Airlines Are (Slowly) Embracing Inclusivity and Accessibility. Here’s How.

From Braille signage to lanyards for unseen disabilities, these new amenities and programs aim to make the flying experience a little less stressful.

A person pushing someone in a wheelchair in an airport

Not all flights can accommodate all wheelchair types. United wants to help passengers know what can (or can’t) be transported before they book.

Getty Images/Unsplash

Flying can be anxiety-inducing for anyone, but for certain travelers, the in-flight experience can be downright demeaning or traumatizing. For passengers who identify as neurodivergent, disabled, or gender nonconforming, air travel can be a minefield of microaggressions and mishaps—whether that means not being able to bring your wheelchair or mobility device onboard, being addressed by a birth name you no longer use, or not being able to find your way around the cabin.

Luckily, the past few years have seen airlines gradually rising to the occasion, implementing new policies that have made flying just a little bit friendlier and more efficient. Here are five promising developments.

JetBlue has made its seatback experience more gender inclusive

A pioneer in the in-flight entertainment space, JetBlue rolled out new seatback screens called Blueprint by JetBlue this spring, which will offer more personalized programming for fliers. Among the flashier amenities (which include a “watch party” feature and saving preferred settings), JetBlue will allow fliers to customize their welcome message on their seatback screens. Previously, fliers were greeted by their legal first name, but in the future, they’ll be able to set the moniker of their choosing. It’s a small but potentially meaningful gesture for travelers who don’t go by their legal name—for example, if they’re transgender or nonbinary.

A mockup of a Delta seat that converts into a space that allows a wheelchair to fit into the seat area

The patented design converts a standard passenger seat into one that can accommodate a wheelchair restraint.

Courtesy of Delta Flight Products

Delta is developing a revolutionary seat for wheelchair users

Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, recently debuted a new airplane seat design that will allow travelers who use a wheelchair to bring their wheelchair onto the aircraft and remain seated in it for the duration of the flight. The prototype for the revolutionary new seat design was created in partnership with U.K.-based Air4All, which develops accessible aircraft seating, and was unveiled last year at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany.

The patented design enables airlines to retain the seat layout of their aircraft cabins by converting a standard passenger seat into one that can accommodate a wheelchair restraint. It also provides wheelchair-using passengers access to a headrest and a center console tray table that can adjust into position once the wheelchair is in place.

At present, wheelchair users are required to go through an intense juggling act to get through the airport and into their airplane seat. After checking in their wheelchair, they are then taken to the gate via an airline-provided wheelchair service. And then they are transferred to their seat where, for those who are fully reliant on their wheelchairs, they will remain for the duration of the flight. The product is still in its early development stages, with a Delta spokesperson telling Afar last year that it would require about 18 months of work and reviews before it could make its way on to planes.

Braille signage featured on an overhead compartment in a United plane

The new Braille signage is found on the overhead compartments to denote rows and seats. It’s also inside and outside the lavatories.

Courtesy of United Airlines

United is adding Braille signage to its fleet

Last summer, United Airlines announced that it had started adding Braille to its planes—making it the first U.S. carrier to incorporate the accessible signage on its aircraft. The markings denote the individual rows and seat letters on the overhead compartments and are also found inside and outside the lavatories. It plans to equip the entire fleet with Braille before 2027.

For the new signage, United worked with the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, and other disability advocacy groups to determine the best places to place the Braille for visually impaired customers.

“The flight experience is often frustrating for blind people for a number of reasons, one of which is the amount of information that is available exclusively through printed signs and other visual indicators,” Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said in a statement. The organization hopes to continue working with United to explore additional ways that flying can be “more accessible and less stressful for blind passengers.”

United debuted a new search tool for wheelchair users

United Airlines recently released a new search filter on its website and app meant to make flying more equitable for travelers with mobility vehicles. The filter allows customers to input the exact dimensions of their wheelchair into their flight search. Then the site will pull up all the flights between their departure city and destination that can accommodate and safely transport their wheelchair. (Cargo hold door sizes vary, and not all can handle larger motorized wheelchairs.)

“By offering customers an easy way to know if their personal wheelchair fits on a particular airplane, we can give them the peace of mind they deserve when they fly with us,” United executive vice president and chief customer officer Linda Jojo said in a statement. “Plus, collecting this information ahead of time ensures our team can handle these special items with proper care and attention.”

If the plane for travelers’ preferred route isn’t a match for their wheelchair, United said travelers can book an itinerary that does work for their mobility device, and the airline will refund the difference in fare price if it’s more expensive. The two flights must be for the same route on the same day to qualify for reimbursement, and travelers will need to complete a form after flying to receive the funds.

An example of the Sunflower Lanyards hanging around a person's neck

Sunflower lanyards are meant to denote invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain and dyslexia.

Courtesy of Turkish Airlines

Airlines are helping travelers with invisible disabilities

In recent years, carriers like Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand, and British Airways, in addition to more than 240 airports around the world, have partnered with an organization called Hidden Disabilities Sunflower to make travel more accessible for those with mental and physical challenges that might not be immediately apparent. Anyone who identifies as someone with an unseen disability (for example, chronic pain or illnesses, diabetes, dementia, autism, brain injuries, ADHD, dyslexia, joint issues, mental illness, or sleep disorders, among others) can request a lanyard decorated with sunflowers, the globally recognized symbol for nonvisible disabilities.

The lanyard is meant to give cabin crew and ground service personnel a subtle heads-up that the passenger may require additional support during their travels, ranging from help navigating the terminal to more time boarding and disembarking, without drawing additional attention to the hidden disability. The organization hopes the move will create a more accessible and comfortable travel experience with less stress for the passengers.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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