Skift Take

A lot of these solutions will go a long way in improving general usability of the airport for all passengers, and especially the increasingly important and large demographic of elderly travelers.

A fascinating new study by Transportation Research Board’s Airport Cooperative Research Program on the issues impacting the elderly passengers at American airports shows that the “ignored and invisible” population has a lot to worry about, and airports still have a long way to go to accommodate the fast-growing group of aging travelers in United States.

So what are the important physical and psychological needs of this important demographic at our airports? We’ve extracted the summary of the 37-page report below, which gives a good sense of the needs and challenges for airports, from a design, usability and technology perspective:

The number of aging and elderly travelers is increasing, challenging airports and airlines to respond to the physical and psychological needs of this important demographic. According to the Administration on Aging, the number of persons over 65 years of age is projected to increase from 40 million in 2010 to 70 million—from 13% to 19% of the population—by 2030.

Although healthier in some respects than earlier generations, this age group is subject to such chronic illnesses as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and obesity, any of which can affect a person’s ability to navigate an airport. The normal effects of aging, including muscular/skeletal problems, respiratory conditions, and deteriorating sight and hearing, also play a role. Contributing psychological issues include anxiety and lack of ability to adapt to change.

The stress affecting anyone undertaking a major journey can be felt more acutely by an older person because of the factors mentioned above. This study identified the following as the most prevalent issues the elderly face:


  • Unfamiliarity with a complex airport environment
  • Unclear or confusing informational and directional signage
  • Difficulty understanding the meaning and terminology of directional signs.


  • Standing or waiting in line, at check-in, passenger security screening, bag claim, or curbside
  • Long walking distances in the terminal, parking garage, and surface lots
  • Handling heavy bags at curbside, check-in, and bag claim.

Technology and equipment:

  • Understanding and using self-service devices
  • Negotiating the security check point process
  • Using escalators and moving walkways.


  • Difficulty in using toilet facilities
  • Using congested retail and food service concessions.

The interviews with airport authorities in U.S. indicated that there was certainly an industry awareness of the special needs of elderly passengers. In all cases, close attention was being paid to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Besides that, the following efforts were identified:


  • Master plans commissioned to clarify signage
  • Signage inventories carried out, and the removal of redundant signs
  • Installation of simpler, clearer, brighter public service signs
  • Staffed information kiosks supplemented by touchscreens
  • Visual two-way paging systems
  • Airport-specific smartphone wayfinding applications.


  • Seating provided in check-in lobbies, concourse areas, bag claim areas, and curbside
  • Availability of wheelchairs
  • Motorized carts organized into “transit systems” for the elderly and disabled
  • Parking shuttles providing service to the passenger’s car
  • Shuttle buses with low decks to align with sidewalk curbs
  • Lounges for passengers to await ground transportation
  • Remote and off-site bag check
  • Baggage pick-up and delivery services.

Technology and equipment:

  • Customer service personnel assisting at self-service devices
  • Video displays explaining the security screening process
  • TSA Cares and TSANotificationCard programs
  • More elevators, ramps, and sloped floors as alternatives to escalators
  • Audible caution alerts at escalators and moving walkways.


  • Wider toilet stalls
  • Volunteer help stations
  • Greater provision of family toilets, which are often used by the elderly
  • Concessioncontractsrequiringthesameaccessibilitystandardsasthepublicspaces
  • Availability of porters in bag claim,etc.

A number of interventions that would clearly benefit the elderly were not yet commonly employed, most likely owing to the cost of implementing them, particularly in existing buildings. These included:

  • Flat-plate claim devices, from which it is easier to retrieve bags
  • Large capacity flow-through elevators as an alternative to escalators
  • Check-in bag wells level with the floor to eliminate the need to lift bags
  • Universal design toilets, where there is no differentiation between able-bodied and handicap accessible facilities.

In summary, the literature review and interviews indicate that airport operators are generally aware of the needs of over-65 travelers, who make up a significant portion of their customer base, and are trying to accommodate them.

However, often their efforts are hampered by the lack of a well-coordinated policy, the constraints presented by existing buildings, and the costs of implementation both in terms of capital investment and increased staffing.

If these issues are not addressed by airport authorities and airlines, it can be expected that there will be a negative impact on airport operations. As pointed out by one of the interviewees, successful implementation of elderly-accessible facilities will require determination and strong advocacy.

The full report is embedded below, worth reading in full:

Download (PDF, 1.92MB)


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Tags: seniors

Photo credit: An elderly passenger reading USA Today at SFO Airport, while waiting for the flight. Condoriano / Flickr

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