Presley’s Place At Pittsburgh’s Airport Is A Model To Be Copied

Airports are mini-cities of activity. Planes come in and out, people run to catch their flight, others stop for extra security. Restaurants and stores try to keep lines short or create enough demand for a 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 just part of the exercise.

For those with sensory challenges, airports can be overwhelming and even scary. Slightly less than 3% of children they have been identified as members of the autistic spectrum, and some of these children find it difficult to navigate the busy airport environment. Families traveling with someone with sensory challenges may find the airport a real challenge and may even choose to drive a long journey instead of flying. Pittsburgh Airport (PIT) addressed this reality three years ago with the opening of Presley’s Place, and it has become a model for other airports to follow.

About Presley’s Place

Presley’s Place is a room on the A concourse at Pittsburgh International Airport that is made especially for the sensory challenged. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is an attractive, peaceful and pleasant place where families can relax before the next summer. Supported by American Airlines, the site also includes a mock-up of a real plane, and this may also 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 dad noticed how a sensory sensitive spot helped his son in preschool. Jason wrote to PIT CEO Christina Cassotis, and she worked with others to make the space a reality. Traveling with someone with sensory challenges can present difficulties, and Presley’s Place addresses this with a space designed to help make travel work.

Attracting new travel demand

World Health Organization estimates that 16% of the world’s population has some kind of disability. CDC says that over 25% of US citizens have some kind of disability. For airlines, disability often equates to wheelchairs. Airport wheelchair services are extremely useful for those with limited mobility, but wheelchairs are not a solution for other types of disabilities.

The airline industry is potentially missing out on millions of passengers if they don’t actively consider solutions other than wheelchairs. Presley’s Place is a response to a specific condition, and thus makes air travel more comfortable, or even possible for a segment of the population that needs this kind of space. If other US airports make their areas sensitive to sensors, it would probably create more families willing to fly. Obviously, the first airports to add would be a family friendly place like Orlando. As good as Presley’s Place is if you’re traveling through the PIT, it’s this network of venues across the country that will attract a new travel audience.

Low cost and high impact

Michael Swiatek is chief strategy and planning officer for Avianca airlines. Michael is also blind, making him one of the few, if not the only, blind senior executives in the airline industry. Michael is pragmatic about his challenges and understands airlines well enough to think about what airlines can do. He gave a great speech at the IATA World Travel Symposium last year, and as part of this speech he challenged the industry to think about things that are “low cost and high impact”. He also believes the industry needs to address accessibility in ways beyond wheelchairs, as it considers how to grow its ridership as part of its business.

Presley’s Place meets this challenge at PIT. Not that space is cheap — no airport real estate is cheap. But compared to other areas in the airport, it has been developed very efficiently. Compare this to a customer lounge, for example, and it was developed for a fraction of that cost. Getting a partner like American to donate some equipment has helped, and there are many ways the industry can help in this way.

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 passengers with sensory challenges. What is needed most is a conviction that it is the right thing to do and an acknowledgment that making the airport more accessible to more people is a good goal. Using local airline partners, as PIT has done, will help.

In addition to sensory-sensitive spaces, Presley’s Place and Michael Swiatek’s challenge should motivate airports and airlines to think about ways to make the airport and airline environment more accessible to more people. Wheelchair service is excellent for those who need one. The CDC says that in the US, mobility problems affect 12.1% of people with disabilities. Deafness and blindness combine for another 10%, and these are the next most fruitful areas to address since mobility is now generally well covered. Let’s find cheap and strong ways to get more people on planes!

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Forbes – Business

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