The most frequent problems experienced by blind and partially sighted persons when travelling by air have been researched by EBU with a survey among its member organizations. Despite Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air many problems have been highlighted.
Independent booking of flights is barely possible for blind and partially sighted persons. Most websites and mobile Apps of airlines and tour operators are inaccessible and a proper usage, allowing an autonomous flight research, flight selection, declaration of assistance needs and subsequent payment of selected flights and services is therefore not possible. Disabled passengers using regional, medium or long distance trains or buses to reach their respective airport are often confronted with the lack of assistance at bus or train stations. Designated areas and counters for the reception of assistance at airports are often not well located and difficult to find quickly and autonomously, although they are crucial for blind and partially sighted travellers leading to uncertainty and in the worst case missed flights and extra expenses. Many disabled passengers are obliged to be escorted by a wheelchair regardless of their physical constitution. Refusing such treatment will often lead to interrupting or ending the assistance service.
Moreover, the behaviour of the assistance staff towards disabled customers is at times inappropriate, patronizing, overprotecting and prevents them from making own and well informed decisions concerning their mobility within the airport and the usage of available airport services and facilities. Existing airline policies are invoked to refuse the embarking of guide and assistance dogs. Additionally, blind and partially sighted passengers are not informed of this restriction prior to their purchase of the ticket or the departure date, which does not give them the opportunity to consequently choose another airline and flight. On-board services and facilities (touchscreens, internet services, etc.) are still too often not accessible for visually impaired passengers. During flights, cabin staff often do not feel obliged to guide a blind or partially sighted person to and from the toilet nor explain any safety facilities like the location of emergency exits, the storage and use of life jackets or the call button to request the support of the cabin-crew. Instead, many airlines request disabled passengers to occupy a window seat in order not to hamper the evacuation of the aircraft – which is a discrimination and at the same time further isolates these passengers and complicates their obtaining the required attention. This negligent omission may lead to frustration and fear of the blind and partially sighted participants, since they do not have a proper image of the aircraft which prepares them for a possible emergency scenario.
EBU believes that increased international exchange of best practices and further strengthened legal provisions are needed to enhance the accessibility of European airports.
Based on the survey conducted various recommendations in order to facilitate the air travel experience of people with visual impairments have been formulated:
All websites of air carriers operating within the EU and of airports located in the EU need to be fully accessible taking into account EU wide and international applicable technical accessibility standards. The websites of airports and air carriers should have special sections containing all relevant information for persons with disabilities, including accessible forms to book assistance and to distinguish between different disabilities.
Assistance between public transport stations and nearby airports needs to be legally and practically implemented on an EU wide level. All airport info desks should be aware of the Regulation and about the procedures to assign assistance for disabled persons. Every assistance service needs to have a phone number, which can be accessed at all times. A fixed time limit for delays in the reception of assistance should be set up. If the time has been exceeded the concerned passenger should have the right for compensation. Disabled passengers should have the right to choose how they wish to get through the airport: A wheelchair should not be imposed and blanket allowances should not depend on the transportation means. The cabin crew needs to proactively introduce the position of the call button to disabled passengers. Passengers with a need for assistance should have the right to select their preferred seat (excluding emergency exits).
Aircraft on-board facilities, like call buttons, entertainment services, flushing buttons, etc., should be accessible. All air carriers should make available tactile aircraft layouts and their safety rules in Braille and big print. The introduction of an EU wide applicable certificate for all guide dogs, no matter in which school they have received their training and with which airline the blind passenger intends to fly, is essential to abolish unfair and discriminatory treatment by air carriers. Assistance staff, ground staff and cabin crew should be properly trained by disabled persons to have a positive mind-set towards disabled persons.
There should also be prevision of uniform national or EU wide phone numbers to request and direct assistance service to a respective location (entrance, metro station), staff at the entrances of terminals to guide disabled passengers to the designated counter. Tactile and visual guidance systems leading to the assistance counter, acoustic and recurrent announcements on the location of the assistance counter as well as clear and accessible information, providing comprehensible and comprehensive directions should be available on airports’ and air carriers’ websites and mobile Apps.
All of these must conform to minimum accessibility requirements which need to be embedded into recast of related regulations and guidelines to accomplish a satisfactory level of accessibility at all European airports which will greatly enhance the independence and mobility of visually impaired travellers.
By Merve Sezgin, Head of International Relations, DBSV, (EBU member for Germany)