More accessible air travel – INCLAVI, an Erasmus+ project, enhances equality for persons with disabilities
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences has long maintained strong connections with the aviation industry. Students have completed internships and written theses for companies such as Finnair, Finavia, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Istanbul Airport. Senior lecturer Ivan Berazhny also took a work rotation period at Finnair during 2018-2019.
"I noticed that accessibility in air travel was becoming an increasingly important topic," he says.
He previously supervised several theses on accessibility at Haaga-Helia, and during his time at Finnair, his responsibilities were related to sustainability, and disability inclusion was part of Finnair's sustainability efforts. However, accessibility was the responsibility of under-resourced customer experience teams, and Berazhny realized there was a clear gap.
When he explored training of the airline staff, he noticed that flight attendants were only taught minimal information about disabilities: a few rules and descriptions of how to accommodate different disability groups. He knew that Virgin Atlantic in the UK, for example, was much further ahead in considering the needs of persons with disabilities. In the UK, there were for example training centers where the families of persons with disabilities could practice the flying experience. Companies in Finland stated that better expertise was needed.
"So, we thought, why not?"
Why not embark on a project to take steps towards inclusion in Finland and other countries as well?
Business identifies gaps, academia explores solutions
After a lengthy preparation process, funding was secured, and the INCLAVI project was born.
The international consortium includes Careeria, a vocational institution from Finland, Stichting Breda University of Applied Sciences from the Netherlands, Ozyegin and Yasar Universities from Turkiye, IATA Spain and IATA Canada, the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT), and Istanbul Grand Airport. Associated partners also include Finavia, AirBaltic, IATA Nordic and Baltic, and The Association of Finnish Travel Industry.
"We've always involved people with disabilities and experts from the private sector," says project manager Namrata Sethi from Haaga-Helia. "In practice, industry partners confirm to us what the actual needs are, and on the academic side, we try to figure out how to address the gaps."
Turkiye offers valuable insights
Istanbul Grand Airport has been recognized as one of the best airport in the world, and it has paid much more attention to persons with disabilities and accessibility than airports in the European Union, Berazhny says.
"We've learned a lot from them."
With 85 million people in Turkiye, the competition is fierce. Therefore, it's clear to him that professionals in Turkiye are truly at the top of their field. Disability organizations in Turkiye are also more vocal and demand their rights more vigorously than in many EU countries.
Istanbul Grand Airport also conducts careful research and feedback analysis, and accessibility is constantly improving.
"Such matters are strongly promoted in countries of various profiles, not just in Western countries," Berazhny says.
Innovations in aviation are slow
The project received funding from the Erasmus+ Alliances for Innovations.
According to Berazhny, innovations in aviation are "painfully incremental," meaning they are made slowly and incrementally building upon previous innovations. This is due to strict safety-related regulations. He jokes that if you want to change the color of a single screw on an airplane, you must go through several safety committees.
As a result, the INCLAVI project does not propose physical changes to aircraft. Instead, it focuses on educational materials to make airline staff more aware of different forms of disabilities and customer journeys: what happens at each step. This also aligns with the needs of persons with disabilities.
"Persons with disabilities feel there is a lot of knowledge lacking, and even small changes could make their travel experience easier," says Namrata Sethi.
A lengthy application process
Various financing options were considered for the project, and Erasmus+ Innovation Alliances was chosen because this framework supports collaboration between the academic world and businesses.
The consortium's formation began in 2016, and the project did not receive funding in the first application round.
"We missed out by two or three points. The feedback from the EU was excellent," Berazhny says.
Berazhny and his partners analyzed the feedback word by word, expanded the consortium, and reapplied. This time, they succeeded, and after five years of planning, the idea became a reality.
Berazhny emphasizes that during the application process, it is essential to study the European Union's strategic priorities and frameworks and tailor your programme to them.
"If there is a common ground between what the EU wants to promote and what the project aims to achieve, the process becomes much easier."
He also advises against trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, as in children's games. Berazhny read a lot of EU strategies during the application phase and learned how to speak "EU language."
"Competition is tough, and in the application, you need to check as many boxes as possible."
Extensive commitment is required
INCLAVI is one of the largest projects Haaga-Helia has been involved in, but the team itself consists of only few people, and the project still needs to gain more visibility in Finland and on a global scale.
"The Director of Research, Development and Innovation, Hannu Vahtera, has been a significant help, and the school supports the completion of such projects," says Sethi.
Bringing research and development into educational institutions is not always easy, as people are quite busy.
"Coordinating such a project requires a lot of work," Berazhny says.
Even though EU funding can be substantial, one should not rely solely on it. It is crucial to remember that, in addition to EU funds, the institutions need to commit their own resources.
"The school's management must support the project, and the project needs to allocate resources, time, and workforce. Projects always include activities that EU does not fund, so funding must be found for those," Berazhny says.
The project cannot be a standalone effort; it needs to continue an existing work, and at the end of the project, it must remain alive. If a curriculum is created, the application must demonstrate who will continue it and how it will thrive five or ten years after the project's completion.
In the eyes of funders, what matters is the change the project brings to the world. In the case of INCLAVI, it aims to improve equality for people with disabilities in air travel.