by Linda Ristagno, Assistant Director of External Affairs at IATA
Making air travel accessible to older travelers and people with disabilities is ultimately about being inclusive. It is about enabling everyone to enjoy the freedom that air travel offers. Why is this important for the air transport industry? It’s not just because it is “the right thing to do,” it also makes business sense.
IATA’s member airlines have an inherent motivation to ensure that all people with accessibility needs have a positive experience when traveling by air. These people are customers—and are a growing segment of the population. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than one billion people live with some form of disability, which constitutes approximately 15% of the world’s population.
In 2019, the IATA Annual General Meeting unanimously adopted a landmark industry resolution which re-affirmed the commitment of IATA’s member airlines to provide safe, reliable and dignified travel for people with disabilities. At the center of IATA’s thinking when it developed its guiding principles and all its work on accessibility since, is the disability community’s own guiding principle of “Nothing For Us, Without Us.” At every stage of the development of airline accessibility policy and operating standards, the disability community is involved and listened to. This is of course the only way to keep the focus on disability, accessibility and inclusion—particularly when facing a new reality and new measures due to a pandemic.
COVID-19 has had a truly devastating impact on IATA’s member airlines. But it has never diminished their commitment to supporting passengers with disabilities. In the spirit of “building back better,” IATA and its members have over the past year moved ahead with a number of air travel accessibility initiatives. We have established new relationships with innovative technology providers working on accessibility solutions though a hackathon early last year. We hosted the second IATA Global Accessibility Symposium completely online with some 400 attendees, which brought innovators, governments, the air transport industry and most importantly the disability community together to share ideas and look to the future. We also developed new practical guidance for airlines to use when providing their customers with the accessibility assistance they need during COVID-19, including guidance for face mask policies for travelers with accessibility needs. Most importantly, all of the above was done with the involvement of the accessibility community, either advocacy groups or individual travelers.
Note: Closed captioning available by clicking the 'CC' or 'Subtitles' button on the bottom right of the YouTube window. See full playlist of videos from the IATA Global Accessibility Symposium.
Despite the unprecedented difficulties faced by the aviation sector during the COVID-19 crisis, airlines have put accessibility as a priority in their policies and operations. Doing so and continually improving the travel experience for those customers with specific access requirements will make those customers more inclined to travel when borders have safely reopened, which will in turn be a significant contributor to the recovery of air transport.
An inclusive, compassionate, and balanced culture has to run through the entire industry and be at the forefront of our future policy initiatives, especially as we rebuild. IATA and its members recognize that more must be done to make our business fully inclusive and accessible. At the same time, we cannot do this alone. We will continue to work with governments, airports, the disability community, and other stakeholders so that the joy, freedom and opportunities brought by air travel can truly be accessible to all!
 WHO, World report on disability - 2011