Airports Have a History of Letting Down Disabled Passengers

In May 2020, Frank Gardner, a BBC security correspondent, boarded a flight from Estonia via Helsinki.  Upon landing at Heathrow, he reported being stuck on the plane long after the other passengers had left.  Frank had requested assistance but Heathrow failed to get his wheelchair to him upon landing.  

Frank is sat on an empty plane, rows of empty seats behind him.
Picture courtesy of the Frank Gardner BBC News article.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, when passengers are grounded, it is the responsibility of the airport to provide any assistance, which includes returning wheelchairs and aids from the hold to passengers upon landing. 

Frank took to Twitter to voice his frustration, with over 44,000 likes to his tweet, whilst people commented how unacceptable it was and were shocked by the way he was treated.  According to the BBC Article, Heathrow Airport has blamed Covid-19 for this, although many other passengers have said it’s unfortunately not a one-off and can be a regular occurrence for those travelling with assistance requirements.  

Another passenger, Ben Furner, had a similar experience a few weeks before Frank at another airport in the UK.  He told the BBC that there were no staff to collect his wheelchair and was offered a standard airport wheelchair to go to the baggage reclaim and collect his own wheelchair!  As wheelchair users know, most are customed to fit the specific person and an ill-fitting chair can cause discomfort and even injury which is unacceptable. 

Ben was still sitting on the plane as the next crew arrived, and it was only due to the captain intervening and arranging for his scooter to be collected, that Ben was able to leave the aircraft. 

In 2018, Aviation 2050 was launched by the government. This was supposed to be a consultation and strategy for air travel, looking at improvements required for passenger access support. Unfortunately, Covid-19 stalled this and this means there are still many unsatisfied disabled passengers. 

There was an introductory report admitting that more work that needed to be done, stating that over 3 million people requested some form of special assistance in 2017, in the UK alone, a number which is now believed to be even higher. 

The report from the Aviation 2050 states that around 25% of those who use air travel have long-term health conditions or a disability requiring assistance with around 60% of these people claiming to find access difficult in airports.  The BBC article also stated there is a distinct “lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities across airlines, airports and airside services.” 

A man with a ring on his finger is propelling his wheelchair.
Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Why is this such a problem? People requiring special assistance have to book with the airline in advance, at least 48 hours before travelling, so in reality, there should be someone able to retrieve the wheelchairs/aids that people need in order to leave the aircraft. 

Maybe when Aviation 2050 gets back on its feet, it could offer more research into this and finally iron out these issues once and for all making airport travel more accessible and easier for people requiring assistance at the very least.