With this week’s relaxation of the travel rules for the UK, we wanted to understand what global travel now looks like for disabled passengers specifically. Flying as a wheelchair user, even before Covid, was a process full of obstacles, and ableMove Founder, Josh Wintersgill sits on domestic and global level advisory boards in order to try and shape the process of flying, to become more inclusive and accessible to more disabled travellers. We spoke to Sara Marchant, Service Manager for Passengers Requiring Support Service at Heathrow and discussed all things disabled travel.

Sara began her career in the aviation sector many years ago and has worked in various roles across the industry but has always felt a push towards accessibility and inclusion issues and it is this that led her to her current role at Heathrow and allows her to shape the experience for disabled passengers to suit their needs. Sara’s role was a new one in aviation, as all of the regulatory focus was on mobility, yet Sara wanted to be able to widen what was being done to be much more inclusive in an approach that looks to improve and provide the very best customer experience for all passengers requiring support.

Sara, by her own admission, has an overly developed sense of fairness, and it is this that clearly comes across in our conversation: “I was once asked why I do this job as I’m not disabled and I responded with ‘how do you know I’m not, you have never asked me’. I believe that I have a good knowledge of the conditions that have touched me personally, but I have a wide network of experts to help me with those I’m not familiar with. We can’t all know everything about every disability – I know I learn more every day.”

Sara is (quite rightly we feel) proud of the current assistance service at Heathrow. They will provide a wheelchair and buggy service for people who need some help with their mobility, but they will assist anybody who needs it, for any disability. This service can be booked via your airline or travel agent at least 48 hours in advance. There are also ‘Changing Places bathrooms in every terminal which include height-adjustable sinks, hoists and a full adult-size height-adjustable bed. Also available is, ‘AIRA’ an assistance tool for sight loss and is free for the user. Once you have downloaded the app, you can connect to an agent in real time, who can see through the camera of your mobile phone. You can then use the service for anything on site, from wayfinding to shopping or even reading the menu in a restaurant. For any deaf passengers who would find it useful, there is also ‘SignLive’ available at airside hosted assistance areas, this is a British Sign Language interpretation system.

However, what comes across when talking with Sara, is that there is always room for improvement and her passion for providing passengers requiring extra support a seamless experience means that she always has vast plans in the pipeline! Sara explains that just before Covid hit, a big programme of planned works and projects was about to get underway. “We had just finished upgrading the 300 help points we have around the airport. You will have seen how hard aviation has been hit by the pandemic, but I am hopeful that we will be able to start picking some of these planned works again soon,” Sara explains.

Additionally, Heathrow delivers disability awareness training to all passenger-facing colleagues and Sara has just written a new module of the training with the assistance of Heathrow Access Advisory Group (HAAG), an extraordinary group of experts who all have a link to disability and act as critical friends. A large piece of work to upgrade and improve accessibility technical standards has also just been finished. This work means that Heathrow will be building accessibility into the fabric of all buildings, whether it is a refurbishment or a new build in the months and years to come.

Sara tells us; “Covid has given us the opportunity to build back better. We surveyed over 11,000 people recently and asked them what kind of support they wanted when travelling through the airport. The results of this survey have changed our language. In aviation, the universally used phrase to describe passengers with disabilities is ‘Passengers with Reduced Mobility.’ We want to think much wider than this and have therefore taken the decision that we will no longer use this term, but instead refer to “Passengers Requiring Support” as we think it is much more inclusive.”

Sara fully believes in giving passengers with disabilities choice. Choice to be assisted by an agent and choice to self-mobilise if they prefer. Choice to use an agent for wayfinding, or choice to use AIRA if they prefer to make their own way around the airport independently for sight loss etc. In the aftermath of the pandemic, this right to have a choice will be even more prevalent, as people may want a more ‘touch free’ experience. Sara believes that this may shape some of the innovation in the future.

When we think about passengers requiring special assistance passing through an airport, we often envision a wheelchair user, but it is important to Sara and her team that hidden disabilities are thought about too. “The sunflower lanyard acts as a discreet signifier to colleagues that the person wearing it (or someone in their party) has a non-visible disability and may need a little extra help or time and it started in aviation in 2016.” Sara was involved very early on in the wider implementation of the sunflower lanyard, which is now used across society as a signifier of a hidden disability. “Other airports saw what we had done and really liked the idea but started using different designs. It was all in danger of becoming watered down. I knew that we needed to be consistent if it was to have a chance of working, and so I started contacting the other airports. I offered them my training, graphics and time for free if they would agree to use the same symbol. Then I started thinking about the end-to-end journey and started contacting bus and rail companies. In time I worked with around 150 businesses both in the UK and internationally including sports venues, hospital trusts, shopping centres, and supermarkets to make sure that the messaging was consistent. If I were to do nothing else in my life, I will be proud of that.”

Sara continues; “The suppliers of the products absolutely loved what was happening and set up a new company as they wanted to drive real change. They now offer training and support to businesses wanting to join the scheme.”

You can find out more at The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower. They now have representation in Australia, Europe, Canada, New Zealand and the USA.  The lanyard doesn’t specify what a person’s disability is which is one of the reasons why it has become so popular. They can choose to share as much (or as little) as they like with others, and they feel they can ask for help without being judged. Sara tells us how the sunflower lanyard has paved the way for more open and widespread discussions about disability. “I want people to be demanding! What I would really like is for the government to promote the sunflower scheme. It has exploded in the last couple of years, and it really needs the government to support and promote it.”

Sara explains that she has a very good working relationship with the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “We all want to make aviation as accessible as it can possibly be, so we work closely together to make sure that we get it right. I would actively like to be more widely regulated, to cover all the other disabilities that do not fall under mobility. As important as it is for us to get that right, we need to get it right for everyone.”

Sara notes that is important to continually work together closely with the CAA and other bodies to improve accessibility in aviation for all passengers. We asked Sara about the importance of global standardisation in aviation, something we at ableMove feel strongly about and are constantly working towards.

Sara is a member of the Prime Ministers’ Dementia in Air Travel Working Group and as a result of this has connections internationally and regularly speaks to champions in America.

The regulation in America puts the requirement to deliver an accessibility service on the individual airlines, whereas in Europe the responsibility rests with the airport. This in itself means that standards vary. A lot of regulation has been in place for a long time, and aviation and the way that people expect to be treated has changed.

“It would be fantastic if we had a chance to look at it now with fresh eyes as we come out of the pandemic, and with a view to standardising it globally. I know that whenever you involve multiple governments and departments it is complex and takes time, but surely now is a fantastic opportunity for us to re-set.”

Sara finishes off our discussion with her vision of what the future could look like if the global aviation industry worked together. “It would be great to have regulation that supported every disability regardless of what it is, and that it was the same standard around the world. Now that’s one working group I would love to be a part of.”

ableMove Founder, Josh Wintersgill commented on the need for a globalised standard across the aviation industry; “We do a lot of work to provide guidance and support to airlines and airports on a global level, which not only provides real accounts of lived experiences that people with disabilities have when travelling by air, but also highlights the areas where changes are needed and most urgently and we look forward to influencing how aviation looks for people with disabilities in a post Covid world.”

For more information on the ableMove ableSling, an in-situ transfer transfer sling for wheelchair users when flying, which allows for easy, safe and dignified lateral transfers, removing the need for any face to face contact, visit here.