My recent, short lived experience in Panama gave me long life lessons on global access in airports. I was invited by Airports Council International (ACI) to present on a very distinguished panel titled Waves of the Future at the ACI Latin America-Caribbean/World General Assembly. This is the event where the world's largest and smallest airports send representatives, and their leadership, to help map the future of the industry. My journey started in my home town of Chicago where per usual my scooter battery was acting up and I had this horrible fear of being stuck in Panama City, Panama having to push my scooter throughout my stay, so I decided to leave it behind and walk through this adventure.
When I landed at Tocumen Airport I was surprised by the unique layout and impressed with its size and offerings, however I must say my first impression was marred by inconsistent signage with arrows pointing everywhere. For the first time in years I got a little lost trying to find my way to customs and baggage claim. Then, upon exiting the terminal, I was inundated by taxi options, when a woman near me said she was also part of the ACI event and was going to the same hotel, so we agreed to share a taxi. She was attending from Ghana and I manage a dozen or so wheelchair taxi drivers in Chicago from Ghana, so we chatted for most of the hour ride. When I told her I was speaking on accessibility and disability she sounded genuinely interested, and that gave me positive feelings before actually arriving at the event. I never know how accessibility is going to be viewed outside of the United States, so it's refreshing to see the world is starting to understand.
Once settled I went down to mingle with Open Doors Organization (ODO) friends Eddie from Australia and Kevin from Montreal. They are two people who "get it" when it comes to global access and inclusion at airports. Eddie immediately re-introduces me to Angela Gittens, Director General of Airports Council International: she is someone whom I have observed for years and someone whom I would consider a "role model," and I think Angela now "gets it," and with Angela on our side we will always have a seat at the table.
Since my panel was on the future of airports, I knew access really fit the topic. Every time an airport is rebuilt, someone has to first design it, and that person is the key in the future of access in airports. Architects and designers, at huge construction companies, understand access through building codes and regulations. They see the "Family Restroom" as the accessible restroom but they are not designed just for people with disabilities; they are really being designed for everyone. Just look at the expansion of offerings airports now have: prayer rooms, children play areas, visual paging, and stand-alone family/accessible restrooms to name a few. So new design must not be ignored as it will be the first catalyst in inclusion. I also heard Catherine Mayer, Vice President, from SITA, an airport consulting/research firm and what she said struck me as important because I think her message was that airports should not be afraid to explore new technology and even become leaders in testing and implementing these new ideas. She was almost as excited as I about the smartphone and the potential impact it may have in the airport, but she also warned that the next wave of technology is already available and the industry should not be afraid to embrace these ideas.
The things I saw at this conference gave me great hope. Jersa, a company from outside Mexico City, is making stairways that take passengers up to the aircraft door, in their own personal wheelchairs, eliminating any hand carrying. I saw Arconas and Zoftig, airport seating manufacturers, and both are working on new, accessible, airport seating design. I saw another company that is working on a seamless system that will allow people to arrive and depart from the airport, in different areas, using different technologies to check-in, tag your luggage and even buy duty free. But the real future lies in the fact that representatives from 9 different countries (including my friends from Ghana) approached me after my presentation asking "What may we do next?" and that might actually be the real futuristic step forward. When all is said and done it really comes back to ACI's future vision and their message that accessibility, disability, older adults and persons with reduced mobility (PRM) are not going to be ignored and we will have a seat at the table as the future of airports is discussed. Thanks to everyone in attendance for your open mindedness and your wonderful forward thinking.