Designing for all
Darron Freegard, Terminal Planning & Strategy Manager and Emily O’Connell, Customer Experience Manager at Perth Airport, speak to International Airport Review discussing the importance of providing an airport experience that is inclusive to all, as well as outlining their own achievements at the airport.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminded many of us how we took the ease of travelling by air for granted, and most would acknowledge a negative impact on our personal lives when this freedom was suddenly taken away. However, for some (principally older people or those living with disability) travel has always been inherently stressful and difficult, or even impossible.
In theory, everyone should be able to access aviation services easily, comfortably, and confidently, yet we know there are many barriers – visible and invisible – that can go unnoticed by those not directly affected. This is particularly the case for those passengers with hidden disabilities who may have a range of sensory and cognitive impairments.
Perth Airport context
Airports play a critical role in connecting people, businesses, and communities, arguably no more so than in Perth in western Australia. Air travel is a necessity for the local population, and those living in remote communities across the vast expanse of the state are highly dependent on Perth Airport – Australia’s western hub – for access to critical services and medical treatment.
Accessible journeys, not just accessible infrastructure
All journeys should be accessible, navigable, and usable to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, ability or disability. To this end, a holistic consideration of accessibility and inclusivity through the lens of an end-to-end journey, while addressing the needs of different user groups, is key to the airport design process.
Accessible infrastructure alone will not necessarily deliver an accessible journey. Treating travellers with dignity and respect at every touch point along the journey is critical. Airports also need to prioritise awareness training for staff, in addition to providing accessible facilities. A consistent level of service is vital. This requires working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders responsible for each journey element.
People with disability are not the only beneficiaries of a more accessible and inclusive journey. It is estimated that by 2050 – within the life of most infrastructure being delivered today – the number of people aged 60 years and older will double to 2.1 billon. Airports need to recognise that the ageing population, together with a greater prevalence of medical conditions, necessitate an immediate focus on the design of accessible infrastructure and inclusive passenger journey.
Failure to anticipate these needs is effectively a deterrent to travel for a significant and increasing cohort of passengers – an estimated 15 per cent of the world’s population has a disability. This is not only a human rights issue, it makes poor business sense. Creating an inclusive and accessible experience for all not only encourages travel, but facilitates the associated purchase of products and services, in turn improving commercial outcomes for airports.
Accessibility and inclusivity toolkit
Organisational culture and strategy
Access and inclusion strategies will not succeed unless they are supported by the organisational culture and recognised in its values. These approaches are now embedded holistically in Perth Airport’s environment, social, people and governance (ESPG) strategy and disability access and inclusion plan (DAIP).
Perth Airport’s DAIP sets out a clear, whole-ofbusiness approach for delivering accessible facilities and promoting a more inclusive environment for our customers, staff, partners, and stakeholders. It also emphasises the importance of going beyond minimum code requirements and updating legacy infrastructure simply to meet current legislative requirements and social expectations.
In the last two years, we have delivered:
- Two new service animal relief areas in Terminal 1 and Terminal 4
- A changing places facility at Terminal 1, which provides a safe and secure place for people with a disability who need space or assistance using the bathroom to do so. A second changing places facility is currently being constructed at Terminal 4 and a third is due to be built in Terminal 2 as part of proposed expansion works
- A $36 million upgrade to Gates 52, 53 and 54 at Terminal 1, which saw the old stair boarding process replaced with new ramps and lifts, delivering an improved boarding experience for passengers with a disability or those travelling with small children.
We are currently designing a sensory room to be constructed within our international terminal, Terminal 1, and are engaging with relevant groups and individuals with neurodivergent conditions to inform our design.
We have also recently introduced the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower programme as a way for customers with hidden or invisible disability to subtly indicate to airport staff that they may need a little more time or support as they travel through the airport.
Later this year, we will recommence our quarterly ‘Onboard for Autism’ airport familiarisation tours, which were paused at the beginning of the pandemic. These tours were designed to simulate the airport experience for children with autism and their families, with participants able to ‘practice’ the entire airport experience all the way through from check-in to security screening and boarding an aircraft.
Embed, consult, collaborate
Inclusive and accessible design are now embedded into the earliest stages of project planning and specifically included in design principles at Perth Airport. Regulatory compliance is just the starting point for accessible building design and is unlikely to deliver the required accessible outcomes in full; however, as a minimum, those involved in design work should receive accessibility and inclusivity awareness training.
Perth Airport originally established an Access and Inclusion Group during the early stages of the Terminal 2 project, a new single level regional terminal which opened in 2013. The group consists of disability organisations and community members with a range of disabilities and provides advice on all matters related to access and inclusion. We have learned that there is no substitute for ‘lived experience’ advice and that the inclusion of input from those who are intended to benefit the most is critical. This point has been included in the 12th Edition Airport Development Reference Manual which has a greatly expanded section on access and inclusivity.
Airport operators are seldom responsible for the entire end-to-end journey. Collaboration with all those agencies and business partners responsible for infrastructure and service delivery and reaching a consensus on required outcomes will deliver consistent, high-quality results.
Provide high quality journey information
Our experience revealed that passengers with disabilities are especially keen to seek out detailed information before they arrive at the airport, providing travellers with greater journey certainty. Integrating easily located online content in accessible formats, together with additional journey guidance at the airport, should be a focus for all accessibility projects.
Deliver disability inclusion and equality training to all staff
Airport operators should work together with all stakeholders to develop standardised training for those responsible for the customer experience. Perth Airport is in the process of rolling out hidden disabilities training to all airport stakeholders, intended to improve the consistency of service delivery.
Planning for the future
In the coming years, Perth Airport will consolidate its passenger terminals into one central location. Accessibility and inclusiveness are at the heart of our early planning activity, reaching beyond obvious interventions such as accessible restrooms to other considerations which help deliver intuitive, accessible journey outcomes, such as lighting and wayfinding.
Aviation has revolutionised travel and global connectivity, making previously lengthy and arduous journeys easy and convenient for many, but not all. By increasing awareness of barriers and showing how simple interventions can often make a huge difference, effective planning for inclusivity can serve as a call to action for others in the public realm.
Darron Freegard is the Terminal Planning & Strategy Manager at Perth Airport. He has over 30 years’ experience in the aviation industry, principally in airfield management roles in the UK before joining Perth Airport as the Terminal Operations Manager in late 2003. He has held various leadership roles at Perth Airport in operations management and planning, including the planning and design of Perth’s terminal expansion projects. Freegard is a member of ACI’s World Facilitation & Services Committee and has a particular interest in accessibility and inclusion.
Emily O’Connell has worked in the aviation industry for the last seven years and is currently the Customer Experience Manager at Perth Airport. She is MBA qualified, with a keen interest in strategy and delivering customer‑centric projects and programmes. O’Connell is passionate about removing barriers to travel for people with disability and wants to see the social model of disability become the status quo.