As the U.K. emerges into the mixed reality of a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world, staff shortages and long delays at the country’s airports have started to bite.
Over recent weeks, there has been a spate of stories concerning passengers with disabilities being left on planes for hours on end after they have landed due to their being a dearth of assistance staff to safely convey them from the aircraft to the terminal building.
As wheelchairs and scooters need to be stored in the luggage hold during transit, passengers with serious mobility impairments are often reliant on assistance staff to operate specialist equipment such as external lifts, hoists and an extra-narrow aisle chair to access their seat.
These episodes have been reported by numerous members of the public including BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner, who tweeted about his experience last month waiting for an extended period alone in an empty plane for his wheelchair on a flight back from Estonia to London Heathrow.
On Friday, the U. K’s Civil Aviation Authority finally lost patience with airports and assistance providers.
In a letter sent out by the regulator to all U.K. airports, the CAA stated that it was, “Very concerned about the increase in reports that we have received of significant service failings.”
Noting that, “Our own reporting framework tells us that many more disabled and less mobile passengers have had to wait longer for assistance than usual.”
U.K. airports have been given a deadline of June 21 to inform the CAA of the steps they are taking to rectify the issues, or face enforcement action in the shape of court orders should problems persist.
Responding to the CAA announcement, Fazilet Hadi Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK said, “In recent weeks, disabled people have experienced some truly appalling service failures and been left on planes for hours without any communication.”
Most tellingly, she further added, “We are pleased that the letter recognizes that even in normal times assistance services weren’t always of good quality.”
Tip of the iceberg
Her latter point is entirely pertinent and the sad truth remains that unacceptable delays in disembarkation are just one of many struggles passengers with disabilities face when taking to the skies.
There remain, of course, issues of physical infrastructure such as a lack of accessible toilets on board.
Additionally, protocols for determining a passenger’s capacity for independent travel, or potential for emergency evacuation are often ill-defined, leaving the door open for subjective and inconsistent decision-making for undertrained staff on the ground.
It’s not just airline staff disabled flyers might need to contend with.
Shockingly, during the latest delays to hit U.K airports, there have been reports of some non-disabled passengers, exasperated by the long lines, pretending to be disabled in order to jump the queue.
This has further exacerbated the situation by spreading already insufficient quantities of assistance staff more thinly across the airport.
However, the most egregious event that can occur to a disabled passenger is undoubtedly when their wheelchair or mobility scooter is lost or damaged in transit.
This happens more often than one might think.
According to a Washington Post article published last summer, since 2018, several of the largest airlines in the U.S. have lost or damaged some 15,425 mobility devices – a staggering 29 each day.
Not only does this completely destroy a vacation because, without their mobility aid, some users end up being unable to leave their hotel room – it can have far-reaching consequences for regular day-to-day living as well.
Though equipment like powerchairs may seem relatively easy to replace once home, many such devices are highly personalized to the user to meet their precise medical needs.
Should drawn-out legal and insurance wranglings with airlines over lost or damaged equipment ensue, users risk being stuck at home for weeks or months – unable to work and care for themselves or their families.
These consequences can be life-threatening as was seen in the sad death of 51-year-old disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa who died partly as a result of having to spend months in an unsuitable wheelchair after her specially adapted one was accidentally damaged by United Airlines handlers last summer.
During the months spent waiting and negotiating for a replacement specialized chair, Figueroa exacerbated a pressure sore from using an unsuitable temporary chair which later became infected, leading to her untimely death.
The homecare reform advocate who had both a spinal injury and leg amputation had stated in a previous interview:
“Mobility devices are an extension of our bodies. When they are damaged or destroyed, we become re-disabled. Until the airlines learn how to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve, flying remains inaccessible.”
Moving forwards, it is this mindset that airports and airlines need to adopt.
For people with disabilities, lost or damaged mobility equipment, or indeed being trapped on board a landed aircraft, shouldn’t be treated as trivial inconveniences or a straightforward failure of customer service.
They are, in fact, more akin to outright negligence and a serious breach of health and safety.
When adequately viewed through this prism, one would hope that the words of Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel are fully heeded by the CAA after he called for a regulator with “real teeth” to hand out punishments following the recent chaos experienced by disabled passengers at U.K. airports.
It’s also reasonable to hope that, in the future, technology and innovation might play their part in making air travel a more convenient and less stressful experience for passengers with disabilities.
Munich-based Revolve-Wheel has come up with the Revolve Air, a wheelchair that collapses down to 60% of the size of regular folding chairs – meaning it will be able to be stored in overhead compartments as hand luggage.
Meanwhile, Texas-based All Wheels Up is crash testing and lobbying for planes to be fitted with wheelchair tie-downs and restraints to enable passengers to board and fly seated in their own devices.
Nonetheless, innovation is only a fraction of the battle because much of the infrastructure exists today to enable passengers with disabilities to fly in more comfort and safety.
After all, even as far back as the mid-twentieth century, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a paraplegic, was able to make use of an elevator nicknamed “Sacred Cow” to board and disembark his personal plane.
Much can still be achieved by pursuing timeless accessibility initiatives — namely engaging in continuous and evolving dialogue with the disability community, alongside a commitment to prioritizing issues with measurable actions such as the hiring and training of more assistance staff.
In the end, people with disabilities often simply desire equality. Just like with the public at large – while it may be fanciful to think about eliminating a fear of flying – that fear should at least be restricted to being in the air, rather than worrying about everything that might go wrong on the ground as well.