Over the years, we have seen dramatic changes in the screening process, including advances in technology to address a wider range of threats. Yet the additional and changing procedures at checkpoints rarely make the screening process simpler for the majority of passengers, let alone for those with physical and other disabilities. Billy Shallow discusses common issues experienced both by individuals with disabilities and the security staff tasked with ensuring that everyone admitted airside has been thoroughly screened. He also explores initiatives being implemented to ensure that all passengers with disabilities, whether visible or not, are treated with dignity and respect.

Every flight, whether it is to go on a vacation with the family or a business trip for the day, has one thing in common – everyone will have to go through security screening at the airport. Security is often cited as one of the most stressful elements of the journey. Three of the most common annoyances for passengers are often long queues, intrusive processes, or a poor customer experience. However, there are some passengers that often have a worse experience than others. Those with disabilities, reduced mobility or carrying essential medical equipment sometimes have to go through inconsistent security screening at different airports.

States often have different requirements, and security staff on the front line are unaware of the requirements or have not been trained in alternative measures, which would have the same security outcome but would be less intrusive for those passengers.

Aviation, like all other transport modes, needs to recognise and accommodate growing numbers of persons with disabilities who fly, including persons with reduced mobility (PRM). Due to a steady increase in life expectancy globally, the number of persons with disabilities, persons with reduced mobility, elderly travellers, and others is increasing rapidly.

There are a number of challenges that are specific to security screening. For example, if a passenger has reduced mobility and requires the use of a wheelchair, it is often difficult to conduct a physical search. Most people outside of the security industry might argue that a person in a wheelchair would not pose a threat to aviation. Security regulators, on the contrary, might say that terrorists are looking for innovative ways to carry out attacks and that looks can be deceiving. Therefore, all passengers must be screened to a standard that protects us from acts of unlawful interference.

Other challenges to screening include common disabilities such as deafness or blindness, and passengers with reduced vision or hearing may need additional time or help through the process.

There are also a number of invisible disabilities such as those who suffer from mental illness, or who have neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or degenerative psychological disorders such as dementia. Medical equipment and service animals also present their own unique challenges for screening. Finding the combination of the right technology, processes and customer service is key to maintaining the same effective outcome.

Global Standards and Guidance

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has included information within Annex 9 (Facilitation), which states that persons with disabilities should be provided assistance in order to ensure that they receive services customarily available to the general public. Assistance should be provided in a manner that respects the dignity of the individual.

The experience of passengers with disabilities will largely depend on how well the airport can make the customer feel comfortable, providing quality assistance and customer service. Being empathetic to passengers with disabilities, allowing them extra time, explaining the process and using alternative and less intrusive security measures will put the passenger at ease and make them feel comfortable while they fly; something that is much needed within the industry currently.

Turning to aviation security guidance, it is well recognised that accommodations need to be made for passengers with disabilities. A chapter in ICAO’s security manual, Doc8973, deals with the issue of screening people with physical disabilities, and is under regular review to ensure that it is up to date.

Technologies and Alternative Screening Methods

Screening measures are implemented depending on the state and its threat level, which is determined via risk assessment. Any measure put in place must exceed the baseline for screening passengers and their hand baggage, and new technologies are being introduced to detect a wider range of threats. For example, in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the USA, walk-through metal detectors are – or will soon be – obsolete, and will be replaced by security scanners or advanced imaging technology (AIT) to detect a range of threats. Likewise, computed tomography is gradually replacing conventional X-ray machines as a more advanced technology.

As technology advances, some passengers with disabilities will not be able to go through certain machines, and medical equipment will either need to be exempt from screening or an alternative offered. Some examples are provided below:

Security Scanners/AIT

These machines are designed to pick up threats carried on one’s body but require the passenger to have their hands static in a position above their head or even turn a full 360 degrees. Therefore, passengers who struggle to raise their hands, such as the elderly, should be offered a full pat-down instead, supplemented by explosive trace detection (ETD) where necessary. Pat-downs should be offered in private rooms, with a witness present.

PRM Passengers

There is no technology available that screens passengers with reduced mobility in their wheelchair. These passengers should therefore be given a pat-down and the wheelchair visibly inspected. This process should be supplemented with ETD screening. Screeners should ensure that passengers are able to walk or stand unassisted before removing any walking aids or crutches.

Medical Devices

Screeners must be able to recognise common medical aids and avoid asking passengers to remove them. They should also be aware of alternative screening measures that can be deployed in the presence of a medical aid.

“…require the passenger to have their hands static in a position above their head or even turn a full 360 degrees. Therefore, passengers who struggle to raise their hands, such as the elderly, should be offered a full pat-down instead…”

Service Animals

Service animals should be hand searched to check there is nothing hidden on their body, and screeners should be aware that harnesses may cause metal detectors to alarm.

Screening staff should also be aware of other potential issues; for example, a person may not be able to lift their baggage themselves. Additionally, the contents of baggage belonging to a person with a visual impairment should be replaced exactly as they were found and any medication must be carefully repacked.

Offering alternative measures that are equivalent to the standard procedures deployed by airports is a positive exercise that will put passengers with disabilities at ease, improving their customer experience whilst maintaining strict security standards.

The advent of COVID-19 brings about additional challenges, with measures such as pat-downs becoming a risk from a health perspective. Stringent hygiene standards must be maintained through the wearing of personal protective equipment and minimising touch.



Communication is a key requirement for delivering a better service for passengers with disabilities. At the point a passenger purchases their ticket, they should be asked whether they need any special support on arrival at the airport. The airport and airline can then deploy resources to these passengers and make them feel as comfortable as possible from when they arrive to take their flight. Airport personnel should have different communication tools in place to support people with visual or auditory impairments.

“…the contents of baggage belonging to a person with a visual impairment should be replaced exactly as they were found…”

ICAO security guidance material identifies several key points on communication that are relevant for screening staff including:

  • Focus on the person, not the disability, and treat all persons with respect;
  • Remember that not all disabilities are obvious and that some may be hidden;
  • Address the person directly and use clear, plain speech – not jargon;
  • Ask how they may assist and listen to the advice offered.
  • This approach requires a customer service focus and highlights the need for proper training.


Hidden Disabilities

Hidden disabilities may include a wide range of conditions, including neurodevelopmental conditions (ASD, ADHD also learning disabilities such as global development delay, dyslexia/dyspraxia), mental illness (such as anxiety, psychosis or depression) and people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries or have neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia.

As a result of such disabilities, passengers’ memory, concentration and/or communication can be affected.

Individuals living with ASD may have challenges with air travel for a number of reasons. Individuals on the autism spectrum thrive in predictable environments and may have challenges learning new routines in unfamiliar settings, such as boarding an airplane at the airport. Sensory sensitivities may make it challenging for individuals on the spectrum to cope with the crowds, noise and lighting conditions that characterise the airport environment, and especially a security checkpoint (ACI Airports & Persons with Disabilities Handbook Fifth Edition 2018).

Feeling unsafe, fear of getting lost and anxiety from noise or being around other people can bring a great deal of stress. Many of these challenges can be overcome or managed more effectively by using appropriate supports. Individuals living with ASD, or the families travelling with them, benefit from having information about what to expect prior to entering a new environment, and visual supports to navigate new routines and settings. Social stories and checklists explaining the air travel routine can be very effective aids. In addition, anxiety can be reduced for many individuals on the spectrum if sensory overload is decreased. Individuals with autism can benefit from the opportunity to board first and disembark last, to avoid long queues and wait times at security, and to have quiet spaces where noise and crowds are reduced.

While such conditions may be invisible and not as evident as some physical disabilities, support for persons with psychosocial disabilities in the form of staff training remains a critical factor in enabling independent travel for such people.

“…individuals on the autism spectrum thrive in predictable environments and may have challenges learning new routines in unfamiliar settings, such as boarding an airplane at the airport…”

Many airports are now asking for passengers with hidden disabilities to visit the airport customer service desk in advance of proceeding to security in order to pick up a badge or lanyard to wear where staff can easily identify those that may need extra assistance through security. For example, Gatwick Airport has won the Dementia Innovation Award for their hidden disability lanyard. The successful rollout of a hidden disability lanyard has been recognised for its forward-thinking approach towards supporting passengers with dementia. The lanyards are improving awareness of the challenges faced by people who may appear healthy but are physically, emotionally, or cognitively impaired. It is these initiatives of communication that need to continue into the future, which set airports apart from their competitors and drive the industry forward.

The Importance of Training

The challenge, then, is ensuring that the message gets out to all screening authorities and their staff, regardless of whether they are employed by an airport, a third-party screening organisation or are government employees. Security officer training is paramount in ensuring that passengers with disabilities are comfortable throughout their security process. Affected passengers commonly report that airport security officers are often unaware of how to handle passengers with different disabilities, highlighting the need for a robust training plan.

Understandably, aviation security training often focuses solely on regulation and detection of threats. However, many airports are going one step further, training their teams on the importance of customer experience. Training programmes that teach security officers on the signs of a disability and how to support these passengers during the screening process is naturally becoming more important; capacity building and training at state level through ICAO will also be needed to support this approach.

The Role of Airports, Airlines and Regulators

Airports, airlines and regulators need to work together to improve the experience for persons with disabilities. Regulators need to set outcome-focused regulations that offer different alternative measures of screening to support passengers with disabilities. Security screening should never be viewed as a “one-size-fits-all” approach and should be targeted to improve the passenger experience where feasible.

The Sunflower Lanyard Scheme on offer at Cardiff Airport  (Credit: Cardiff Airport)
The Sunflower Lanyard Scheme on offer at Cardiff Airport
(Credit: Cardiff Airport)

Regulators also have an important role to play in assessing how accessible an airport is to cater for passengers who need extra assistance. Within the United Kingdom, the Department for Transport (DfT) are leading the way by providing a rating for all of the main airports in the UK and the processes, technology, and services they put in place for improving the travel experience for people with disabilities. Regulators across the world should set standards for accessibility, just like they do for safety and security. Airports should be measured against this baseline and we should constantly strive for improvement so that it becomes the norm.

“…Gatwick Airport has won the Dementia Innovation Award for their hidden disability lanyard…”

ACI Europe has launched its Best Airport Award scheme for accessibility and support for improving conditions for disabled passengers. Gatwick Airport won the award in 2019 because they demonstrated a continuous drive to support their passengers. The award was given in recognition of the following industry leading initiatives:

  • Training all frontline staff to recognise and offer appropriate help to passengers with hidden disabilities such as autism and dementia;
  • Opening an ‘airline-style lounge’ specifically for passengers with reduced mobility;
  • Investing in the UK’s first airport sensory room;

Initiating what became a UK-wide hidden disability lanyard scheme, which acts as a discreet signal that a passenger may need a little extra help or time.

Airports have a responsibility to build on the success of airport cases such as London Gatwick, Seattle Airport and Sofia airports. Training programmes and hidden disability lanyards are two low-cost options that make a huge impact on the experience and wellbeing of the passenger. The whole industry needs to work together to ensure that those with disabilities are treated in an appropriate manner. The industry needs to demonstrate that they are treating all members of society equally, and that is something that you cannot put a price on.

bill shallow

Billy Shallow is Manager, Smart Security for the Airports Council International (ACI). He leads ACI World’s Smart Security programme, focusing on working with innovative airports, airlines and regulators to implement improved security effectiveness, customer experience and operational efficiency. Before joining ACI, Billy worked at London City Airport for five years designing and implementing their security transformation programme. Billy then went on to lead consulting projects for 18 months working at King Abdulaziz International Airport Jeddah, Brussels Airport, Birmingham Airport and Belfast City on security and optimisation programmes.