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Special assistance at UK airports is ‘erratic’

Disabled passengers 'abandoned' by airport staff

Disabled travellers

Some disabled travellers are left feeling invisible at UK airports

Disabled travellers at UK airports who request special assistance are receiving an erratic service, an investigation by Which? Travel has revealed.

Which? Travel sent two guide dog owners and two wheelchair users undercover on domestic flights around the UK to assess the level of assistance at seven different airports: Birmingham International, Bristol, Glasgow International, Leeds Bradford, London Gatwick, London Heathrow and Manchester. 

The investigation found that the provision of airport assistance was often patchy and, at its worst, even neglectful.

Disabled passengers ‘abandoned’

During the investigation, one of our blind undercover investigators was abandoned by staff at Birmingham International airport for an hour and a half, despite explaining to his assistant that he desperately needed to use the bathroom. 

Another blind investigator was separated from her guide dog at security at Gatwick airport, and was passed around numerous assistants before being helped onto the aircraft.

Both of the blind investigators were offered wheelchairs, however, despite pre-booking assistance and explaining at the time of booking that they could walk.

Lack of awareness by airport staff

One of our undercover wheelchair users was left outside in the cold for some time at Leeds Bradford airport before being helped to board the plane. 

Airport staff then failed to secure him properly in the ambulance chair and placed him too close to the handrail of the aircraft’s steps, which meant that his arm scraped against it as he ascended.

Poor signage at Heathrow airport

The second wheelchair investigator found it difficult to find where to go to obtain special assistance at Heathrow airport, due to poor signage.

She was later denied her allocated window seat by the airport assistants and placed in an aisle seat, despite protesting that other passengers could cause damage to her legs should they need to leave their seats.

Disabled passengers left feeling ‘humiliated’

Which? Travel also surveyed Which? members about their experience of airport assistance. Although the majority of Which? members were happy with the assistance they received at airports, around one in ten were not. 

And, while airports get it right on many occasions, dozens of letters sent to Which? Travel revealed passengers experiencing distress or frustration as a result of the poor levels of assistance from airport staff.

Which? members with disabilities reported ‘feeling humiliated’, being ‘abandoned like a piece of luggage’ and feeling as if they were ‘passed around like a parcel’ when travelling through UK airports. 

In some instances, vulnerable passengers spoke of a one-size-fits all approach which failed to address the needs of individual passengers, while others told of being led to a designated ‘disabled holding area’.

Who’s responsible?

EU Regulation 1107/ 2006 governs the provision of assistance to Persons of Reduced Mobility (PRMs). In 2008, legal responsibility for providing passenger assistance transferred from airlines to airports. 

The airports are now responsible for providing assistance from the terminal building until an assisted passenger reaches their seat on the aircraft.

Simple solutions for improvement

Amanda Diamond, Assistant Editor for Which? Travel, said: ‘Although many disabled people receive excellent assistance at UK airports, when things go wrong they go badly wrong, causing vulnerable passengers distress or humiliation.’ 

‘Some simple changes to processes and staff training could help airports ensure all passengers get the assistance they need.’

Which? Conversation

Have you ever used airport assistance? What was your opinion of the service? Please share your views on this topic at Which? Conversation. 

Which? Travel

Which? Travel gives you practical advice and inspirational ideas, and will help you choose the best travel companies, services and products that are right for you. 

What’s more, you can email the Travel helpdesk at any time with your queries and you will get a personal reply. Find out more about Which? Travel.

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