According to the World Health Organization, around 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. While passengers with a disability or reduced mobility are legally entitled to support when travelling by air, campaigners are still having to fight for changes in the aviation sector for better service.
This is a topic close to the heart of Michael Swiatek, chief strategy officer at Abra Group, the parent company of two of Latin America’s largest airlines, Avianca and GOL.
Swiatek has been legally blind since a young age and suffers from a condition that seriously impairs his eyesight, drastically restricting his vision in daylight conditions and causing complete blindness in the dark.
An experienced airline executive, having held positions at carriers as diverse as United Airlines, Alitalia, Air New Zealand, LATAM, Qatar Airways and IndiGo, Swiatek is also a prominent advocate for the rights and needs of travelers with disabilities.
In an exclusive in-depth interview, Swiatek shared with AeroTime how through his role he is working to make the Abra Group airlines the most disability-friendly in the world.
Swiatek has been fascinated with aviation since early childhood when his father worked at an airline. He would often read timetables and play with aircraft models. However, he was also aware that his vision issues would prevent him from becoming a pilot and had never considered the possibility of working in the airline industry.
After finishing secondary school, Swiatek studied finance at the University of Chicago with the idea that he would end up working on Wall Street.
However, things turned out to be quite different.
From hiding his blindness to a meteoric career in the airline industry
In 1992 he jumped at the opportunity to join the airline industry as a planning analyst for United Airlines, where he soon turned his visual impairment into a source of strength.
“I hid my blindness from my first employer, because, quite frankly, I felt, at the time, they weren’t ready for a blind person. That was a long time ago and I know things have changed.” he recalled. “They could not understand why I didn’t have a driver’s license, but I told them that getting to work on time was my problem. I promised I would get to work on time, and I did.”
He continued: “I had to use public transportation that took two hours a day in each direction but that opened up an opportunity. In those four hours I would take every data report I could get my hands on. I would use a magnifying glass to read every number. I became an expert on the numbers of United and that was very valuable in meetings.”
Swiatek’s analytical capabilities soon made up for the limitation of his vision.
“My strength as a young person was great analysis, great performance in terms of putting numbers together great performance and understanding how this industry worked in terms of cost and network and product and branding and culture,” he explained.
His visual impairment also helped sharpen other abilities.
“When I’m in a meeting, I don’t look at presentations. I listen to what the speaker is saying and often ask some of the smartest and most incisive questions because I’m listening to what’s being said, rather than jumping ahead and trying to figure out what the person wants to show,” he said. “That adds a perspective to my company that’s been highly valuable. By not being able to see PowerPoint, it makes me a better listener. It makes me engaged in a different way. It’s actually like a superpower.”
Swiatek shared some details about those early years in the industry.
“Yes, there were things I couldn’t do,” he said. “I would never go out to a dark bar with my colleagues. I would never go golfing with my colleagues because there was only one or two close friends at United that I could confide in and say, ‘Look, I need help.’ Sometimes, if we got into a meeting and someone turned out the lights, I was not able to see anything. So, I had people who had my back, who knew.”
“Quite frankly, I’m not proud that I had to hide my blindness,” he admitted. “But the world was not ready.”
“But I don’t feel any disadvantage,” he continued. “I don’t feel like there’s been a huge amount of discrimination applied towards me. Yes, in the 80s and 90s, it was much harder, which is why I think we’re in a golden age of accessibility, because more and more people are becoming aware of persons with disability and not treating us like monsters or like we are unintelligent, but just recognizing that’s one of many senses, that that we have in a different way. I’m very optimistic about the future for accessibility.”
Swiatek’s years at United Airlines marked the beginning of a career that would take him onto the global airline scene. Next, he went to work for Continental Airlines during the airline’s major transformation in the mid-90s, then to Alitalia, where he was a director of network and schedule planning.
He spent the next six years at Air New Zealand in various functions. That was in the late 90s, right around the time when the airline was joining Star Alliance and acquiring a 100% control of Ansett Australia, the second largest Australian airline at the time.
After a short stint in the consultancy business, Swiatek joined Qatar Airways in 2010 and spent three years responsible for strategy and planning and reporting directly to the airline’s CEO, Akbar Al Baker.
Turning around one of the largest airlines in the Americas
The next airlines on his resumé were LATAM and Indian low-cost carrier IndiGo before joining Avianca in November 2019 to take care of the airline’s strategy.
The last few years have not been easy for the Latin American carrier, but Swiatek proudly noted the five pillars (or “chapters” as he referred to them) that have allowed the airline to turn itself around.
“Chapters one and two were surviving COVID and going through a chapter 11 financial reorganization, which we entered in May 2020 and exited in December 2021,” he explained. “I believe we were the first ones to enter into that sort of reorganization during COVID and also the first ones out.
“I think our timing was nearly perfect and we took advantage of that in terms of reducing our cost base. That led to chapter three, which was a re-structuring of Avianca’s strategy where we basically went from an airline that was more focused on product than cost to one more focused on cost than on product. Of course, with safety always remaining our number one priority.”
When referring to chapter four, Swiatek quoted management guru Peter Drucker, who famously coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that regardless of how brilliant a strategy may be, it is bound to fail unless you develop the corporate culture that will make it possible to implement it.
“We believed we had a great strategy to reposition the company on cost, which we did because our Pan-American customer base is a population of 150-ish million people,” he explained. “But with an economic level, the gross domestic product per capita that is a fifth or less of the US or Europe. So, we believe that cost and affordability is fundamental to bring air travel to our region.”
But how can a company encourage 12,000 employees to get behind a new strategy? This is when culture comes into play, Swiatek explained.
“We put that down as a three-year project and we’re about two thirds done,” he added. “I think it is on track.”
And finally, the fifth chapter of Avianca’s strategy is its relation to the holding company, Abra Group, which is made up of different airlines working together without fully integrating.
In July 2023, Swiatek moved from his role at Avianca to a pretty much analogous position at group level while also retaining his corporate culture responsibilities at Avianca.
Abra Group is similar in structure to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and LEVEL, but with two airlines, Avianca and GOL, as well as a minority stake in Chilean airline, SKY. But unlike in the case of IAG, where the objective was to align networks that were in competition with each other -especially in transatlantic flying- the goal of Abra Group is to join together networks that are complementary to each other, and build the largest low-cost platform in the Americas, with Avianca stretching from Guatemala to Ecuador and GOL keeping its large footprint in Brazil.
Each of the Abra airlines remains a separate company operationally and keeps its own brand, management team, etc., while the holding company looks for ways to foster cooperation between them and drive more customer satisfaction, profitability, and employee engagement.
The main principle behind Abra Group is to build the largest low-cost platform in the Americas, with Avianca stretching from Guatemala to Ecuador and GOL keeping its large footprint in Brazil.
“Our main competitor in this region [LATAM – ed. note] was about x2.5 our size, now it’s more like x1-1.25 (in number of passengers) and, in fact, we can become the largest airline group in Latin America in the near future,” Swiatek said.
How Avianca became a leader in accessibility
Besides the growth of the business, Swiatek is also particularly proud of his tireless work to make Avianca and the Abra Group airlines more welcoming to passengers with disabilities.
Swiatek said: “Avianca’s CEO, Adrian Neuhauser, told me, “You know, you’ve proven to me that you can function just like anyone else in society despite your loss of vision, you have some extraordinary strengths. So, I’m completely sold on this diversity in terms of the workforce and having more people with disabilities. Mike, should we be doing something different for our customers?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely!’.”
He continued: “I think we’re one of the few airlines in the world where accessibility is not just something that the regulatory affairs function takes care of just because they have to comply with. We’ve actually come up with a strategy for it. We’ve put all of that under the same umbrella and defined what are the outcomes we want to see in the future in terms of becoming the most accessible airline in the world. We are turning that into a core strength for Avianca. Nevertheless, I believe accessibility should be cooperative rather than a competitive advantage.”
Swiatek also noted that he would love for other airlines to copy Avianca -and would be available to help them learn from Avianca- drawing a parallel with safety. If airlines copy each other’s best safety practices and the industry as a whole becomes a lot safer as a result, this is a winning scenario for everyone.
Swiatek highlighted four major categories of disabilities, each requiring its own approach: visual, auditory, mobility (which includes wheelchair users or those who require the use of mobility scooters, as well as people temporarily using crutches) and neurodiversity (which includes, for example, people with conditions such as autism and attention deficit disorder).
Avianca has identified up to 27 touchpoints along the travel journey where passengers with disabilities may face challenges that can be sorted or mitigated by the airline, from booking and check-in to passing through security and collecting baggage.
Providing an adequate response to each of these areas becomes even more complex when we factor in that each touchpoint presents a different problem to different groups of passengers. For example, the booking process is a challenge for blind people, while airport announcements are problematic for a passenger with auditory difficulties.
“Getting through the security line is a huge challenge. Can you imagine the anxiety you feel?” Swiatek said, reflecting on his own personal experience. “Am I going to lose my wallet or my shoes after taking them off? Imagine when you can’t even see where your wallet went, and you have to trust that somebody else is handling that for you and it’s magically going to pop into your hand at the other end. That’s a very anxious moment!”
Passengers with disabilities can submit a special service request (SSR) to the airline. There are at least 26 different SSR categories available by law to all persons with disabilities when they travel. At Avianca about 4% of passengers use special service requests, although this figure may understate the real number of passengers with disabilities, since not everyone fills in a request, for example, if they travel accompanied.
“When I fly with my wife, I genuinely will not do special service requests because she will be my aide and tell me everything that’s going on,” Swiatek explained. “But SSRs are one of the main tools we have.
“One of the biggest pain points is using a lavatory, more at the airport than on the plane. Lavatories are very difficult to navigate. There’s no standard design and it’s not a place where you just want to be reaching out your hands and touching things.”
He continued: “You can envision this as a 2×2 matrix with customer journey represented along the horizontal axis, from booking to getting off the plane, and on the vertical axis, you have the different types of persons with disability. There are different pain points along the way, probably thousands of individual pain points. So, how do we solve them? This is a really important part and one where I’m proud to say that, together with my small team at Avianca, we have put a lot of thought into and come up with a pretty good framework to think about it.”
A framework every airline could use to become more accessible
Swiatek mentioned five main tools available to airlines.
The first is simply awareness. The more the airline builds awareness among its staff, the more likely it is that they will not be afraid to approach passengers with disabilities and treat them with empathy, kindness, and common sense. That already makes a huge difference.
“This happens with many people along the way. They don’t know what to say to me because they are afraid of embarrassment or of the legal risks if they say something that may upset the person with disabilities,” Swiatek said. “So, people don’t even dare to say anything. That’s awareness and it is a pretty inexpensive tool.”
Avianca has produced a series of 45-second videos for all its employees in a bid to help spread awareness. Swiatek appears in the videos, sharing the main pain points from the perspective of a blind or low vision traveler. For example, in one video he explained what a mobility cane is and how to handle it.
“I can tell you a great story that happened this weekend,” he said. “I flew to Los Angeles and an Avianca person met me and said, ‘Mike, your mobility cane. I remember watching your video, and I know how you use that!’ and I said, ‘this is the solution’, because it is not only about when an employee sees me. If they see anybody at the airport with a mobility cane, they know why they’re using it and how they’re using it.”
Swiatek said he considered training to be his next tool.
The airline has started to provide customer-facing employees a laminated card to place on their lanyard detailing the four major categories of disability and explaining the do’s and don’ts.
So, for example, if they spot somebody in a wheelchair, don’t go to that person and start pushing their wheelchair without their permission. Or if there’s a blind person, don’t grab the mobility cane and think that’s how to guide that person through the airport. If a deaf person has an interpreter, you don’t look at the interpreter and talk to them, rather you face the deaf person and listen to what the interpreter is saying.
Third is process engineering. He explained how this can be as simple as allowing enough time at the boarding gate for travelers with disabilities to get into place or, as they do at Avianca’s hub in Bogota (BOG), prioritize jet bridge access for flights with a larger number of passengers with disabilities on board (as opposed to disembarking passengers via the stairs).
“We’re also working with special service providers to pair a male service provider with a male customer and a female with a female. Why? If a female is escorting me through the airport and asks if I would like to go to the bathroom, she can’t come into the bathroom with me. If I don’t come out in 20 minutes, a male escort can come in and look for me, while a female one can’t. As simple and common sense as it seems, this is revolutionary for people who never thought about the fact that we should pair male with male and female with female to escort people,” Swiatek continued. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I know those pain points so close to my heart that I can influence the airline to make changes in a way that few other people can.”
The fourth tool is digital technology. Most people now carry a smartphone, helping to facilitate communication. Swiatek revealed how he became used to using voice functions on his phone to perform a variety of tasks.
Additionally, when communicating with passengers that are deaf or hard of hearing Avianca airport agents can access an application allowing them to speak with someone who understands sign language and relay to the check-in agent what that customer is saying.
Swiatek also highlighted how much public discussion about accessibility is focused on what he calls the fifth tool, hardware. This includes things like elevators, ramps for wheelchairs or any physical infrastructure. Despite the focus on this area, Swiatek insisted that it is only a fifth of the solution.
“Let me give you a simple example of accessibility hardware that Avianca – and United Airlines as well – has implemented recently,” Swiatek said. “We have fitted three aircraft with Braille seat numbering. We’ve also put bigger fonts on these three aircraft. We’re testing it now and we’re working with the blind communities in Colombia to get their feedback.
“So far, it’s very positive, but also makes it easier for sighted people to find their seats, because I can tell you, there are many sighted people that can’t find the seat numbering. My sighted wife has put me in the wrong row on a plane occasionally. And when you think about it, a passenger who sits in the wrong seat and can lead to the disruption time of a flight, it’s also beneficial to the airline and our on-time performance.”
Calling on the travel industry to act
Swiatek also had some pointers for other players in the broader aviation ecosystem.
“I think the government can help manufacturers of aircraft, of seats. I’m speaking very loudly to Boeing and Airbus. I don’t want them to charge me to recertify the aircraft, I think that should be their contribution to solving the accessibility issue in travel,” he noted. “The airlines shouldn’t bear all the costs. It’s never going to be perfect. We’re never going to be able to achieve everything everybody wants. But I’m 100% convinced that we can make travel more accessible for the majority of people with disabilities.”
Swiatek also called for the sort of training being implemented at Avianca to become commonplace for other companies in the travel sector, including hotels, cruises, taxis, and land transportation operators such as Uber and Lyft.
“Just don’t leave it all to airlines because we tend to be the industry with the highest regulation and one of my issues with regulation is you cannot regulate awareness,” he explained. “You cannot regulate human kindness. You cannot regulate common sense. You cannot regulate people to be empathetic. There’s actually a systematic way to approach it and that systematic way will lead to better results.”
He continued: “What we’re doing on accessibility is behavioral change, which is why the tools of awareness and training become so important. We, at Avianca, brainstormed a list of actions that we’d like to accomplish, and we said, ‘Look, in the first 12 months, we want to at least accomplish 20 of them, right?’ We don’t know which ones: putting Braille on planes is an action, getting assistive technology at the check-in is too, building those laminated lanyard cards is another one.”
“I’m getting 12,000 people to behave very differently on accessibility, but in fact, I’m trying to get 8 billion people to act a little bit differently,” Swiatek concluded.