European Airports and visually impaired passengers

Compliance with the European legislation

The benefits and joys of travel are a right for all, and European airports are aware of the essential role they play in this for all our passengers. The transfer of responsibilities in the provision of assistance to people with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility in 2008, when Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air entered into force, marked an important milestone.  The adoption and subsequent entry into force of this legislation was a step-change in air transport and in the protection of passenger rights. So much so that its success resulted in similar legislation covering all modes of transport

Cooperation with our partners

While compliance with the legislative requirements is paramount, ACI EUROPE – the association of European airports – has also fostered a strong cooperation with its counterpart the European Disability Forum (EDF). The Memorandum of Understanding signed in June 2016 formalised a long history of combined efforts, policy alignment, communication and joint activities.

The Accessible Airport Award

One of the outcomes of this partnership is the Accessible Airport Award, which - since 2016 - honours airports which comply strictly with the European legislation, their progress and at encouraging them to remove the barriers that persons with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility still face when travelling by air. “Accessibility” in the context of this award does not only mean physical accessibility for wheelchair users but for all persons with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility. The jury - composed of EDF and the National Councils of Persons with Disabilities as well as the European Commission - pays special attention to the needs of blind and partially sighted people in the assessment of the applications.

The 2019 Accessible Airport Award Winner was Gatwick Airport, praised for its commitment to provide an equal travel experience to all its passengers. Specifically, the jury appreciated the airport’s ambition to go beyond minimum regulatory requirements and promote awareness on diverse types of visible and hidden disabilities, by providing free of charge training not only to its own staff but also to third party stakeholders to ensure consistency of standards across services in their premises.

Best practices

Other European airports also acknowledge the need to pay special attention to the blind and partially sighted passengers, notably:

ANA Aeroportos de Portugal is currently developing several initiatives to improve accessibility. Amongst them, the new Call Points will include a call button big enough for the visually impaired to activate. The awareness training course provided to airport staff and stakeholders comprises a specific module addressing the differences between the visually impaired and blind people, the types of visual limitations, the differences between people that were born or acquired this condition, their mobility restrictions and needs, and the behaviour to adopt and avoid in assisting them.

Athens International Airport S.A. (AIA) has a close cooperation with the National Federation of Blind Persons.  Special walkways are in place at the Suburban Railway Station, leading to the parking spaces or to the Call Points. The information at all Call Points is communicated in specific colour contrast, big font sizes and in Braille format, enabling full accessibility. The brochure on the provision of assistance is also available in Braille format (Greek and English language). In case of emergency, visual and audible notifications are activated, allowing hearing or visually impaired passengers to follow emergency instructions safely.

Copenhagen Airport’s latest initiative is the new PRM Awareness Training programme, which all card holders (approx. 25.000 people) must follow. This includes a module on visual impairments. Another initiative is a dog relief area in the forecourt, so that assistance animals can become ready for travel as well.

Malaga - Costa del Sol Airport (part of AENA – Spanish airports) launched the implementation of a project for indoor guidance focused on blind or partially sighted passengers. Based on NaviLens technology, it entails a colour markers system based on Artificial Vision, allowing passengers to read at long distance and to obtain information associated with these indications (same as a person with full visual capacity would read the normal signage). It allows, without headphones, to inform the position, distance and orientation of the marker. Other useful initiative is the reinforcement of the flow lighting from the access doors to the Call Points.  Clear obstacle roads from the entrance up to the Information Point with brighter doors than the rest of the building facilitate its location.

Vienna Airport Trainers have successfully completed the ECAC “Train the Trainer” courses. In the training units, Assistance Providers learn how to assist blind or partially sighted passengers. This includes ways of approaching and communicating with them, and guiding them through Vienna International Airport. Special glasses are used in to simulate sight-impairments due to cataract, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

Warsaw Chopin Airport Call Points make it easier for blind or partially sighted passengers to move around the terminal. Typhlographic plans (with convex lines representing the walls, paths, symbols and objects, descriptions in Braille and buttons that can be pressed to receive voice messages in Polish and English)  allow the location of entrances and exits, check-in counters, security checkpoints, stairs, lifts and toilets. All descriptions are printed in Braille. Tactile paths lead visitors from the railway station to the terminal. Special attention is given to the training in the field of disability awareness, notably assisting people with visual impairments.

The way forward

Although we have come a long way since the entry into force of Regulation 1107/2006, we’re not complacent. There is still room for improvement if we want to make air transport accessible for all, guaranteeing free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination. For these reasons, cooperation with the organisations representing people with disabilities is essential to enhance the quality of the assistance and to reach a more accessible and inclusive society. We encourage the European Blind Union to let us know their suggestions to achieve this goal!

By Federico Bonaudi

Head of Facilitation, Regional Airports and Parliamentary Relations

ACI EUROPE (Airports Council International).