How airports can make travel more accessible for flyers with disabilities

A recent report from the Department of Transportation showed that complaints from flyers with disabilities have more than doubled since before the pandemic, leading the department to announce a "Bill of Rights" to help people understand their protections under federal law. Some airports are stepping up to help ensure everyone has a smooth ride. Special correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Complaints from fliers with disabilities have more than doubled since before the pandemic. According to the Department of Transportation, the situation has gotten so bad that the department recently announced an airline travelers with disabilities' Bill of Rights to help people understand their protections under federal law. But some airports are stepping up to help ensure that passengers have a smooth ride. Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

  • Megan Thompson:

    On a Saturday morning in early August, Maggie Willie and her service dog, Pastel (ph), arrive at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Air travel isn't at the top of most people's lists of favorite things to do these days. And it's no different for Willie.

  • Maggie Willie:

    Flying is stressful. There's a lot of unknowns. I've had my wheelchair damaged, girl, so when I got to my next destination it was broken.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Willie has a neuromuscular disease called primary lateral sclerosis. And luckily today she and Pastel are not flying anywhere. They're taking a practice run through the airport. So both feel more prepared when there's a real trip.

  • Maggie Willie:

    I haven't flown for a long time. I wanted to see what was new because it takes away some of the stress when I actually go flying.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's all part of a program called Navigating MSP.

  • Kay Morris:

    What do we do next?

  • Tate Morris:

    Check in.

  • Megan Thompson:

    One Saturday a month people with special needs can come to the airport to get familiar with the air travel process without the pressure of having to catch an actual flight.

  • Tate Morris:

    Where's the plane?

  • Kay Morris:

    Well first we have to do our tickets, remember?

  • Megan Thompson:

    The program was originally geared towards children with autism like 16 year old Tate Morris. His whole family is here preparing for a trip in October.

  • Kay Morris:

    We're going to Orlando. We're going to Disney.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Are you excited to go to Disney World?

  • Tate Morris:

    Yes. I'm going to go on the rides.

  • Kay Morris:

    Yeah.

  • Phil Burke, Metropolitan Airports Commission:

    Originally, people were kept on asking, can we come out and just get a feel for what this is going to be like?

  • Megan Thompson:

    So Phil Burke, who's in charge of customer experience for the airport, launched the program for families in 2013. And then one for service dogs and their handlers the next year.

  • Phil Burke:

    I want to make MSP the most accessible airport in the world.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The airport also created a travelers with disabilities advisory committee that helps keep accessibility front and center. And it offers an array of services like a lanyard with sunflowers that alert staff to travelers with hidden disabilities like hearing loss, and free access to an app that people with low vision or blindness can use to navigate the terminal independently.

  • No Name Given:

    There's a gentleman six feet in front of you that looks like he's finishing up …

  • Megan Thompson:

    MSP is now considered a leader when it comes to accessibility.

  • Phil Burke:

    It's the right thing to do to make sure that we have done everything within our power to make that journey that our customers are on equitable and accessible.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's been at least eight years since Maggie Wille has flown and she says the improvements are clear.

  • Maggie Willie:

    People are more educated, and there's more services at the airport too.

  • Megan Thompson:

    After Willie and the canine group go through security, they head to the newest addition, this mock airplane cabin. It was previously used to train flight and cabin crews at Delta's headquarters in Atlanta. Delta paid to have it taken apart and shipped to MSP last fall, where it was reassembled and readied for its new purpose, educating travelers.

  • Ian Barrett, Delta Airlines Pilot:

    We're going to go ahead and get off on the airplane.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's thought to be the first facility of its kind. Delta pilot, Ian Barrett, who has a child with special needs gives these tours on his time off.

  • Ian Barrett:

    And we talked earlier about the best seat for you is actually the middle.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Because the window seat has less foot room for the dogs and in the aisle seat, they could get stepped on.

  • No Name Given:

    Lift your knee up and have her just come in front of you.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A team of other volunteers, coaches, the dogs and their handlers. There we go. In the new cabin, Maggie Willie can also practice using the transport chair, a small wheelchair that fits down the narrow aisle.

  • Maggie Willie:

    My disability changes. So I haven't always used transport chairs. But now I would need to and having Pastel have an opportunity to practice getting in between the seats and finding her space. Pastel, OK, down. There you go, good girl. If she can practice that ahead of time, it's less stress for her. She gets less worn out. I get less warn out.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Willie says the new cabin does more than just allow them to practice.

  • Maggie Willie:

    It's acknowledging that we're travelers too. And we want to have the same easy experience as everybody else.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The mock cabin will also be used to train emergency responders and the airport personnel who provide wheelchair assistance.

  • Rich Kargel, Delta Airlines Pilot:

    OK, my name is Rich. I'm also the father of a son with autism.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Another Delta Pilot, Rich Kargel helped facilitate the cabins move up from Atlanta, and today he's leading the other tour for families.

  • Rich Kargel:

    All right, what's your name?

  • Tate Morris:

    Tate Morris.

  • Rich Kargel:

    And how old are you?

  • Tate Morris:

    16.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tate's mom Kay Morris, says a busy airport can be difficult.

  • Tate Morris:

    Thank you.

  • Kay Morris:

    We never know what's going to trigger a behavior or meltdown for Tate. Sounds are sometimes triggering, it's too loud. There's too many people. They're too close to him. A waiting is a struggle if something is supposed to happen at one o'clock, his expectation is that happens at one o'clock. And that's not the way the world works.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Like today when the real live airplane Tate and the other kids are supposed to board is late getting to the gate. Getty the therapy dog works the crowd to keep the kids calm.

  • Tate Morris:

    Wait at the gate for your airplane.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tate was given this deck of images laying out the day's events which helps make the process more concrete and predictable.

  • Kay Morris:

    And you sit on the plane and you put on your seatbelt and the week before we fly, we'll probably go through it every night.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The plane finally arrives.

  • No Name Given:

    This time I'm going to welcome you aboard our flight to 'Friendsville' and I will start to back drop. Good choice, so thanks again for your patience and welcome onboard.

  • Kay Morris:

    What is the first thing we have to do?

  • Tate Morris:

    Fasten your seat belt.

  • Kay Morris:

    Oh, did it get you? Oh, I think it goes this way.

  • Tate Morris:

    This seems too big for me.

  • Kay Morris:

    It's too big, said nobody ever in an airplane

  • Tate Morris:

    No.

  • Megan Thompson:

    More than 1300 families have gone through the tours and most of them have been fully booked.

  • Kay Morris:

    To have an opportunity to get to go into an airplane and it's enclosed in the sounds are different and the seatbelts are different. Everything is different. You can see what the bathroom and an airplane looks like, you don't get that experience anywhere else but here.

  • Tate Morris:

    I'm going to go right now.

  • Kay Morris:

    Yeah.

  • Megan Thompson:

    After all, Long day Tate is tired but his family is feeling a lot more confident about that trip to Disney World. For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Megan Thompson at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport.

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