Frank Bator has sailed on the Nile, watched polar bears in Canada, and cruised around the British Isles — all after flying out of San Francisco International Airport in the past seven years. But when the 83-year-old San Franciscan’s health took a turn for the worse this year, traveling got harder.
“Our travel plans — they came to a screeching halt,” Bator said.
In San Francisco, home to the seventh-busiest airport in the country, older adults are the fastest-growing population — despite the city’s reputation as a magnet for young tech workers. By 2030, nearly 1 in 3 residents will be older than 60, the city predicts. And they like to travel. Half of Baby Boomers surveyed by AARP took an average of five trips this year.
But flying can be stressful and hazardous. Two seniors died falling down airport escalators — one in Detroit, the other in Portland, Ore. — in the past two years, local TV stations reported. In less extreme cases, for people suffering from dementia, flying can be disorienting, and switching time zones throw off medication schedules. If travelers have trouble walking, they need to arrange for a wheelchair. If they depend on an oxygen tank, they have to get a portable plastic one.
“Patients are asking me (about traveling) at least once a week, telling me about a trip that they’re planning. People want to go and see their family members, but they’re afraid to plan,” said Leah Witt, assistant clinical professor in geriatrics and pulmonary medicine at UCSF. “The sheer overwhelming challenge of planning a trip is too much for some people. Travel’s not medical, but it certainly is a part of well-being, especially as people and families live further and further apart.”
Last year, Witt joined a collaboration with SFO to research ways to improve the travel experience for seniors. She had two goals: raise awareness for airport staff about how best to interact with the elderly and educate doctors on how to advise geriatric patients about travel. The research involved scouring for best practices from airports around the world and taking input from a focus group of travelers who have hearing and visual impairments.
“It’s definitely a growing demographic. The whole purpose of the project is to better serve that demographic,” SFO Guest Service Manager Brian Poole said. The airport wants to ensure that its employees “stop and think about what they’re doing, and know that people are not like us, they’re not used to coming to the airport, and might need some extra help,” Poole said.
Frequent flier Bator, who took four trips from SFO this year, sees room for improvement. He suggested making restroom signs more distinct, possibly with different colors, so they’re easier to see.
“For a senior that really needs to go, I think it would helpful,” he said.
SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said the airport has installed large-scale restroom pictograms at restroom entrances to be more distinctive. Redesigned maps and signs in the new Harvey Milk Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 reference the nearest restroom using text and pictures; the idea is to provide travelers a better sense of where they are and how long it will take to get to other destinations. The airport is also installing large backlit maps at key locations.
Bator also suggested raising terminal seats so it’s easier for an older person to use them. Yakel said SFO has been introducing seating of varying heights in all terminals, with six seating styles and heights at a single gate area at Terminal 1.
Other changes will come slowly as the airport renovates Terminal 3, including adding a hearing loop, a frequency that travelers with hearing aids can tune to and listen for announcements.
A big challenge is getting through security screenings — which can be stressful even for the youngest and healthiest person. Bator had his hips and left knee replaced, so he sets off an alarm when walking through a traditional security scanner. So he always tells the first security agent he sees, and prefers the full-body scanner that can show where the metal is inside his body. If it isn’t available, he has to be searched and on occasion has to take his shoes off.
The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t require travelers older than 75 to remove their shoes or light jacket unless they need additional screening. If they are unable to stand, TSA adjusts. Passengers with medical conditions or disabilities can get TSA PreCheck and don’t have to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts, or light jackets.
Travel tips for seniors
Consult your doctor.
Select accessibility options at booking and call your airline to make sure it can accommodate you.
Bring medication in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost.
Remember that if you’re 75 or older, you don’t need to remove your shoes or light jacket
If you have a question about going through security and what you can bring, call the TSA Cares helpline: 855-787-2227 from 6 a.m.
If you need to use the bathroom frequently, choose an aisle seat near the restroom.
Carry medical documents
While rules are up to TSA, SFO has started to open more-advanced screening lanes in Terminals 1 and 3 to make the process easier, with more coming to other terminals, Yakel said. Bins are 25% bigger, and larger stainless steel countertops allow several passengers to place their items in bins at the same time. Automated conveyor belts pull bins into the X-ray machines and return them to the front of the line for passengers.
Another of Bator’s challenges is getting to a ride-hailing pickup, because Uber and Lyft operate from a parking garage a walk away from the SFO arrivals terminal. All pickup areas comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and riders needing a wheelchair-accessible vehicle can always request curbside pickup, Yakel said. Passengers can also choose a premium service from Uber or Lyft to get picked up curbside.
SFO is also working on redesigning its accessibility website to make it more user friendly, inclusive and comprehensive, with information about the airport and an elderly travel checklist. And starting in 2020, Witt will help lead monthly customer service training sessions on disability and cultural awareness, to help them be more aware of what aging passengers might need.
It’s not the first time the university or the airport have helped vulnerable populations. SFO runs annual flight simulations for hundreds of families with autistic children to make travel easier, and Witt has trained the San Francisco Police Department on how to approach the elderly. Now, they’re coming together to tackle challenges for the growing number of older travelers.
In August, Bator was diagnosed with a spinal cord condition that sends pain shooting down his leg. Any travel plans are on hold for now as he heals. But his 72-year-old wife, Catherine, hopes he can recover in time to go to Paris in June to study French — flying out of SFO, of course.
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@mallorymoench
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