Business travel expert explains why #RightsOnFlights movement matters

A disabled business traveller getting into a hired car to travel to a business location. l UNSPLASH

A disabled business traveller getting into a hired car to travel to a business location. l UNSPLASH

Published Jun 21, 2024


Passengers’ rights and the accessibility of air travel are in focus, ranging from which arm rail belongs to whom, to whether passengers should be allowed to bring service animals on board, to the better care of disabled people and their essential equipment.

According to FCM general manager, Bonnie Smith, the RightsOnFlights hashtag started as passengers with disabilities speaking up blossomed into a broader call for more equity and accessibility across the skies, signalling that it is time for business travel to evolve.

“This movement is laying the groundwork for a system overhaul of the entire travel industry. While discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited under the Constitution and its operative legislation, there is little guidance available to air service operators in South Africa.

“The Civil Aviation Regulations provides some guidance around inflight cabin safety, but not much around accessibility,” said Smith.

She said that while #RightsonFlights might be focusing on wheelchairs, accessibility in air travel affects a broader community of travellers with various disabilities and policy reform lies at the heart of this evolution.

“The absence of comprehensive regulations makes standardising accessibility measures across the industry difficult.

“Travel managers and companies must advocate for policy revisions that prioritise inclusivity and work with regulatory bodies to enact meaningful change,” said Smith.

Not every disability is the same

According to Accessible South Africa, an online platform that shares information about accessibility for disabled people, there are potentially over 600 000 disabled travellers in the country.

This includes people who are wheelchair users, blind or partially sighted, deaf or hard of hearing as well as those who struggle with mental health, are intellectually challenged, parents and babies, or the elderly.

“Every person’s disability comes with its own unique set of challenges, and it’s up to us to find out how we can best accommodate those disabilities,” said Smith.

She noted that some domestic carriers in South Africa don’t permit wheelchairs exceeding a certain weight threshold and say they should be shipped separately. The problem is that most powered wheelchairs are over the weight threshold.

Other domestic carriers will carry powered wheelchairs but require the passenger to forward pictures of the battery used in their mobility device to ascertain the type of battery and whether it can be separated from the device and its ports adequately secured to prevent discharge.

During a panel discussion at Africa Travel Week 2024, Jabaar Mohamed, the provincial director for DeafSA Western Cape, unpacked some of the specific challenges deaf travellers face, such as being offered wheelchairs at airports.

“It’s important for all those that work in hospitality to be trained to ask individual travellers what their needs are, rather than making assumptions,” he said.

Also, travellers on the autism spectrum can also become very overwhelmed by the bright lights, big crowds of people, confined spaces and loud noises, making it impossible for them to navigate air travel.

Some can have debilitating anxiety attacks as a result. Travelling can often evoke feelings of dread for many disabled passengers.

Taking action to create accessibility

Smith highlighted that many organisations in the travel industry had taken it into their own hands to address some of these challenges with some airlines redesigning their entertainment systems to include audio descriptions for blind passengers, text-to-speech functions, and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

She also noted that most airports now provided pathways, ramps, and elevators for smooth wheelchair navigation.

Priority boarding and seat allocation closer to airplane entry and exit points have also been made more available to disabled passengers. Some airlines are even redesigning their seats to fold away so wheelchair passengers can securely attach to the aircraft.

Smith also said that many air service operators were also incorporating safe spaces for sensory-challenged people, including those on the autism spectrum.

The best way businesses can make a difference was by investing in education and training programmes that foster disability awareness among staff.

“Travel managers should encourage employees to share their accessibility needs and requirements when booking trips. Collecting this data can help identify gaps in current travel offerings and inform future supplier negotiations and RFPs.

“Working closely with your Travel Management Company (TMC) to capture and align traveller accessibility needs upfront saves time and creates a more dignified experience versus repeatedly explaining needs,” said Smith.

The business travel expert also added that the strategic advantage of partnering with your TMC to support the Rights on Flights movement and drive industry change can give your travel programme a competitive edge.

In conclusion, she said that preparing and making the necessary arrangements in advance is essential when dealing with disabled travellers and you have to conduct thorough research and plan accordingly to maximise their travel experience.

“By embracing the Rights on Flights movement and taking concrete steps to improve accessibility, business travel managers can demonstrate their company’s commitment to inclusion while ensuring all employees can travel safely and comfortably.

“It’s a win-win for companies, employees, and the air travel industry as a whole,” said Smith.