and
  • preparation of additional, standardized training materials for reservation agents, carrier and airport staff, and ground handlers.

IATA and other industry representatives are working on the implementation of these recommendations, with the continued involvement of the disability community and the CTA. At the same time, stakeholders continue to reflect on longer-term options that would involve more basic re-engineering, such as improved securement methods within cargo holds, re-designed holds for new aircraft, specialized loading equipment, and more travel-friendly mobility device designs.

Not surprisingly, some of the most promising innovations come from people with disabilities themselves – the people who best understand the barriers they face and what's needed to remove them.

Take, for instance, Chieko Asakawa, who has a Ph.D. in engineering and has been blind since a swimming pool accident at the age of 14. She was instrumental in developing the first web-to-speech programs, received Japan's Medal of Honour for her exceptional contributions to accessibility research, and is now a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and IBM Fellow focused on developing accessibility solutions, often through the application of artificial intelligence. Those solutions include a suitcase that sounds an alarm when a traveller is about to collide with someone else, and a navigation app that uses Bluetooth to guide blind travellers in airports to restaurants, restrooms, and departure gates.

These sorts of technologies could have a major impact on the ability of blind people – and others -- to move freely and safely around crowded terminals. In an inspiring TED talk, Dr. Asakawa explained the importance of independence for persons with disabilities, stating that "my goal is to be able to travel and do things that are simple to you."

Another example of persons with disabilities driving innovation is Josh Wintersgill, a 25-year-old from Bristol, UK who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age 18 months and has had to use an electric wheelchair since he was 10. Feeling unfulfilled with his job after university, he decided to start a business focused on tackling the problem of uncomfortable moves of passengers with highly restricted mobility between wheelchairs and airplane seats.

The result was the easyTravelseat, which allows those passengers to stay in the same seat as they're transferred to and from a wheelchair, making the whole process quicker, easier, and more dignified for all involved – and offering increased safety in the event of an emergency. This innovation won Mr. Wintersgill the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK in 2018, and the first South West Great British Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2019.

When asked what industry could do to facilitate the safe and dignified movement of travellers between wheelchairs and seats, Mr. Wintersgill said, "there is no reason why there cannot be an international standardised process in place. As a minimum, all airlines and airports should have some form of appropriate transferring equipment that can be used for all lifting of passengers. This would ensure better protection for both the passenger and special assistance (providers)."


This brings us to the second key factor in maximizing the accessibility of air travel: alignment.

Creativity, perseverance, and collaboration between persons with disabilities, researchers, government, and industry can yield dramatic breakthroughs that sweep away longstanding barriers to air travel. But the full value of those breakthroughs can best be realized when there is some consistency of approaches around the world.

Alignment is good for passengers with disabilities. Air travel often crosses borders, and there's no reason why a person with disability-related needs should receive dramatically different equipment and services at origin and at destination. A hodgepodge of entitlements is a recipe for confusion and frustration. Consistency across the travel network makes for a smoother, less stressful experience.

Alignment is also good for carriers. Having to follow a multiplicity of rules that differ by state can be complicated and costly. Consistency simplifies compliance and ensures a level playing field.

And alignment is good for policy-makers. Reinventing the wheel one jurisdiction at a time consumes public resources and risks leaving many stakeholders dissatisfied. Common global approaches streamline policy development and increase the likelihood of stakeholder support.

The most straightforward way of improving alignment is to share best practices. This is why Canada is leading work at ICAO to compile a compendium of air travel accessibility policies and practices from around the world. This compendium will be a unique tool that carriers, public agencies, and persons with disabilities can draw upon to improve the accessibility of air travel.

Alignment can also be fostered through the issuance of guidance material and recommendations that are jointly developed by industry, the disability community, and regulators – as was done by the international working group on the storage and transportation of mobility aids.

Finally, alignment can be advanced through the international standards and recommended practices (SARPs) adopted by ICAO. Annex 9 to the Chicago Convention already contains a set of recommended practices – numbers 8.27 through 8.40 – that are aimed at achieving accessibility in airports and on board aircraft. It's important that operators and states be aware of and follow these practices, and that the text of Annex 9 – like all international instruments – be periodically reviewed to ensure that it's reflective of cumulative experience, lessons learned, and technological change.

Regardless of the strategy, alignment is worth pursuing – as long as it advances accessibility. Alignment shouldn't involve stepping down to a lowest common denominator, but rather, stepping up to the consistent application of best practices that remove barriers to travellers with disabilities while reflecting the operating realities of carriers. This very conference is an important step in that direction.


As I prepare to wrap up, I'd like to return to 2014, when ICAO launched the "No Country Left Behind" initiative.

No Country Left Behind was based on the premises that flying should be uniformly safe around the globe, that SARP implementation should be harmonized, and that countries that require assistance to achieve those goals should receive it.

Accessibility reflects the same sorts of principles. Should a grandmother who uses a wheelchair be unable to fly to her grandson's wedding? Should a father with hearing difficulties be unable to understand in-flight safety briefings? Should a colleague who is blind miss their connection because they're unable to find their boarding gate?

Of course not.

Working together, we can ensure that persons with disabilities have air travel experiences that are as free of barriers as possible.

Working together, we can grow the air travel market by giving confidence to persons with disabilities that flying is a safe and viable option for them.

Working together, we can ensure not only that no country is left behind – but also, that no person is left behind.

Thank you for your attention.

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