A culture of digital discrimination

Taken from Looks Like A Good Book by Percy Loomis Sperr (ca. 1923–42)
Taken from Looks Like A Good Book by Percy Loomis Sperr (ca. 1923–42)

When you book yourself a flight, you are typically given a six-digit alphanumeric string as your reference number. By entering this code into your airline’s app, for example, every detail of your booking can be retrieved. This joining-up of the many datapoints needed for passengers to board is one of the ways in which the travel industry has embraced the digital era. Yet, there are many other areas in which the handling of passengers’ information is disjointed. What causes these discrepancies?

When returning to Europe from Seoul, the staff at Inchon airport noticed my limp and produced a wheelchair. Inchon is palatial, modern, well-designed and well-run. It is also massive, so I was grateful for the wheels. The staff also rang ahead to my next destination, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, to arrange for me to be met with another wheelchair upon my arrival. But nobody came. Having arrived later than scheduled, and with another flight to catch, there wasn’t time to wait around. I dragged my foot across the airport to another terminal, reaching my connection just in time. My baggage wasn’t so lucky.

This trip, and a few afterwards, gave me a small insight into the many challenges faced by those who rely upon a wheelchair. The travel industry loves dehumanising abbreviations, so uses the term PRM, or passengers with restricted mobility, to mean anyone who requires assistance moving around. Some airports seem to be excellent at this, but others are somewhere between poor and terrible. If you’re going to be using an airport-owned generic chair, they’re often not there when you arrive. If you need to use your own chair, it can be a long wait before it is brought up from the hold so that you can leave the plane.

It’s strange that there should be this discrepancy. Many aspects of travel are disrupted by chaotic factors such as the weather, but given airports are all in the business of loading and unloading flights, you might expect that the experience of accessibility services would be fairly universal. Not so.

The BBCs security correspondent Frank Gardner uses a wheelchair, having taken bullets to the spine from al-Qaida gunmen. Gardner has recounted three occasions (1, 2, 3) when he’s found himself stranded in his seat long after all other passengers have disembarked [update below]. Stories such as this are disturbingly common. In the UK, airports have been warned they face court action by the regulator if they continue to fail disabled passengers.

In this digitally-enabled era, and in an industry with fine margins and so much automation, it’s amazing this happens at all, let alone so frequently. But then, it isn’t amazing, because systems reflect the prejudices of their creators.

That six-digit reservation code is the identifier for a Passenger Name Record (PNR). It identifies that record within a Global Distribution System (GDS): a network that facilitates transactions between travel service-providers. When you book a flight, the PNR contains data supplied by you—the passenger’s names, date of birth, contact and payment details, passport information, etc.—and also data from the airline, such as the travel itinerary, booked seats, baggage etc.

Passengers’ additional requests, such as meal preference or mobility assistance, are all on the PNR as well. So, that one record holds all the data needed for the trip, and can be shared by all the companies and staff that need to access it: the agent and airline, the airport, the security, ground services and special assistance providers. So, with such portability of pertinent data, the system should work flawlessly. But it doesn’t.

GDS systems have at least two big faults. The first is security: those six-digit PNRs are fairly easy for a hacker to guess by elimination. Secondly, because the whole system is born of a culture where there’s ‘normal’ conditions and then ‘exceptional’ ones such as PRMs, it perpetuates that culture of division. Everyone’s journey is exceptional and everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, requires assistance. Cabin crew know this, but the fact this hasn’t been normalised into the systems underpinning the industry exposes how the prejudices of those systems’ creators and operators persist. And as interoperable systems such as this become adopted and standardised, a passenger can’t escape such prejudice by switching airline.

This is the great shadow of the digital era: discrimination is becoming more systemic, not less.

When Gatwick Airport’s current assistance services provider was appointed, its CEO said they would “deliver an exceptional service provision” by “combining innovations in people, processes and systems”. Less than a week after the aviation regulator issued its warning of enforcement action against airports if they keep failing less mobile passengers, Gatwick’s assistance services provider awarded its staff a 15% pay rise. On that same day, a disembarking 82-year-old passenger with restricted mobility tragically fell to his death on a Gatwick Airport escalator, having not been offered assistance services in good time.

Businesses of all kinds are going through some form of digital transformation, just as the travel industry has. This process is often heralded as a great victory for innovation, service and efficiency. But each will pick up striking limitations and prejudices, by treating what it deems to be most frequent as ‘normal’, and everything else as ‘exceptional’. Designers of these systems would do well, next time they fly, to add a mobility assistance request to their booking.

[Update: shortly after this post was published, Frank Gardner found himself stranded, again, on a plane that had landed at Gatwick Airport.]

[Update: to better understand the obstacles faced by wheelchair users, The New York Times sent a reporter and a photographer to document one man’s domestic trip.]

It’s not uncommon for airlines to lose or damage wheelchairs. In 2021, at least 7,239 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen on the country’s largest airlines, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report. That’s about 20 per day.

Because of these risks, many people who use wheelchairs say flying can be a nightmare.

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