What does 'special assistance' mean?

When Upstream was just getting up and running, Stornoway airport was pretty much the first place I travelled to and through. So it’s always a pleasure to return, particularly as the staff there have taken an interest in understanding our work and clearly want to make a difference for passengers travelling with dementia.

We've run a couple of workshops over the year, small but productive, introducing the challenges of travelling with dementia. Ellie from Alzheimer Scotland has run a dementia friends session.

In the meantime, again with Ellie's support, we've worked with a number of people affected by dementia at the Bells Road Resource centre in town. 

Yesterday we brought the two together - a group of people affected by dementia and airport staff.

But first we'd started off at the Bells Road resource centre in the morning where our discussions focussed specifically on retiring from driving - we also touched on air travel in preparation for the afternoon. We came up with a list of questions that were mostly about passenger assistance:

  • What does ‘special assistance’ mean? It is surely dependent upon a person’s needs.
  • How does 'accompanied' travel work? One member of the group had not been accompanied for part of his journey …
  • Do all staff know, particularly security staff, if someone has requested special assistance?
  • Are there special fares for carers who might simply accompany a person and then return without ever leaving the destination airport?
  • Can planes park closer to the terminal so that people don’t get so wet getting to the plane on a rainy day!?

We headed to the airport for lunch at the friendly Cafe and met with Georgie the memory nurse who was joining us for the meeting. It was great that five airport staff were able to join us for a chat in a quiet corner of the lounge - we had representatives from security, fire and airport information along with Duncan the airport manager. We brought up our questions which prompted a long chat about ‘Special Assistance’ which passengers can book ahead of their flight.

Lots of questions emerged around how this process doesn’t always work for people living with dementia since the focus appears to be on physical mobility. The information gathered at the time of booking doesn’t give people the opportunity to provide details of the support that they might need. Assistance is a very personal thing - it depends on me and my own needs and abilities. That will be different to the next person with the same condition. Booking Special Assistance appears to take a one-size-fits-all approach - of course, when staff are providing assistance, they endeavour to provide whatever support is required, where possible.

Things we learned:

  • People accompanying passengers as far as the plane can get a visitor’s pass to go as far as the departure gate.
  • Alzheimer Scotland Carers cards could be a useful, subtle indicator for staff to let them know that more than one person might need assistance and not to separate people at security
  • Some issues that arose are the responsibility of the airlines, not the aiport - we need to make sure we have all the right people taking part in the conversation.
  • Larger airports have ground-handling staff too - a wider group to include in the conversation
  • There is a private security room which passengers can request to use - this might be helpful for some people travelling with dementia, providing more time, more privacy and less pressure.
  • People living with autism have worked with the airport to develop a process that allows for easier boarding and hopefully a less stressful experience. This includes a storyboard of what happens at the airport and on the plane, created by the families. We really liked this idea.

As for getting wet, the pilot apparently decides where to park the plane depending on the wind speed. So, I wondered, why not provide umbrellas? The group gently pointed out that umbrellas and Stornoway wind speeds don’t mix well. Ellie smiled 'That’s a mainland question!’

And no, there's no way of all staff knowing that someone has requested assistance - at any airport, as far as we know. 

But there’s much enthusiasm for finding solutions and we hope to be working with Duncan and the team again very soon to look at language, navigation and the assistance process, along with people living with dementia.

Ellie and I took some time to reflect over a cup of tea back in the cafe and several staff who couldn’t be at the meeting dropped by to say hello, sorry they couldn't be there but how did it go? Stories were swapped, personal experience emerged. 

Dementia touches the lives of so many people we work with. Making space for inclusive conversations allows 'personal' and 'professional' lives to blur. When this happens, people can feel able to bring and blend their own experience and expertise of caring and running essential transport services into the discussion.

It’s powerful, sometimes emotional and we need to do it more.