Home » Dementia » Ways to make air travel a positive experience for people with dementia

Ian Sherriff

BEM, Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia, University of Plymouth

Dr Kate Turner

Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, University of Plymouth

Dr Alison Warren

Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy, University of Plymouth

Air travel can be a problematic experience for people living with dementia. A new research-informed booklet outlines the barriers they face — and how to overcome them.

“People with dementia want to continue living life, their way, for as long as possible,” explains Ian Sherriff, BEM, Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia, University of Plymouth. “That’s why issues, such as accessible air travel, have become ever more important.” 

Air travel challenges for people with dementia 

Unfortunately, for some people with dementia, their experience of airports and air travel can be so unpleasant that they, and their carers, vow never to fly again. But now, a new research-informed document aims to change that.  

‘Improving the Accessibility of UK Air Travel for Passengers with Dementia and Other Non-Visible Disabilities,’ was produced by Sherriff and occupational therapists Dr Kate Turner and Dr Alison Warren from the University of Plymouth — outlining the challenges that people with hidden disabilities may face when flying. These include being publicly embarrassed and disrespected; being offered a generic wheelchair service for assistance; and struggling to interpret signage. 

Travel experiences can be ruined because a
person’s condition has not been understood.

Better staff education and awareness 

As Chair of Prime Minister’s Dementia Air Transport Group (PMDATG), Sherriff has collaborated with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation industry, researchers and people with dementia to introduce guidelines — now implemented by all UK airports and airlines — for assisting passengers with hidden disabilities. 

The document builds on the work of PMDATG and covers five areas: poor societal expectations; individual rights; physical barriers; aviation staff unawareness; actively including people living with dementia. It also includes positive steps that can improve air travel accessibility.  

Travel experiences can be ruined because a person’s condition has not been understood by airport workers and cabin crew. “Aviation staff may question if someone with dementia is even able to board an aeroplane,” says Sherriff. “The answer: yes, they can — and they have the absolute right to do so. It’s a matter of understanding their needs to make their experience a positive one.” 

There is evidence that the research has made a difference. “This work made the impossible possible,” insists Dorothy Tudor, former carer of a person living with dementia. “We started flying to our holiday destinations again.” 

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