NOT EASY: Airport Accessibility

While many people are eager to travel, one of the major deterrents from moving from here to there is having to deal with the chaos, confusion, and long distances at airports that challenge even the nimblest and most athletic.

From the need to walk miles from one gate to the next, poor-quality air and dirty and inaccessible toilets, to high-priced food and surly employees, along with an almost total disregard for travelers with disabilities – all are roadblocks to increasing travel frequency. Who to blame? These issues can be placed at the feet of government officials, airport designers, and airport/airline corporate executives.

Impactful Decisions

The Census Bureau estimated that over 42.6 million people in the United States (13 percent), have some type of disability that may impact on their mobility, vision, hearing, or cognition. The Bureau also finds that older adults are more likely to have a disability and the number of seniors is rapidly increasing. On a global level, approximately 1.2 billion people (between 15-20 percent of the world population) live with a disability. By 2050, the number of people aged 60+ y/o will reach approximately 2.1 billion.

As air travel becomes an “ordinary” way to travel and in some cases the only way to get from point to point, older adults and people with disabilities are traveling in greater numbers. However, without accommodations (i.e., appropriate assistance from the check-in counter to the gate, or effective communication of flight information through technology or other means), air travel for people with disabilities can be extremely challenging and off-putting.

It Is the LAW

In general, airports and airlines are required to provide accessible facilities and reasonable accommodations through federal statutes, but many (if not most) fall short of the mark.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

•         A person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least 1 major life activity

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) defines an individual with a disability:

•         A person who has a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities

•         Has a record of an impairment or is regarded as having an impairment

In regard to airports and the passenger experience the starting point is the airport entrance, which extends through to the departure gate and includes the use of the facilities including restrooms, access to baggage claim, and ends at the ground transportation zone.

Millions Restricted

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) determined that 27 million Americans (5+ y/o and older) have self-reported travel-limiting disabilities (2019). The ADA prohibits “discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government service, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” In 2021, the Department of Transportation (DOT) received 1394 disability-related complaints, a 54 percent increase from 2019. The DOT (2018) released data reporting 32,445 disability-related complaints – noting a 7.5 percent increase from 2017. Almost 50 percent of the complaints reported related to failure to provide adequate assistance to travelers using wheelchairs.

It is true that the ADA does not extend to airline passengers, however, it does mean that people with disabilities have the right to certain accommodations such as interpreters and TTY technology that might make it safer for disabled travelers to organize their travel.

Passengers with disabilities are entitled to certain accommodations, free of charge under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

This act states that all domestic and international flights that have the US as the destination or origination point are required to provide necessary accommodations to people with disabilities to ensure safe travel.


Research (2021) found that the infrastructure at some airports, including terminal buildings and related passenger facilities, do not provide equal access to airport services for passengers with different types of disabilities. Limited elevator capacity creates bottlenecks that negatively impact passengers with mobility disabilities in busy terminals. Varying sizes, ages, and state of renovations in airport terminal buildings affect accessibility. Large airports have longer distances to transit between gates than smaller airports and many airports with complex layouts require cognitive and physical efforts to navigate.

Because all airports are different, passengers are unable to plan their trip to ensure their gate is located near accessibility offerings such as technology to assist deaf passengers or construction free walkways for sight-impaired and people with walkers and wheelchairs. Technology and/or trained staff might be available in one terminal, but not another, or only at specified locations such as one or two gates. In many instances, critical information (i.e., flight and boarding status, emergency-response instructions, how to navigate from point to point) is just not available. Blind or low-vision travelers may have difficulty using airports’ information systems that communicate flight information and boarding status, emergency response instructions, and where/how to reach a connecting flight. People with hearing loss may miss crucial information provided over a loudspeaker while a person with cognitive disabilities or low vision may find it difficult to decipher signage that is cluttered, unintuitive or includes low-contrast lettering.


Travelers with impaired mobility spend approximately $58.2 billion annually on travel and consistently take about the same number of trips annually as able-bodied individuals. Six in ten respondents a recent survey experienced extended wait times at the airport before or after their flight because they had to wait for mobility assistance, while 40 percent had their mobility aid lost or damaged during air travel.

Barriers, Blockages

Communication is part and parcel of the airport experience; however, travelers with disabilities that affect their hearing, speaking, reading, writing, and/or understanding, and use different ways to communicate than people who do not have these disabilities are put at a serious disadvantage when they access airports.

1.       Written health promotion messages frequently prevent people with vision impairments from receiving the message because the print is too small and large print versions are not available and Braille or versions for people who use screen readers are not available

2.       Auditory health messages may be inaccessible to people with hearing impairments: videos do not include captioning; oral communications do not have accompanying manual interpretations (i.e., American Sign Language)

3.       Use of technical language, long sentences, and words with many syllables may be barriers to understanding for people with cognitive impairments

4.       Physical barriers (i.e., structural obstacles) prevent or block mobility or access and include: steps and curbs that block a person from entering/leaving a building or accessing a sidewalk

5.       Absence of handrails makes it impossible for mobility limited passengers to use a staircase

Action Items

Airports interested in being (or becoming) competitive will increase their accessibility levels. Research has determined, that when the level of accessibility increases by 1 percent, passenger volume increases by 2 percent.

To become competitive, airports have to accept the fact that currently their architecture and interior design create anxiety and fear among disabled passengers. The anxiety and fears are created by long and complex throughways from the entrance to departure gates, signs that cannot be understood or placed in areas that make them almost invisible, long security lines, uncaring and rude employees, and the inability to locate family restrooms or quiet spaces. Airports being constructed and/or renovated must include ramps, elevators, and restrooms designed to comply with ADA, as amended. Airports must reduce the noise level.

People with dementia or other “hidden” disabilities are anxious for airports to improve their air travel experience.

They plead with executives to train the airport staff to understand their limitations and suggest that disabled travelers receive a special badge that identifies them to airport personnel. They want more wheelchairs and/or electric cart services and additional screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has to stop.

The Right Thing to Do

A few airports are being proactive and addressing the needs and wants of their passengers with accessibility issues:

1.       Winnipeg Richardson Airport

•         Lanyard program for passengers with non-visible disabilities

•         Mobile app designed to assist people with Autism and Neurodiversity

2.       Istanbul Airport

•         Calm area in the check-in zone for people with light, noise, and crowd sensitivities

•         Dedicated guest room and guest card for Cerebral Palsy, Autism, and Down Syndrome

•         Priority baggage claim area

•         Step-by-step indoor navigation with voiced instructions

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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