The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has today published new guidelines setting out how UK airports should support people with hidden disabilities, including autistic people. 

The guidance is based on a wide-ranging consultation with airports and disability organisations, including our charity. We were delighted to be involved in this and to have the opportunity to share the expertise we've built up helping different organisations achieve our Autism Friendly Award.

UK airports have welcomed the guidance, which clarifies their legal obligations in providing ‘special assistance’ to any person with a disability or reduced mobility, which includes those with hidden disabilities, when travelling through an airport and/or on board an aircraft. 

The CAA has asked the UK’s 30 largest UK airports to make the necessary improvements to their special assistance service and will publish a report on the changes made next year.

Key CAA guidelines for airports include:

  • Airport staff, including security staff, should have hidden disability awareness training, as well as training to cover communication techniques.
  • Ahead of travel, airports should provide clear and detailed information for people with hidden disabilities. This will help with overall familiarisation with the airport environment and help to ease anxiety and stress. Communication should include a combination of accessible videos, photos and pictures of airport processes. 
  • People with hidden disabilities should have the option of wearing a lanyard, bracelet or other suitably designed aid provided by the airport to ensure they are easily identified by staff and can get the assistance they need. 
  • Airports should provide a quiet area to wait for flights and quiet routes through the airport, for example bypassing the retail area. This will make travelling through the airport less stressful and disorientating and will benefit those with sensory impairments in particular. 
  • Clear images and audio messages should be available throughout the airport to help passengers find essential points such as toilets, quiet areas and assistance points. 
  • People with hidden disabilities must never be separated from a parent/friend/accompanying person during a security search, and security staff must explain prior to the search what screening will take place and make any necessary adjustments. 
  • Airports should consider facilitating ‘familiarisation visits’ or open days for passengers prior to travel to help them experience the airport and aircraft environment.

Director of the CAA’s Markets and Consumer Group, Richard Moriarty, said: “Everyone should have fair access to air travel and that’s why there are regulations in place to make sure passengers get the assistance they need to be able to fly. 

"Our engagement with disability organisations shows that people with hidden disabilities want to be in control of the assistance they receive, but they do not always get clear information ahead of travel about what support is available. 

“To help reduce stress and anxiety it is important passengers and their travelling companions have access to illustrative guides, online videos and photos, which explain the airport layout, the processes passengers need to go through, including security scanning, and what types of support is available. 

“We are really pleased with the support UK airports and disability organisations have provided to help us develop these guidelines, however this is just the start and over the next six months we expect airports to make changes and improvements to the services and assistance they provide passengers with hidden disabilities.” 

Daniel Cadey, Autism Access Development Manager, at The National Autistic Society, said: "The new guidance is an important step towards opening up the world to autistic people and their families.

"Like anyone else, people on the autism spectrum and families want the opportunity to travel and go on holiday. But many rely on routine and find the often busy, loud and unpredictable environment of airports disorientating and overwhelming.

"Helping organisations, including Gatwick airport, to achieve our Autism Friendly Award, we've seen how small adjustments can often make the biggest difference to autistic people. For instance, making sure that staff are aware of hidden conditions like autism, and that there are quieter places for autistic passengers to go if they're feeling overwhelmed.

"We were delighted to have had the opportunity to share our expertise with the Civil Aviation Authority by feeding into their guidelines, which have the potential to make a significant difference to a great many passengers.

"We hope that more organisations, including airlines, will follow this example and do their bit to help make sure autistic people and their families have the same opportunities to travel as everyone else."