A survey of disabled people commissioned by Which? Travel found that lack of confidence in accessibility services has left almost half feeling that their disability has restricted their ability to fly in the last two years.
Those who do fly are often enduring long waits for special assistance and, in some cases, are even at risk of harm because of failings by the services that are supposed to be looking after them.
Our survey, carried out with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC), found of those who had used special assistance at an airport, around a quarter said that they were dissatisfied. At Heathrow, the worst of the big five airports, that figure was 28%.
The law says airports and airlines must provide help and assistance to passengers with disabilities or reduced mobility, which is free of charge.
In each issue of Which? Travel we investigate the issues that matter to you. Support the work we do and find out more about Which? Travel.
Disabled passengers hurt or humiliated
One common problem was that airports didn’t have enough staff to provide the legally required special assistance.
One traveller, William Moss, was badly let down at Manchester Airport last year. Although there was a wheelchair waiting for him, there was nobody available to push it. His wife was assured that the route to the plane was flat and therefore she reluctantly accepted that she could do it herself. But when she got to the gate there was still nobody there. She did her best but lost control of the wheelchair down the steep slope of the airbridge and it crashed at the bottom, leaving William dazed and shocked.
When William complained to Manchester Airport, the private company that runs its assistance service, OCS blamed handling staff at the gate and told him to complain to them. Manchester Airport apologised to Mr Moss and told us: ‘OCS is no longer our special assistance provider, having been replaced by a new company, ABM, on 1 April. As part of this new deal, there has been significant investment in additional staff and new equipment, which is being reflected in an improved performance.’
See our video with disability blogger Martyn Sibley about why he’s had enough bad treatment – and feels like he can no longer fly.
‘Invisible’ disabled ignored
Many correspondents complained that, for too many assistance staff, disabled means ‘wheelchair’. Those with other disabilities go unnoticed. Christine Wise’s husband Trevor has early-onset Alzheimer’s, which has left him blind. She says that a recent trip from Heathrow was ‘stressful, degrading and embarrassing.’
Trevor was told that he couldn’t use the priority lanes usually used by the disabled. ‘We were informed that because he was not in a wheelchair he did not count as disabled,’ she says.
‘The security person yelled for someone to hand scan as “this one can’t cope with the scanner”.’ They took his cane off him to scan it and I just managed to stop them breaking it, when it got jammed in the conveyor belt.’
Official ratings show airports still need to improve
In 2016-17 Heathrow was officially ‘poor’ for accessibility according to ratings produced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Since then it has now become ‘good’ but the airport admits that work still needs to be done.
‘The experience that Mr. Wise had when travelling through our airport is unacceptable and we apologise unreservedly,’ Heathrow told us. ‘We will be briefing our colleagues to prevent this from happening in future.’ It also said that it would be trialling a new provider in Terminal 5 shortly and aiming to achieve ‘very good’ status in the official CAA ratings by 2022.
Currently there are no officially ‘poor’ airports but Manchester was classed as ‘needing improvement’. If you have restricted mobility and you’d like to help the RiDC provide insights into the experiences of disabled consumers you can join its panel.
What do to if you require special assistance
Airports are legally required to provide special assistance to disabled passengers and those with reduced mobility, all you need to do is provide them with sufficient notice. The RiDC has set up a page detailing when and how to request assistance, and some of the key questions to consider before you travel.