AIX 2021 Recap: Democratizing Air Travel for Passengers with Disabilities

Panasonic Avionics< Panasonic Avionics
10/27/21 6 MIN READ

The World Health Organization estimates that there are roughly 1 billion people on the planet today living with some form of disability, which works out to about 15% of the population. With chronic health conditions and aging populations increasing worldwide, that number is expected to grow dramatically in the next decade.

Despite modest improvements over the years, air travel has historically presented passengers with disabilities a host of challenges. But passengers with invisible disabilities — like the visually impaired, passengers who are hard of hearing or those with autism — also face challenges at almost every touchpoint of their journey.

Looking to tackle some of these issues head on, Panasonic Avionics’ Director of Design and Experience, Sebastian Petry, joined a panel of industry experts at AIX’s 2021 recent all-virtual Passenger Experience Conference to discuss the many barriers to making air travel more accessible and dignified for all in the post-pandemic era.


Panelist and Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Wheelchair Tennis Player, Nico Langmann started things off by noting that the first thing many travelers with disabilities face when they fly is a loss of dignity. “As soon as you step onto the plane, you give away your wheelchair, your flexibility and all of your ability to move around by yourself,” said Langman. “From then on you are entirely dependent on the crew for basic stuff like going to the toilet [which] makes the journey less enjoyable, uncomfortable, and, for some people, maybe not worth making the effort for.”

That innate loss of dignity many in the disabled community feel when traveling was also addressed by Langman’s fellow panelist, Sara Marchant, Heathrow Airport’s Service Manager, Passengers Requiring Support.

Marchant discussed Heathrow’s pioneering Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard program which offers colorful, easily-identifiable lanyards to passengers traveling alone or with someone in their party who may have a hidden disability. The lanyard helps airport and airline staff discreetly identify passengers who may or may not require assistance.

“If [passengers] need help, they’ll ask for it. If they don’t, they’ll tell you,” said Marchant. “But it’s starting that conversation, and the feedback that we’ve heard from people is that they really like [the lanyards] because it puts them back in control. They can choose how much they want to share about their disability or not.”


Petry seemed to agree, adding that offering passengers with disabilities an increased level of control in the airplane cabin was at the heart of PAC’s recent partnership with United Airlines.

“At Panasonic we want to make sure we can serve everyone and offer them a great travel experience,” explained Petry. “So when United approached us a few years back to help them develop an application and user interface for onscreen interaction with their seatback IFE system … we ended up developing, over three years, one of the most comprehensive suites of accessibility features for airplane cabin travel.”

Designed to serve any level of vision, hearing and partial mobility impairment, the product includes such features as: text-to-speech with reading granularity options; customizable voice volume, speed and pitch; explore-by-touch features like screen magnification and customizable text size; high contrast text options; custom messaging tailored for customers with hearing disabilities and a host of innovative navigation options for mobility impaired passengers as well.

“At Panasonic we want to make sure we can serve everyone and offer them a great travel experience”

Sebastian Petry
Director of Design and Experience

Aside from being hugely popular with passengers since it’s official launch in 2018, the application also took home a coveted Crystal Cabin Award at the 2019 AIX in Hamburg. But Petry said the most popular aspect of the application is the enhanced freedom and independence it affords passengers with disabilities when they fly.

“When you can’t hear or see, you’re relying a lot on other people in a very tight environment,” said Petry. “Giving passengers an additional tool to help navigate some content and information regarding their next connecting flight is quite valuable.” Especially to passengers flying today. With COVID guidance varying from country to country — and often updated or amended on the fly — relaying that information to passengers with disabilities in a timely, user-friendly fashion has been a challenge for airports and airlines alike, noted Marchant.

And while several of the panelists spoke to the need for greater regulation to effect real change on the accessible travel front, Petry said a balance of regulation and digital innovation is key. Particularly as the industry moves towards a seamless, end-to-end travel model for all.


On the subject of digital innovation, the panel agreed that enhancing existing data personalization solutions is going to be critical moving forward. Aside from improving the end-to-end travel experience for disabled passengers, data personalization also offers airlines keener insights into the needs and preferences of disabled passengers around the globe, which will hopefully lead to more industry-wide standardization on the accessibility front.

“We have a product called Companion App that helps airlines to connect their passengers and their experience from the ground to the air by pre-configuring the content they want to watch on the IFE screen on the aircraft. Companion App also enables airlines to understand your preferences so they can keep a log of everything and suggest future personalized content,” said Petry.

“I think there’s potentially room here to combine these features with support for accessibility needs and to host even more things moving forward. Products like this are a really great way to create a whole new ecosystem between passenger’s phones and their seatback experience.”

The Future

Looking to the future, the panel agreed that while there are still some issues to tackle when it comes to making air travel more accessible — particularly on the cabin and lavatory design front — the industry-wide push towards data personalization will become a key point of understanding between airlines and passengers with disabilities. Which could help democratize travel, not just for passengers with disabilities, but everyone.

“Ultimately, the question is really how do we tie in the experiences that make travel great for everyone with the needs of passengers with disabilities?” Petry asked. “How can we increase our performance across the industry? I think there’s huge advances coming up very shortly here and I’m looking forward to driving those experiences for passengers with disabilities to really make air travel a more personal, accessible journey,”

“I think digital will enable us to do a lot of great things, physical things, but I also think that there’s still work to be done and we need to keep our eyes on the road to see how we can push the industry further in the future.”

To watch the panel in its entirety, click here.

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