IATA answers questions about accessibility as passengers urge action

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Greater attention to the difficulties that disabled passengers face when they fly raises questions about whether the airline industry is listening.

Runway Girl Network reached out to the largest airline trade body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to ask about their policies and training on airline accessibility.

IATA helps to establish standards for airline service, and offers training in best practices. It recently sent an email promoting a training book entitled ‘Make Travel Inclusive’, so RGN asked what accessibility practices the book covers and whether it will be part of a larger IATA campaign to advance accessibility initiatives.

The book itself, RGN has learned, is a guide for travel sellers – travel agents and operators – on the processes for requesting special needs services for customers from travel providers like airlines, hotels, rail companies, and attractions.

“It is based on the IATA medical guide and the IATA AIRIMP for coding (IATA Reservations Manual) and it is not designed to be a comprehensive guide for airlines on how to manage disabled passengers. The focus of the booklet is on the travel professional to ask the right questions, be familiar with all special needs – visible and hidden – and ensure that the support is requested as per industry standards,” explained an IATA spokesperson.

In short, IATA is working to harmonize the process of requesting special needs assistance to ensure a consistent delivery of services.

“IATA Resolution 700 was first adopted in 1952, making IATA the first industry association to set standards on the acceptance and carriage of passengers requiring assistance. The fact is that we need to prepare for the future as we wish to welcome more passengers with special needs, including older passengers. That’s why the process that we are working on foresees the application of even more standardized communication procedures all along the passengers’ journey, making proper use of the IATA disability codes,” said the IATA spokesperson.

Effective harmonization will require the collaboration of governments and other travel stakeholders. “We expect governments to support us by raising awareness in their countries,” said IATA. “We also need passengers to collaborate with us by communicating as early as possible what kind of assistance is required. Finally, as part of that process, we are certainly reaching out to ACI and many airports in the world to ensure harmonization.”

The US Department of Transportation’s new reporting on wheelchair and mobility device damage revealed that US airlines damaged over 700 mobility devices in December of last year.

These figures only take into account those consumers who have filed complaints. As IATA sets standards for carriage of special cargo, we asked the association about existing standards for the handling of mobility devices.

IATA boasts that it has “practical and robust” guidelines for the load of battery-powered mobility aids that instructs airlines staff to safely disassemble and stow batteries. “However, it is a fact that many mobility devices are often personalized and not all passengers provide instructions on how to disassemble devices,” said the association.

“We believe that a multi-stakeholder and long-term solution is needed, and this has to include mobility manufacturers and disability associations as well. That’s why we are now working very hard with some state regulators, manufacturers, airlines and disability associations to create a harmonized and standardized approach that is secured for the handling of device itself and safe for our handlers. This process will also provide passengers, traveling with their mobility aids, a relaxing travel and the certainty that their device is securely stored in the cargo compartment of the aircraft.”

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IATA has also partnered with global distribution system Travelport on its campaign to inform travel agents of the SSR (special services request) code DPNA (Disabled Passenger with Intellectual or Developmental Disability Needing Assistance).

Travelport found that this code, which would help ensure the right kind of assistance is offered to passengers with intellectual disabilities, is underused by travel agents when making reservations. Travelport also learned that travelers may not know that it’s available to help them document their needs.

“Despite registering more than 250 million flight bookings through our platform globally in 2018, and 200 million people estimated to have an intellectual disability worldwide (2.6% of the global population), the code was used just 4,309 times (approximately 0.0015% of total flight bookings),” Travelport stated.

With the #TravelUnified campaign, Travelport and IATA are also making travelers aware of the reservation code on social media.

Travelport and Etihad Airways also reached out to Emirate artist Khalid Al Ameri to promote the reservation code on social media. As Al Ameri explained in his Facebook post, families traveling with children on the autism spectrum have been removed from their flights when the child has acted out due to distressing air travel conditions. This might be avoided with an advanced request for special assistance, such as early boarding, special meal service, and ensuring that family members are seated together with the passenger in need of assistance.

Al Ameri pointed out that airlines are not required by any law to make these arrangements, but his hope is that, by promoting use of the code, airlines and airports will be more accountable to needs of passengers and their families; and that those who need assistance can be more confident in asking for the care that they need.

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