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Airport continues to enhance accessibility for all travelers

Wednesday, October 13, 2021 by Willow Higgins

There’s a lot more to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport than wheelchair access. Last Thursday, City Council’s Mobility Committee was briefed on how travel to and from Austin is – or sometimes isn’t – accessible to all.

The city’s Department of Aviation is committed to ADA compliance, ABIA Director Jacqueline Yaft explained to the committee. Full compliance spans from things like pet relief areas for service animals to signage in Braille, all to ensure that people of all abilities experience smooth sailing from the moment they enter the airport until the moment they depart.

While the airport and the city’s Department of Aviation are responsible for compliance as it pertains to the airport itself, individual airlines are in charge of fulfilling some requirements of the Air Carrier Access Act, federal legislation that ensures equitable treatment of all airline passengers. This includes things like wheelchair services for passengers who need them, which often require airlines to partner with third-party companies to provide. The airport also outsources certain provisions, like tram services, to third parties, quickly expanding the web of entities needing to comply with federal regulation. The Department of Aviation’s designated ADA coordinator works with the city, airport and airlines to make sure the entire process is streamlined and up to code.

These federal regulations serve to protect a wide range of travelers, from those who might not be able to walk on their own or see or hear, to those with mental challenges or those who require emotional support animals. The list of services needed to make travel accessible for everyone is long, and needs to be well-explained in order for travelers to know what resources they have access to.

Yaft told the Mobility Committee that some of the initiatives in the works to improve accessibility are already in existence – they simply were not advertised properly throughout the terminals.

These recent initiatives, some of which are already completed, include projects like improving the ways travelers can request assistance at the airport or provide feedback on a recent experience; PA systems and visual paging systems for those with hearing loss; and curbside signage on how to request a wheelchair or access a tram.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said she’d heard of a situation where a traveler who needed wheelchair service “had to wait long enough to where they missed a flight.” Harper-Madison asked what quality control measures are put in place to ensure that third-party contractors are meeting their needs.

Yaft said that they’re working on signage throughout the airport to display the phone number of the airport operations center, which can work to directly address a traveler’s needs if other systems aren’t working promptly or properly. She also noted that the airlines and the consortium of contractors are working together to get metrics on service request time and any repeat complaints so they can address systemic issues.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who had an ankle injury during a recent flight, said she had a great experience with wheelchair access at the Austin airport. She said she was able to get dropped off curbside and was picked up by a wheelchair provider who took her through security and all the way to her gate. 

“I will say that getting through the TSA line seemed a little bit more efficient for someone who was in a wheelchair,” Kelly said. “The attendant gave me the opportunity to stop and get something to eat before we got to the gate and also gave me the opportunity to use the bathroom by taking me there. I know that (the experience) is not always going to be good for everyone, so I’m excited to hear that there are ways that people who might have a less than ideal experience are able to speak up about it so that we can improve the process.”

Photo by LoneStarMike, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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