December 7, 2017

Independent travel in airports for aging travelers and passengers with disabilities such as vision loss and reduced mobility presents complex navigational challenges in complex spaces that are not easily met by using typical wayfinding approaches. Reports submitted to Congress by the U.S. Department of Transportation reveal that disability-related air travel complaints involving all air carriers increased by a staggering 139 percent during the 10-year period from 2004 to 2014. This clearly demonstrates that additional efforts are needed to enable airports to help this user group travel independently and perhaps most importantly with dignity.

I was fortunate to serve on the research team that developed ACRP Research Report 177: Enhancing Airport Wayfinding for Aging Travelers and Persons with Disabilities, a guidebook prepared for the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), a research program managed by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies. In this post, I take a look at how the guidebook offers real benefit to the industry by empowering airports to develop best practices to effectively accommodate the wayfinding needs of older flyers and those with disabilities.


Common use self-service kiosks at San Francisco International Airport 


Applying the Principles of Universal Design

As disability categories are broad, it’s important to understand that each person with a disability is an individual with unique needs. For example, the needs of a traveler with late-onset vision loss will be different from someone born partially sighted, even though their visual acuity is essentially identical. Because of these individual differences, the primary focus must be on creating universal accessibility, enabling wayfinding for all travelers regardless of ability, rather than meeting the assumed needs of a general disability type.

Seven principles of universal design are in common use worldwide and are especially applicable to airports where the customer base is not only diverse in terms of age and abilities, but is likely to be experiencing the airport as an unfamiliar user. While legal accessibility standards are minimum requirements designed to eliminate physical barriers for people with disabilities, universal design, also known as inclusive design, seeks to provide improved usability and safety for all members of the community and addresses the needs of disability groups not covered by ADA Standards.

For instance, applying universal design principle No. 2, flexibility in use, is a best practice for airports as it accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. A good example of this principle in action is the new common use self-service kiosks at San Francisco International Airport that allow both standing and seated users to input information in a variety of ways—from scanning a passport to typing on a touchscreen.


Common use self-service kiosks at San Francisco International Airport 


A Vital Tool for Every Airport

While there are wayfinding analyses that touch on accessibility, and accessibility audits that touch on wayfinding, there hasn’t been a consolidated audit that truly combines both—until now. ACRP Research Report 177 introduces the Wayfinding Accessibility Audit Checklist; a first-of-its-kind consolidated tool that effectively merges both issues into an all-inclusive assessment.

The checklist includes wayfinding strategies and accessibility features relevant to a passenger’s specific disability and evaluates factors such as passenger type (arriving, departing, connecting), and whether the necessary information is communicated visually, verbally or virtually. The checklist is a great tool for any and every airport because it allows the person conducting the audit to physically experience the airport from the perspective of the different user disabilities and refer to the recommendations and requirements outlined within the matrix.


Index for the Wayfinding Accessibility Audit Checklist 


Enhancing the Human Experience

Although providing a template for a successful wayfinding accessibility audit is key, it represents just one way of assisting airports in developing methods that will greatly enhance the travel experience for aging travelers and persons with disabilities. My hope is that the cumulative effect of ACRP Research Report 177 will be to equip airports with all the information they need to create a difference that creates a change—a much-needed paradigm shift in airport wayfinding that will promote independent travel for this important but often-overlooked user group.