Despite fewer, crowded flights and more flight delays combined with stressed out and sometimes untrained staffs – all real problems for handicapped travelers – the disabled travel market is growing.
As the industry marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that truly transformed the industry, the disabled market is a force to be reckoned with. A Harris poll estimates that people with disabilities spent $13.6 billion on 31 million trips last year.
And it’s a total that could grow, even double, providing travel agents with a marketing opportunity. As any traveler in an airport, hotel or resort or on a cruise line can testify, disabled travelers are everywhere and remain an important segment of the travel market. Major destinations such as LasVegas have pioneered access for handicapped travelers.
Resorts, hotels, casinos, cruise lines, airports, motorcoach operators, airlines and car rental firms have gone out of their way to accommodate the disabled, who contrary to some perceptions, are often affluent and eager travelers looking for opportunities. This includes U.S. and international destinations that see opportunity.
Complaints about the airlines treatment of disabled passengers— tracked by the Department of Transportation (DOT)— are relatively few, at least compared to the number of flight delays or lost bags. For all of last year, the DOT received 517 disability complaints, up 8.4 percent from the total of 477 received in 2008.
On the plus side, disabled travelers are benefiting from great travel deals and great travel opportunities. Cruise lines, hotels and air carriers as well as Amtrak do a great day in day out job in handing disabled travelers. Online resources are also abundant, arming agents and disabled with information on destinations and transportation.
Roberta Schwartz, director of education for the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH) believes that travel by the disabled represents an opportunity for many travel agents willing to work with disabled travelers. Schwartz conducts training sessions at many industry meetings including Vacation.com and urges agents to have a basic knowledge of the expectations of the disabled traveler. “Disabled travelers have special needs and appreciate the advice and resources a professional agent can bring to bear,” she said.
She notes that, in addition to the resources offered by SATH, the Travel Institute has a course on working with disabled travelers. There are also a host of online resources useful to the agent or the disabled client. Every airline, including a majority of international carriers, has online information on travelers special needs including mobility tools such as scooters or wheelchairs. SATH itself is a good place to start (www.SATH.org).
SATH’s contribution is being recognized by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) as one of its 2010 Hall of Fame award winners. SATH, founded in 1976, is an educational nonprofit membership organization.
SATH participated in the writing of the regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carriers Access Act (regulates airlines handling of disabled), as well as Resolution 700 and 1700 of the International Air Transport Association (impacts international carriers). SATH has sponsored the World Congress for Travelers with Disabilities since 1977.
SATH isn’t alone. Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, recently applauded the efforts of his agency members to work with disabled travelers “Thanks to greater appreciation and understanding for the unique needs of those with disabilities, travel opportunities within the United States have never been more accessible,” he said.
A recent supplement to Fortune, sponsored by United Airlines and Amtrak in partnership with SATH, notes that “anyone who is disabled can get around in style- and comfort – thanks to the amenities the travel industry offers.” They note that disabled travel demand will increase if travel is made easier for this market. Amtrak reports year over year gains to 2009 sales of $19 million.
Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of SATH puts it nicely. “Disabled travelers don’t need charity, they need service. And the travel industry needs to know that providing these services is good business.”