News & Events

Charting the Course: Reimagining Accessibility in Air Travel

September 26, 2023

Airports are often envisioned as our gateways to adventure, but for those with disabilities, these bustling hubs are often gateways to frustration. Whether it’s navigating through a maze of terminals, securing a wheelchair-accessible restroom, or finding assistance with luggage, the challenges faced by travellers with disabilities are numerous.  

That’s why the aviation group at DIALOG has partnered with Université Laval in Quebec City to complete a three-year qualitative study about the current state of airport accessibility, and how we can improve it. The Inclusive Airports study will provide innovative, insightful recommendations that will redefine the way we design air travel. 

What are the current accessibility standards?  

Under the Accessible Canada Act (2019), government bodies are responsible for preparing and publishing accessibility plans, explaining how they will make services, travel, and the built environment more accessible to those with disabilities. With these plans and standards still under development, the level of service and assistance available to travellers with disabilities will vary by airline and airport, sometimes dramatically. It’s fair to say we are still in the early stages of the journey toward consistent accessibility standards for air travel. And it’s up to us as designers, airlines, airport authorities, academics, and beyond to push the conversation forward.  

Transport Canada has an overarching goal of being barrier-free by 2040. At DIALOG, our goal is to design without barriers today. We’re committed to making accessibility and inclusivity guiding principles that inform every design choice we make.  

How can design thinking improve air travel? 

In the context of accessibility, design thinking begins by deeply understanding the needs, experiences, and challenges faced by individuals with both cognitive and physical disabilities. It involves actively listening to their stories and gaining insights into their daily lives to develop a profound sense of empathy. This empathetic understanding serves as the foundation for creating solutions that genuinely address their unique requirements.  

The Inclusive Airports study will gather this qualitative information and develop an understanding of this cohort’s needs by following 24 participants as they navigate each step of their air travel journey, including:  

  1. Airport entrence and exit (taking into account our Canadian climate)
  2. Check-in
  3. Customs and security processes
  4. Traffic and long distances to the gate
  5. Gender-neutral toilets
  6. Access to the aircraft
  7. The aircraft seat
  8. Immigration process
  9. Baggage claim
  10. Airport administrative offices (for those wishing to work at the airport)

These 24 participants have a variety of disabilities, including motor disabilities, visual disabilties, and invisible disabilities (autism spectrum, hearing impairments, chronic pain, and additional challenges). It will also include elderly participants with no specific disability. By following these individuals and conducting verbal and video interviews, the research team will gain a deep understanding of their lived experiences, the barriers they face during air travel, and opportunities for design improvements and solutions.  


Recommendations and areas for improvement 

 The Inclusive Airports study will examine air travel accessibility on multiple dimensions: the built environment, including layout, infrastructure, and interior design of airports; technology and signage; and the human factor, such as service availability and interactions with airport staff.  

We expect to develop recommendations around previously-identified accessibility barriers, including those noted by Transport Canada below.  

Transport Canada, Accessibility Plan, 2022-2025

About Our Experts

Ernesto Morales, PhD

The Inclusive Airports project is being led by Ernesto Morales, Ph.D., via the University of Laval. Ernesto’s background in architecture and design has served him well as a researcher, and in his capacity on the advisory committee on building accessibility and safety for disabled people of Quebec. Ernesto’s research focuses on inclusive accessibility and design solutions to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities (cognitive, motor or visual) in objects, spaces or urban design of healthcare institutions (short and long term), and in particular for patient surroundings and workspaces for caregivers. 

Matthew Parks, AAA | MARC | LEED® AP
Partner, Architect 

Matthew is DIALOG’s lead expert supporting the Inclusive Airports project. He specializes in airport and aviation design, and has been involved in projects across western Canada, including Calgary International Airport’s International Facilities Project. He has also brought his expertise in aviation design to airports in Australia and New Zealand. An experienced architect with a passion for project design, Matthew’s 18-plus year career spans all facets of project work, from master planning to detail drawing and contract administration. Matthew understands how design can create a space that is intuitive, welcoming, and social.