Friendly skies, friendlier airports

The airlines could see a lot more business from seniors, says one expert, if they made airports easier to navigate.

Like many other baby boomers, Harry Wolfe anticipates an active retirement that includes travel - between five and 10 trips a year. Yet even now, whenever he takes his mother to visit friends and relatives in other cities, he is keenly aware of the ways in which airports fail to be "senior-friendly."

He divides these shortcomings into three W's: walking, waiting, and way- finding.

Distances between terminals and gates involve long walks. Check-in counters, security gates, and baggage-claim areas require passengers to stand and wait, sometimes for prolonged periods, with little or no seating.

And maps of sprawling airports can sometimes be hard to find and even harder to read. Those that attempt to convey too much information or show three-dimensional space can be confusing.

Unless airports are modified to accommodate the growing number of older travelers in the next 10 to 20 years, Mr. Wolfe warns, a huge potential market of baby boomers with the time and money to fly might not board planes as often as airlines would hope, simply because they dislike airports.

"I see a wave of my counterparts who are going to want to travel a lot," Wolfe says in a phone interview. He is a senior project manager for Maricopa Association of Governments, in Phoenix, which studies transportation issues for the region.

"If we can start making adaptations to help their needs, other age groups will benefit," he adds. These include families and business travelers.

As Wolfe explains, "A woman who is dragging three children through an airport also has a mobility impediment. So does a businessman who is carrying a laptop and carry-on luggage."

Among his suggestions to make airports more attractive to older people:

• Provide additional electric carts and moving sidewalks to take people to gates.

• Install elevators where possible. Getting on and off escalators, especially with luggage, can be challenging for some travelers.

• Add seating near ticketing and check-in counters, security gates, and baggage-claim areas.

• Install a lift device for hoisting carry-on luggage onto a conveyor belt at security to eliminate heavy lifting.

• Put up extra "You are here" maps in terminals. These need to be well-lighted and basic, and have large text. Signs directing passengers to gates, baggage claim, and ground transportation should be simple enough to interpret at a glance.

• Improve terminal lighting and acoustics.

• Station trained volunteers station guides throughout the airport to offer directions and help. Have them wear a standard uniform or badge that would make them instantly recognizable.

• Accompany audible announcements with text messages.

• Standardize machines that dispense boarding passes so they don't vary between airlines and airports.

Wolfe unveiled his recommendations at an international conference on new transportation technology for older people, which was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge last month.

His findings grow out of research on aging and comments from a focus group he conducted with older travelers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. He also interviewed older passengers individually.

In addition to the benefits for travelers, these improvements could have direct economic value for airlines by encouraging senior travel, Wolfe says.

An increase of 30 percent in senior travel would add 6 million more air trips a year. That would potentially add $120 million in airport revenue and $900 million in airline revenue.

"As we all continue to look for ways to have meaningful lives as we age and retire, the ability to take air trips and travel is important," he says. "It's almost like dessert."

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