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LaGuardia’s Terminal B: Access all areas


LaGuardia’s Terminal B shows just what can be achieved when it comes to designing an airport terminal that is accessible by all, writes Stanis Smith.

Many in the airport industry are aware that LaGuardia’s Terminal B has won a host of host of design and sustainability awards despite its full construction only being completed in the summer of 2022.

Fewer in the industry are aware that it also recently received Gold Certification under the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) programme, the first airport terminal in the US to achieve such recognition.

So, what is RHFAC? And why is an accessibility programme important? To answer those two questions, we need some context.

It is no exaggeration to say that airports are amongst most significant public buildings in any city and community. For that reason, they are often held to higher standards than other building types in many respects, particularly when it comes to accessibility.

While most airports worldwide have been designed and built to meet local accessibility codes, these are not consistent from one jurisdiction to another, they are typically out of date with passenger needs, and they do not give credit for innovation.

One of the interesting trends in recent years has been the appearance of various aspirational standards for sustainability, such as LEED, BREEAM, WELL, Fitwel etc. While certain aspects of these standards may be not particularly be well-suited to airports, they have served two critically important functions.

They have encouraged airports and their designers to go beyond minimum standards, and they have encouraged innovation. As a result, sustainable design is becoming mainstream in the airport industry to levels that go significantly beyond code-compliance.

When it comes to accessibility, the picture is different, and accessible design is lagging behind sustainable design. Some progressive airports have introduced accessibility features into their terminals that are not required by code, and such initiatives are to be welcomed.

However, until recently there has been no comprehensive framework that airports can use to approach accessibility in a wholistic manner, go beyond code-minimums, encourage innovation, and be inclusive of people with mobility, visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities. Nor has there been any way for airports to get third-party accreditation and recognition if they decide to go above-and-beyond when it comes to accessibility.

It’s fair to ask why accessible design should go above-and-beyond code-minimum compliance. The most compelling response I can give to that question is simple self-interest: each of us will probably live with a disability at some stage in our lives, whether due to illness, accident or aging.

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world and one that is growing for demographic reasons. According to United Nations data, over a billion people have a disability globally – some permanent, some temporary, some visible and some invisible – and as the population ages, that proportion is set to increase.

Airports have unique considerations when it comes to accessibility. Air travel operates across multiple regional and international jurisdictions. For passengers with disabilities, different accessibility features in different airports can result in differing expectations and frustration.

Navigating airports is often stressful and sometimes confusing for anyone. For people with disabilities, it’s even more so. For example, individuals with vision disabilities can’t always read the changing information boards. Individuals with hearing disabilities can’t always hear updated flight information over airport public address systems.

To address this concern, the Rick Hansen Foundation, a non-profit foundation with a lengthy and distinguished track record of advocacy for people with disabilities, has spent several years developing the RHFAC programme, which includes the following features:

– It is a rating and recognition programme that measures the meaningful accessibility of a site based on the holistic user experience of people with varying disabilities.

– RHFAC is designed to challenge building owners and operators to go beyond code minimum to embrace innovative solutions and make their sites universally accessible.

– It provides a consistent and pragmatic approach to measuring access through a rating survey and celebrates an organisations’ commitment to accessibility through certification and labelling of their sites.

– The programme gives credit for innovation in many of its rating categories, thereby encouraging owners and designers to be creative in addressing accessibility needs.

– It provides owners and/or operators with a better understanding of their current level of meaningful accessibility via their rating scorecard, a roadmap of where to improve, and sets aspirational goals and ways to recognise their commitment.

–  RHFAC is well-suited to airport terminals as well as numerous other building types.

– The programme recognises an organisation’s commitment to accessibility through formal certification in two tiers: ‘RHF Accessibility Certified’ or ‘RHF Accessibility Certified Gold.’

– It is based on current global research as well as the United Nations Social Development Goals.

– RHFAC has gone to great lengths not to conflict with local codes and standards such as the ADA, and in the rare situations where such conflicts may arise, local codes take precedence.

– It can be used for completed projects or projects under design.

– The costs of obtaining an RHFAC rating are modest, far below the costs of rating systems such as LEED etc.

RHFAC has been used successfully on more than two thousand building projects across North America, including over a dozen international airports. We would like to congratulate LaGuardia Gateway Partners (the private manager and developer of LaGuardia Terminal B) as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for the leadership they have demonstrated by adopting RHFAC and being the first US airport to do so.

As part of being awarded RHFAC Gold, some of the innovative accessibility features in LaGuardia’s Terminal B include:

• Hearing loops at all guest experience desks.

• Intuitive departure board displays in two different formats and colour-coding to assist with intuitive navigation. Distance to gates is also displayed.

• Accessible assistance kerbside drop-off/check-in service and call button.

• Intuitive and consistent colour-coded wayfinding throughout the terminal, including the use of architectural and art landmarks for intuitive navigation.

• Calming seating areas that are noticeably different from the rest of the terminal’s spaces thanks to sensory stimulation provided through plants and foliage.

For any architects, interior designers, engineers, or technologists reading this article who may be interested in becoming accredited as RHFAC professionals, in-person courses can be taken at a number of universities, and an online course is available from Athabasca University.

In conclusion, the spirit of RHFAC is that everyone regardless of their age or abilities should be able to travel with comfort, dignity, and independence.

I hope that this article has made a compelling case for the industry to consider the benefits that RHFAC has to offer, and I would be pleased to provide any further information on request.

About the author

Architect, Stanis Smith (stanis@stanissmith.com), has spent most of his career designing airport terminals around the world. He is also a Board member of the Rick Hansen Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to removing barriers and creating an inclusive world for people with disabilities.

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