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.
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?