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Your employees deserve better: Why the #RightsOnFlights movement matters for business

JOHANNESBURG – There is a lot of buzz about passengers’ rights and the accessibility of air travel – from which arm rail belongs to whom, to whether passengers should be allowed to bring service animals on board, to the better care of disabled people and their essential equipment. But one conversation in particular has taken hold. Alongside the RightsOnFlights hashtag. What started as passengers with disabilities speaking up has blossomed into a broader call for more equity and accessibility across the skies. It has even attracted big names like TV presenters, entrepreneurs, politicians, and rights groups. It’s a clear sign the time has come for business travel to evolve.

“This movement is laying the groundwork for a system overhaul of the entire travel industry,” says Bonnie Smith, General Manager of FCM. She explains that while #RightsonFlights might be focusing on wheelchairs, accessibility in air travel affects a broader community of travellers with various disabilities.

She says policy reform lies at the heart of this evolution. “While discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited under the Constitution and its operative legislation, there is little guidance available to air service operators in South Africa. The Civil Aviation Regulations provides some guidance around inflight cabin safety, but not much around accessibility,” Smith says.

The absence of comprehensive regulations makes standardising accessibility measures across the industry difficult. “Travel managers and companies must advocate for policy revisions that prioritise inclusivity and work with regulatory bodies to enact meaningful change,” Smith emphasises.

Not every disability is the same

According to Accessible South Africa, an online platform that shares information about accessibility for disabled people, there are potentially over 600,000 disabled travellers in the country. This includes people who are wheelchair users, blind or partially sighted, deaf or hard of hearing, mental health or intellectually challenged, parents and babies, or elderly. “Every person’s disability comes with its own unique set of challenges, and it’s up to us to find out how we can best accommodate those disabilities,” Smith says.

Some domestic carriers in South Africa don’t permit wheelchairs exceeding a certain weight threshold – they should be shipped separately. The problem is that most powered wheelchairs are over the weight threshold. Other domestic carriers will carry powered wheelchairs but require the passenger to forward pictures of the battery used in their mobility device to ascertain the type of battery and whether it can be separated from the device and its ports adequately secured to prevent discharge.

During a panel discussion at Africa Travel Week 2024, Jabaar Mohamed, the Provincial Director for DeafSA Western Cape, unpacked some of the specific challenges deaf travellers face, such as being offered wheelchairs at airports. “It’s important for all those that work in hospitality to be trained to ask individual travellers what their needs are, rather than making assumptions,” he said.

Travellers on the autism spectrum can also become very overwhelmed by the bright lights, big crowds of people, confined spaces and loud noises, making it impossible for them to navigate air travel. Some can have debilitating anxiety attacks as a result.

As a result, travelling can often evoke feelings of dread for many disabled passengers.

Taking action to create accessibility

Many organisations in the travel industry have taken it into their own hands to address some of these challenges. Some airlines have redesigned their entertainment systems to include audio descriptions for blind passengers, text-to-speech functions, and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Most airports now provide pathways, ramps, and elevators for smooth wheelchair navigation. Priority boarding and seat allocation closer to airplane entry and exit points have also been made more available for disabled passengers, and some airlines are even redesigning their seats to fold away so wheelchair passengers can securely attach to the aircraft.

Many air service operators are also incorporating safe spaces for sensory-challenged people, including those on the autism spectrum.

Many of the international carriers servicing South Africa that have operations in the United States have decided to follow the US Department of Transport’s DOT Rule, which prohibits the need for advanced notice and placing limitations on wheelchairs. It also mandates other services and accessibility provisions that airlines must provide, including helping them embark and disembark and priority for mobility equipment over the luggage in an aircraft hold.

Smith says the best way businesses can make a difference is by investing in education and training programmes that foster disability awareness among staff.

Travel managers should encourage employees to share their accessibility needs and requirements when booking trips. Collecting this data can help identify gaps in current travel offerings and inform future supplier negotiations and RFPs. Working closely with your Travel Management Company (TMC) to capture and align traveller accessibility needs upfront saves time and creates a more dignified experience versus repeatedly explaining needs. The strategic advantage of partnering with your TMC to support the ‘Rights on Flights’ movement and drive industry change can give your travel program a competitive edge.

“Preparing and making the necessary arrangements in advance is essential when dealing with disabled travellers. You have to conduct thorough research and plan accordingly to maximise their travel experience,” Smith says.

By embracing the “Rights on Flights” movement and taking concrete steps to improve accessibility, business travel managers can demonstrate their company’s commitment to inclusion while ensuring all employees can travel safely and comfortably. It’s a win-win for companies, employees, and the air travel industry as a whole, concludes Smith.

**ends**

For more information about FCM Travel, or to interview FCM Travel General Manager South Africa, Bonnie Smith, call Dorine Reinstein on 083 278 8994 or email dorine@bigambitions.co.za.

About FCM Travel:

FCM Travel, the flagship corporate travel brand at Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG), is the business travel partner of choice for large national, multinational and global corporations. We are an award-winning global corporate travel management company ranking as one of the top five by size around the world. We operate a global network which spans more than 100 countries, employing over 6000 people.

FCM are transforming the business of travel through our empowered and accountable people who deliver 24/7 service and are available either online or offline. Leveraging FCM’s negotiating strength and supplier relationships in conjunction with our tailored business travel programs, our expertise delivers more for our clients where it matters most to them.

Visit us at www.fcmtravel.co.za

Issued by: Big Ambitions

Contact: Dorine Reinstein

Tel: +27 83 278 8994

Email: Dorine@bigambitions.co.za

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