The ACI EUROPE Accessible Airport Award aims to honour the best airport in Europe in terms of its level of accessibility, as well as the range and quality of assistance services offered. This year’s winner was Gatwick Airport. Tom Bartlett, Commercial Operations Manager, Gatwick Airport, spoke to Ross Falconer.
This year’s ACI EUROPE Accessible Airport Award went to Gatwick Airport. The judges were impressed by the airport’s efforts to go the extra mile to provide disability awareness training to all passenger-facing staff, teaching them how to recognise and assist passengers with hidden disabilities.
“Our aim is to be the UK’s most accessible airport,” says Tom Bartlett, Commercial Operations Manager, Gatwick Airport. “We know we still have some way to go, but the award is tremendously important to us as it recognises the time, effort and financial investment we have put in so far. This award is also credit to the work our passenger advisory group and local communities have done in working with Gatwick Airport to continuously improve. The involvement of the European Disability Forum in the judging also makes it a special award for us and gives us a strong vote of confidence that we are moving in the right direction.”
The airport’s recent innovations include a service for blind and visually impaired passengers to call where – using the camera on the passenger’s mobile phone – agents guide them through the airport, can read flight information, or even find luggage on the carousel. It is also currently trialling autonomous airport wheelchairs.
“In terms of facilities, we’ve invested £2 million (€2.2m) in a new ‘premium-style’ PRM lounge and we are expanding our existing range of Changing Places facilities, which include hoists and height-adjustable changing beds and sinks,” Bartlett adds. “It’s fundamentally important for us that all new facilities and services like this are designed in consultation with a range of disability and passenger groups.”
Ensuring consistent standards across the airport
Gatwick places a particular emphasis on training, with all passenger-facing staff taught to recognise a range of hidden disabilities. To ensure consistent standards across the airport, Gatwick also offers this training free to airlines, ground handlers and organisations.
“For example, 2,200 staff have been trained to recognise and help people with dementia across 14 different businesses,” Bartlett explains. “Staff at Gatwick’s special assistance provider, Wilson James, are also the only ones in the UK trained to NVQ Level 2 & 3.”
Last year, Gatwick became the first UK airport to open a sensory room for departing passengers in its North Terminal. The space is designed for passengers with autism, dementia, cognitive impairment, or other special needs, who would benefit from a designated place to help them feel at ease before their flight. Passengers have the option to transform the sensory room from a calming and relaxing environment to a stimulating interactive space full of light and sound with just the flick of a switch.
The ‘chill-out zone’ for those needing calm includes floor cushions, bean bags and digital display panels, which generate colourful visual wall features. The separate ‘interactive zone’ stimulates the senses through tactile panels, textures and a game to improve memory, motor skills and encourage learning. Feedback has been hugely positive and it is proving very popular.
“Passengers who use this facility describe the calming nature and the ability to ease stress while travelling through the airport,” Bartlett notes. “The sensory room has attracted interest from other UK and international airports, and we are now looking at installing a similar facility in the South Terminal.”
Looking ahead, Bartlett says the next step for Gatwick is to help ensure there is a consistent approach across all the UK airports when recognising someone with a hidden disability.
“We also want to ensure all staff, not just Gatwick Airport Ltd employees, are trained to recognise the signs when someone may have a hidden disability. In the autumn this year, we will also be creating our independent forum independently chaired. This will bring together industry experts and frequent disabled travellers to help work together and ensure we are delivering the best possible experience.”