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Unpacking the Skies The Overlooked Dimensions of Accessibility and Inclusion at the Airlines 2023 Event

By: Oliver Bennett-Coles | Tags: Service Design

Somewhere around the world, every 2 seconds, a plane takes off.

Quite the statistic.

It brings to life how integral aviation has become to our lives and the global economy but also how important it is to shape the industry into one that’s fit for purpose for the world we live in today.

The question is, is the industry looking in all the right places?

A picture of the inside of a plane cockpit at night
A photo taken from the inside of a plane cockpit, showing the illuminated controls

In the bustling heart of London, aviation enthusiasts, industry experts and policymakers gathered on November 20th, 2023, for the Airlines 2023 event. Impressively, the blend of speakers and content was from the full aviation ecosystem; from policy and government to airlines, suppliers, innovators and governing bodies. Having had the privilege of attending this year's event, it's evident that the aviation landscape is poised for transformative changes but are the key players focused on all the right areas?

One of the prevailing themes at Airlines 2023 was the industry's commitment to sustainability. The focus was on “not looking back, but on looking forward” specifically around the themes of sustainability, environmental targets and getting to 'jet zero.' With climate change concerns at the forefront of global discussions, airlines are under increasing pressure to adopt eco-friendly practices. Presentations and discussions centered around the development and proliferation of sustainable aviation fuels, more fuel-efficient aircraft, and innovative technologies aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of air travel. Whilst events such as these never address the fundamental question of whether we should be flying less to protect the environment, Airlines 2023 did not shy away from addressing challenges facing the aviation industry. Issues such as rising fuel prices, geopolitical uncertainties, and the need for skilled workforce development were acknowledged and discussed openly. Within these challenges lie opportunities for growth, innovation, and a renewed commitment to building a more robust and adaptable aviation sector.

It was refreshing to witness the industry's collective dedication to addressing environmental challenges head-on, which is urgently needed, but from my perspective, the noise about the aviation industry’s impact on the environment drowned out other important issues, such as; accessibility and inclusion.

While the event celebrated advancements in fuel efficiency and global industry collaboration, it left a conspicuous gap in acknowledging the diverse needs of passengers with disabilities. Aside from one mention, as a result of an audience question, from the CEO of British Airways, Sean Walsh and a passing reference by newly-appointed Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper, there was no agenda item or mention whatsoever of addressing the multiple challenges posed by access in the industry. In an age where inclusivity should be a non-negotiable aspect of any industry, the failure to address accessibility concerns is a poignant reminder that the journey towards universal access is far from complete.

Oliver Bennett-Coles, Head of Marketing Mima

One glaring oversight was the limited focus on the experience of passengers with mobility challenges. True, accessibility goes beyond just ramps and wider doorways. It involves a comprehensive understanding of the entire travel experience, from booking a ticket online to navigating through the airport, boarding the plane, and disembarking at the destination. Are airlines truly investing in technology and infrastructure that caters to the seamless travel of passengers with varying mobility requirements? Another aspect that seemingly escaped the spotlight was the consideration for neurodiversity. For individuals with autism or other sensory sensitivities, air travel can be a daunting experience. The Airlines 2023 event missed a golden opportunity to explore how the industry can create environments that accommodate the unique needs of neurodivergent passengers. Furthermore, the event overlooked the potential of emerging technologies, such as AI and machine learning, to enhance accessibility. These technologies have the power to revolutionise the travel experience for individuals with disabilities. From personalised communication interfaces to predictive assistance based on individual needs, there is a wealth of untapped potential that the aviation industry should be exploring more thoroughly.

Away from the politics and the policy machinations around sustainability and the glaring omission of access, one conversation that really stood out was a fascinating presentation given by Manfredi Ricca and Christopher Nurko. ( He/Him/His )of Interbrand, who probed, provoked and proposed how airline and airport brands can lead the transformation of the sector. Citing how brands away from the aviation sector, have moved from a fundamentally operational focus to a better consumer, or in this case, passenger, experience was fascinating. Essentially, sectors decline when they define themselves too narrowly. To continue growing the aviation sector must be more customer-centric; understanding their needs and desires, not bank on the presumptive longevity of their products. Using the archetype of the railroads, they cited Theodore Levitt the economist and professor, who showed how they declined inevitably as technology advanced because they defined themselves too narrowly. To continue growing, companies must ascertain and act on their customers' needs and desires, not bank on the presumptive longevity of their products.

“They assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry incorrectly was that they were railroad oriented instead of transportation orientated; they were product orientated not customer oriented.” Theodore Levitt

It is this shift from demand to desire that was the crux of the blueprint put forward. “The world is waiting for an airline that doesn’t behave like one.” Definitely food for thought as airlines struggle for differentiation and the aviation industry as a whole labours to get back to pre-pandemic levels of passenger numbers, satisfaction, and confidence and in the UK’s case, struggles to reinvigorate previously thriving segments, such as business travellers.

Oliver Bennett-Coles, Head of Marketing Mima

In conclusion, despite the optimism and enthusiasm, Airlines 2023 failed to shine a light on the critical dimensions of accessibility and inclusion and to propose a sustainable model for how the aviation industry will thrive in the much-changed, post-pandemic world. The industry must recognise that true progress lies in addressing the needs, and crucially desires, of all passengers, irrespective of their abilities or disabilities. As we celebrate the advancements of the present, let us not forget the responsibility to shape a future where the skies truly belong to everyone.

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Photo of Oliver Bennett-Coles

Oliver Bennett-Coles
Head of New Partnerships & Marketing

Oliver has over 15 years worth of global marketing experience, managing marketing and new business teams in advertising, media, brand strategy and fast-growth software companies.