Making Holiday Travel Accessible for All

Variety of PIT services help passengers during hectic travel season

By gmastrangelo and Julie Bercik

Published December 11, 2023

Read Time: 4 mins


Travel can be difficult in normal times, and the holiday season makes airports even more crowded and hectic than usual. For passengers with sensory sensitivities and disabilities, the journey can be quite daunting.

Pittsburgh International Airport offers these travelers a variety of services to help them make their way, from quiet places to reduce stress to staff support for those who need a little more help and special apps for those with specific disabilities.

“Accessibility is a top priority for PIT because we want all passengers, all people, to be able to travel,” said Samantha Stedford, Director, Experience and Design. “We’re striving to be the most accessible airport in the world.”

For travelers with sensory sensitivities, PIT opened Presley’s Place in 2019, becoming one of the first airports in the world to have a dedicated space for these passengers. Since then, it has set a new global standard and inspired facilities worldwide to open sensory rooms of their own.

“Presley’s Place is intended for travelers with sensory sensitivities, such as autism, who need a calming place to decompress and reset during this busy holiday season,” Stedford said. “Airports can be stressful at the best of times, but during the holidays, they can be especially hectic.”

Thinking of all passengers

The space came to life thanks to one of PIT’s own employees, Jason Rudge. As the father of a child with autism, Rudge suggested the airport develop a space for passengers with autism to unwind. CEO Christina Cassotis got to work right away.

The airport worked with the nonprofit Autism Connection to help design the space. The group surveyed people with autism prior to the design process to help ensure it had the features they wanted in a sensory-friendly space.

Fast Company magazine this year named Presley’s Place a finalist in its Innovation by Design Awards, an honor given to organizations that solve problems with ingenuity. Presley’s Place was a finalist in the Accessible Design category and received an honorable mention for Experience Design.

Another program at PIT is designed to assist travelers even before they pass through security.

Introduced to PIT in April, the Sunflower Program supports passengers with disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent to airport employees, including autism, anxiety or chronic pain. Passengers can choose to wear sunflower lanyards, pins or stickers while they navigate the airport. Staff members are trained to know and recognize the sunflower so they can provide extra care to a passenger wearing it.

“The Sunflower Program is especially important during the holidays,” said April Laukaitis, Customer Care Agent. “There could be a lot of stimuli, and people with hidden disabilities might not feel as supported while traveling. These sunflower indicators help the staff know a passenger might need a little extra time, help or patience.”

Complete with comfortable seating and a baby-changing table, the mothers’ nursing lounge at PIT affords a quiet, private space for traveling mothers to alleviate potential stresses of air travel. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Building accessibility into infrastructure

PIT also offers a mothers’ nursing lounge in Concourse C, complete with comfortable seating and a baby-changing table. Since opening in 2015, the space has grown into a community for traveling mothers. The walls are covered in messages from lounge visitors offering words of encouragement to other traveling mothers.

Although the space is open 24/7 all year round, it becomes even more important during the holidays. Mothers are welcome to use the quiet, private space to change or nurse their children rather than navigating the crowded bathrooms and concourses at the airport.

“People are flying all over the world, so seeing these notes of encouragement and support from other mothers who are going through the same process is extra helpful and special,” said Elise Gomez, Manager, Customer Experience.

In November, one mother was brought to tears after she read the dozens of notes in the space. As a first-time traveling mother and someone who struggles with flight anxiety, she was comforted to know she wasn’t alone.

PIT is also the only airport in North America to utilize NavCog, a smartphone app designed to help those who are blind or visually impaired navigate the airport. The app has precise step-by-step instructions and bypasses escalators so users can go right to the elevators.

Looking forward, an accessibility working group has been formed to give the disability community a voice in designing PIT’s new terminal, scheduled to open in 2025.

The group, made up of people of all ages and with different kinds of disabilities, has reviewed designs of the terminal throughout the development process and provided input.

“There are so many barriers for people who are differently abled,” Stedford said. “It can make the whole experience overwhelming, intimidating and quite scary. Being able to thoughtfully design this new terminal with differently abled people in mind makes our airport that much more seamless and effortless to travel through.”

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