Airports are mini-cities of activity. Planes move in and out, people run to catch flights, others pull over for extra security. Restaurants and stores try to keep lines short or create enough demand for the line. For most people, airports are manageable spaces that can be exciting at times, and the activity and noise that comes with visiting an airport is only part of the exercise.
Airports can be overwhelming and even scary for those with sensory issues. Just under 3% of children are considered to be on the autism spectrum, and some of these children have difficulty navigating the busy airport environment. Families traveling with someone with sensory issues may find the airport a real challenge and may even choose to drive a long journey rather than fly. Pittsburgh Airport (PIT) addressed this reality three years ago with the opening of Presley Place, and it has become a model for other airports to follow.
About Presley Place
Presley’s Place is a room in Concourse A at Pittsburgh International Airport that is specially designed for people with sensory impairments. It is open 24/7 and is an inviting, calm and pleasant space where families can relax before their next flight. Backed by American Airlines, the site also includes a model of an actual airplane, and that too may make the ultimate boarding experience less stressful for some.
The name comes from Presley Rudge, son of Jason Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at PIT. Presley has autism, and his father noticed how his son helped a sensory sensitive area in preschool. Jason wrote to PIT Executive Director Christina Kasotis, and she worked with others to make the space a reality. Traveling with someone with sensory issues can be challenging, and Presley’s place addresses this with a space designed to make travel efficient.
Attracting new travel demand
The World Health Organization estimates that 16% of the world’s population has a disability. The CDC says that more than 25% of US citizens have a disability. For airlines, disability has often been addressed with a wheelchair. Airport wheelchair service is extremely helpful for those with limited mobility, but a wheelchair is not a solution for other types of disabilities.
The airline industry is potentially losing millions of passengers if they don’t proactively consider solutions other than wheelchairs. Presley’s Place is a response to a specific condition, and in doing so, they are making air travel more comfortable or even possible for a segment of the population that needs such a space. If other US airports install their own sensory sensitive areas, it will likely create more families willing to fly. The obvious first airports to add would be a family-friendly destination like Orlando. Presley’s place is just as good if you’re traveling PIT, the nationwide network of places like this is what will attract a new audience to travel.
Low cost and high impact
Michael Sviatek is Chief Strategy and Planning Officer at Avianca. Michael is also blind, making him one of the only, if not the only, blind senior officers in the airline industry. Michael is pragmatic about his challenges and understands airlines well enough to think about what airlines can do. Last year he gave a great speech at the IATA World Passenger Symposium, and as part of this speech, he challenged the industry to think about things that are “low cost, high impact”. He also believes the industry needs to look beyond wheelchairs as it considers how to increase the passenger base of its work.
Presley’s Place lives up to this challenge at PIT. It is not that the space is cheap. no airport real estate is cheap. However, compared to other areas of the airport, it has been developed very efficiently. Compare this to a customer lounge, for example, and it’s designed for a fraction of that cost. Donating some equipment to an American partner helped, and the industry has many ways to help in this way.
A model for other airports
Presley’s Place is unique to PIT and other airports should use this model to develop their own space or spaces for their sensory impaired travelers. The main thing is to be sure that this is true, and to realize that making the airport more accessible to more people is a good goal. Using local airline partners, as PIT did, will help.
Beyond sensory sensitive areas, Presley’s place and Michael Swiatek’s challenge should prompt airports and airlines to think about ways to make the airport and airline environment more accessible to more people. Wheelchair services are great for those who need them. The CDC says mobility problems affect 12.1% of people with disabilities in the US. Deafness and blindness combine for a further 10% and these are the areas that need to be addressed most effectively as mobility is now generally well covered. Let’s find low-cost, high-impact ways to get more people on planes.