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Airports and Airlines Work to Ease the Journey for Travelers with Visual Disabilities

by Janice Hecht

Jan 2, 2024

PHOTO: © AVIANCA

December 2023

Almost 20 million Americans have visual impairment ranging from low vision to blindness, a number expected to double in the coming decades as the population ages. Given the amount of navigation information available exclusively through printed signs and visual indicators, air travel can prove frustrating for people with vision loss, preventing them from enjoying a truly autonomous experience.

As airlines and airports elevate the overall customer experience on the ground and in the air, they also devote resources to accessibility issues to ease the journeys of travelers with disabilities, a complicated proposition due to varying individual needs.

Passengers can request trained airport and airline staff to assist them with boarding, deplaning or making a connecting flight, finding their seats and locating service animal relief areas. More airports now provide Braille as well as large-print, high-contrast signage at key points throughout the terminals.

Dozens of airports worldwide offer free access to the Aira app, an on-demand visual interpretation service that connects blind travelers with live agents who help them confidently move through crowds and avoid obstacles, check flight status, find gates, use self-service kiosks, navigate TSA checkpoints, and locate restaurants and restrooms.

Recently, avianca, the national airline of Colombia, introduced Braille on its planes at seat rows and seat numbers, inside and outside lavatories, and emergency exits. Seat numbers also use color contrast and larger fonts, making it easier for everyone to locate their seats. United Airlines now incorporates Braille on a dozen aircraft, pledging to add it to its entire fleet by 2026. Other tactile enhancements may soon include raised letters, numerical indicators and directional arrows.

Michael Swiatek, chief strategy and planning officer, avianca, said the airline is devoted to creating awareness and training as it commits to providing travelers with an empathetic and inclusive service.

“The human element — people helping people — will always be an element, an appreciated one,” said Swiatek, “as well as corporations and organizations that are aware and commit to making others aware.”

As the Avianca Accessible program identifies barriers faced by travelers with disabilities, it addresses them by raising awareness, training its personnel in the protocols of care for people with disabilities, and improving its processes and employing available technology. In mapping the customer journey, for example, avianca identified 200 “pain points,” where travelers with disabilities may encounter issues, and determined what actions could offer solutions. To train personnel, it is producing 24 awareness videos. On a broader scale, avianca is happy to share its approach with other airlines.

“There are probably a thousand little actions, a hundred medium- sized actions and 10 really big actions. If we take all those actions, we will have made air travel successful,” said Swiatek. “But I can’t predict when we’re going to find all the solutions.

“I think it’s a golden age of accessibility. The technology that’s avail- able, the discussions that are happening, the time people are putting into this now, are far greater than 20 or 30 years ago.”

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