/ Travel & Leisure

Airports are no holiday when you need help

special assistance passengers

Could airports do more for disabled passengers and others who need special help? Miranda, who regularly uses UK airports, suggests how things could be improved.

It’s 6.40am and our plane from Florida has just landed into Gatwick. It’s been a rough nine-hour flight and I haven’t had any sleep. My foot hurts. It always does when I fly, because of the metalwork that holds my bones together.

I pre-requested special assistance long before me and my husband flew. I can walk short distances on my crutches, but long stretches of airport hallways and standing in passport control queues are impossible for me.

Special assistance

I’m met outside the plane’s door by a man with a manual wheelchair. He gets me into it, pushes me up the jet bridge and immediately stops.

He asks me to get out of the chair and sit on the bench in the corridor.

He says if I wait here, another staff member will bring another chair. I wait a few minutes and a female staff member appears from the lift. She puts me into her wheelchair and we go up in the lift together.

At the top, she asks me to get out of the chair and into a golf buggy. There’s no room for my husband, so he’s told to carry on alone on foot and we’ll meet up in the baggage hall.

This stop-and-go routine is typical of my experience of UK airports as a mobility-impaired passenger. I’ve travelled in and out of many British and foreign airports and I can tell you it’s generally no fun at all.

I’ve watched confused elderly passengers become distressed as they waited alone, having been told their family must leave them on a metal bench to wait for assistance.

To be fair, while American airports have generally been much better than ours, in other countries they have been dreadful.

How UK airports could do more

It doesn’t have to be like this. Here’s how I think UK airports can start to ensure that all passengers requiring special assistance get the help they need:

Have a row of seats next to every special assistance call point

Get a lot more wheelchairs: The metal ones that stack up like shopping trolleys are fine. Heathrow is starting to introduce these and that’s good.

When you meet a special assistance passenger: ASK what help they’d like. My husband is more than capable of wheeling me around an airport once we check in luggage. This would free up staff to help other passengers. You know what flight we’re on, so you can collect the chair from the jetway after we board, or in the car park/bus pick up areas after we leave the airport.

Redesign your disabled routes: At the moment there are times when disabled passengers have to be accompanied by staff because they use restricted lifts or go through restricted areas. Disabled routes shouldn’t use restricted areas. If necessary, build a new lift that just takes passengers where they need to go.

Allow one person to accompany the special assistance passenger at all times: I realise you can’t include whole families – but let the wife/husband/friend who’s helping them on their trip go with them through the airport. Being separated from your group is an added stress nobody needs.

Or…have enough staff on call on every shift that when a passenger calls for assistance, one person can go, greet them and take them all the way to the plane door if they’re arriving, or to the car or train door if they’re leaving. Many non-UK airports can do this, so you can too.

Stop leaving passengers in the baggage hall: Once a passenger has claimed their luggage they’re more likely to need help.

Treat passengers with more dignity: Make it a disciplinable offence to leave vulnerable passengers sitting alone in a remote corridor.

I know this is a big change and may be expensive. But this group of passengers is growing, and you’re currently leaving a lot to be desired.

Have you had to ask for special assistance when using UK airports? How did you find the experience?

This is a guest post by Miranda. All opinions are Miranda’s own and not necessarily those of Which?


At airports where you have to walk long distances to get on your flight [no doubt it is cheaper for the airline to park there], there should be a good assistance service available for passengers with mobility problems. This should be all part and parcel of a good airport service.

This lady’s stort is typical of what is happening at airports, not just in Britain but worldwide. I can walk short distances but need a buggy ride along the long passages. There are usually lifts near stairs so with that little bit of assistance and a buggy which is not very staff intensive is all I need, but the airlines/airports insist I have all (a wheelchair pushed by a staff member) or nothing. It can’t be cost effective so I don’t know why they don’t look at the problem and at least ask the disabled person what level of assistance they need. I have written twice about problems but never even had an acknowledgement.

jazia says:
16 June 2016

My husband is in the wheelchair and we never experienced any of the problem listed in this article. Staff at the airport are always polite, friendly and helpful. They always ASK what help we want/need, I always assist my husband from check in all the way to the plane, they never abandon us in random corridor but leave us where other passangers are, when we land they always asked if we need help with luggage.

I haven’t yet had to ask for special assistance at an airport or travelled with anyone needing it, but I can easily imagine how awful it must be to be separated from your travel companion(s), passed from pillar to post, or abandoned like forgotten luggage. It only adds more stress to what is already a stressful experience for all. I have seen plenty of examples of what appeared to be efficient, sensitive and friendly service provided, and it doesn’t seem to be a norm particularly difficult to achieve. If expenses is an issue, why not suggest to airports that they increase the rents of beyond-luxury shops likes of Gucci, Harrods or Tiffany? They probably won’t notice the difference, but passengers who need assistance will.

Following an accident in Berlin when my wife broke her Patella we had to be flown home to Manchester Airport by the insurer. Berlin Airport couldn’t have been better. Speaking flawless English, they assigned two minders and a wheelchair and took us through all the security and other controls. We were then loaded onto the aircraft, via deserted security routes, before any passengers and the flight stewards (EasyJet) were outstanding.

Until we reached Manchester. There it fell apart. A rather curmudgeonly escort reluctantly collected the wheelchair and took us to the Luggage collection. My wife had to use the toilet so I asked the man if he’d mind waiting with the cases for the two or three minutes involved. By the time we emerged from the toilet the man was gone, and I was left with my wife in a wheelchair and two large suitcases plus two bags to manhandle though passport control.

Manchester, certainly, is one of the worst airports we’ve ever used, as this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident.

Joan says:
18 June 2016

I recently travelled from Heathrow having injured my foot the previous evening. I had not requested assistance but was offered it and gratefully received. It was automatically ordered for me for the destination airport. My husband was allowed to be with me all the time.

Nelly Haggan says:
23 July 2016

I agree with all the comments about mobility problems. My husband requested assistance ( he has Parkinson’s disease). He was loaded into a wheelchair and pushed straight through to the gate and then abandoned there ages before the flight.
Remember also that there are problems other than straightforward mobility issues. My husband needs help with dressing so being asked to remove coats, belts and shoes at the security check is a problem for us. I have to help him as well as coping with my own security check. There must be many other forms of disability which should be examined and catered for.

Anne Adams says:
24 July 2016

I am a temporary wheelchair user and requested Special Assistance on flights from Bristol to Geneva and back with easyJet. I had never used this service before and was most impressed with the kindness and efficiency with which I was treated by the airport staff at both Bristol and Geneva. I couldn’t fault their service, even though it was Saturday and both airports were extremely busy.

I have osteoarthritis and manage, but while touring on the continent my knee swoll and I could not drive and had to fly. The treatment with wheel-chairs and electric buggies bypassing the queues for check-in and security was wonderful at Paris (CDG), Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Gatwick. Inevitably there is some waiting around for personnel to be available, but it is done in a friendly manner.
The only difficulty was at Madrid, but this might have been due to a misunderstanding. We were told we were too late for assistance and would have to run which was painful.
At Amsterdam the Carer said that electric cars are only for 2 or more, not single, but she managed to prolong one and included my partner. While waiting patiently with me at Gatwick for my luggage to come off the belt, my Carer told me that they have 600 people working for the free service at Gatwick, and yet some people are ungracious and even rude. He then pushed me to the head of the queue for tickets for the train, and waited for my ticket before leaving me for other duties. What a help!

Several years ago my mother and I flew to the USA. Because she had asthma and emphysema, she asked for assisted passage. Both Heathrow and Miami were very helpful and Virgin even upgraded us to Upper Class, both ways.

This year I went to Malta via Luton. I had no problem getting through security with the assistant and then my friend could push me in the wheelchair. I had no problems until I came back to Luton where I had to wait 30 minutes for assistance as my friend went to reclaim baggage. I have complained at Luton before regarding assistance not available until you enter the airport. I was told there is an assistance button on the exit to the car park. No Notices to tell you this. Best airport in UK I found was Glasgow.

Luton I found was the most awkward. Assistant though will get you through security and then my friend could take over wheelchair. You have to enter airport first to find assistance. I was told there is a button on the exit to the car park. No notices to tell you this. On my return from Malta had to wait 30 minutes for assistance as my friend went to collect baggage. The best I have found in UK is Glasgow. Excellent service in Malta.

Paul says:
3 October 2016

My mother-in-law can’t walk a long distance but she refuses to ask for assistance because she gets put in a wheelchair until it is time to board.
My son has a number of disabilities but mobility isn’t one of them. He has travelled to the US on several occasions and says the two airports he uses in the US (one massive and one tiny) are excellent at support but Heathrow is useless.

I have just flown to London Luton and back to Glasgow. I have to say the assistance I received from Glasgow was exemplary. I can’t say the same for Luton. On arrival I was taken by wheelchair into the baggage reclaim and told it was a short walk to the buses. I have great difficulty in walking any distance and found the walk tiring and excrutiating. On the return journey there is no assistance until you enter the departure building. A fair walk from the drop off point. On arrival at Glasgow what a difference as I was taken from the aircraft right through to the taxi pick up.

Denver International Airport is exemplary. One person taking me directly from check, through security and to the gate. A similar experience on arrivals, all the way to my ride. Fantastic DIA, If only others followed this lead.

Russia Dometevo however is pretty dire. I had a layover between flights and while the helpers were good, I got deposited in a room/corridor for 5 hours with no facilities and only a few sleeping armed security guards. The helpers did just fine, but as a disabled-friendly airport I’d say not if you have any layover. If you can get in an airline club lounge I strongly recommend it. If not, bring a book and don’t drink too much.