In the opening day of the Passenger Terminal EXPO 2014 in Barcelona Reduced Mobility Rights reminds airports of the challenges dementia will pose to the air travel industry.
Baby boomers are getting older; they will travel more, and with greater frequency. And they will run right into the Alzheimer's firing range. How will the air travel industry cope? Greater public recognition, research, innovation and training are critical to meet the challenges of dementia.
Everyone in the air travel industry has a role to play in helping people with Alzheimer's. From the person at the check-in desk to cabin crew, people working throughout the aviation industry need to commit to learning more about dementia. Becoming dementia friendly will help ensure everyone has a smooth flight.
Alzheimer's Disease International estimates the global number of people living with dementia today is 44 million. The federation suggests this will climb to 76 million by 2030 and 135 million by 2050.
The US Alzheimer's Association states that the number of people in the United States with Alzheimer's disease aged 65 years and older is expected to almost triple to 13.8 million by the year 2050. Researchers highlight that around 22% of people aged 60 years and over will have some form of mild cognitive impairment by this point.
Why should airports and airlines be concerned about dementia? On Friday, May 3rd 2013, 83-year-old dementia sufferer Victoria Kong walked past the assistance agent waiting to meet her at the gate of her flight from Barbados to Reagan National Airport in Washington DC. CCTV footage shows the elderly as one of the first passengers to deplane. She did not look disoriented or in distress.
Mrs Kong walked past her daughter without seeing her and wandered off the terminal building. Her body was found the following Monday in wooded area about 200 metres from the airport perimeter. Her relatives said the elderly probably died from the chilly weather.
The travel experience of a passenger with Alzheimer's can plunge into chaos at its early stages, as soon as the person reaches the airport terminal building. A new, largely unknown location or a crowded terminal building can cause the onset of severe disorientation.
On board the aircraft, factors such as cabin pressurization, a crowded cabin, and seating restrictions (safety belts) may also trigger unexpected behaviours.
The vast majority of airlines do not require passengers diagnosed with conditions like dementia to travel with a companion. However, they reserve the right to evaluate each case individually.
In spite of required pre-flight screenings, passengers at an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease, but unaware of the severity of their condition, in denial, or fearing disclosure may result in being refused boarding, slip through the cracks and end up traveling by air unaccompanied.
Looking forward, a broader understanding of dementia and specific training are key elements to cope with the growing number of passengers with Alzheimer's traveling by air. Perhaps, the introduction of a new Special Category of Passenger, the Unaccompanied Adult, could be the answer to assist those able to perform basic safety tasks, yet in need of constant monitoring and guidance throughout the journey.
A solution like the Unaccompanied Adult may as well be the best answer to deliver a safe and secure travel experience for passengers with invisible disabilities, Autism, and other mental impairments, providing passengers’ relatives peace of mind through a well tested, affordable solution mirroring existing procedures in use for Unaccompanied Minors services.
Airlines and airports must take swift action to identify methods ensuring the correct input of information at the booking stage and procedures to safeguard the integrity of the transmission of information process so that assistance most suitable to the needs of the individual is delivered. Getting the communication process right will prove crucial to deliver customer service excellence in a financially sustainable manner.