/ Travel & Leisure

Why disabled passengers still have to fight for fairer travel

Is access for disabled travellers really improving? The BBC’s Frank Gardner says the fight for fair access continues. What are your experiences?

Frank Gardner says that he doesn’t want to be known as a ‘serial whinger’. There’s not much risk of that.

He was shot six times by Al Qaeda, partially paralysed, and yet still returned to his job as the BBC’s Security Correspondent without ever ‘whinging’ about his terrible experience.

Yet in recent years he’s been almost as well known for his viral tweets about travelling with a disability as he is for his insights into the security situation in the Middle East.

In 2012 he made headlines when he booked a flight to Nairobi, only to be told that Kenya Airways didn’t have an aisle wheelchair, so he wouldn’t be able to use the loo for eight hours.

Its suggested solution was that he use a catheter but, as he puts it, apologising for the language, “to put it bluntly, you can’t c**p through a catheter!’.

Left stuck… again

Luckily he still has good upper body strength and could just about get around with a frame and callipers but, when he got to the airport in London, they told him that the frame was too big. Only after his friends kicked up a fuss was he allowed on board.

Then there was the time in March last year when staff at Heathrow lost his wheelchair and he was stuck on the plane for two hours.

Then the time in October last year, again at Heathrow, when staff got stuck in the lift that was supposed to be transporting him from the plane, leaving him stuck, again.

He’d also frequently find that his wheelchair would be waiting for him in the terminal, rather than at the door of the aircraft. ‘What a batty idea,’ he says. ‘Instead of your own wheelchair they’d give you some clanking Victorian contraption.’

Changing policies

However, it’s not all bad news. His ‘whinging’ has often worked. His experiences with Kenya Airlines resulted in him being invited to Nairobi to meet the CEO.

The company then changed its policy. His experiences at Heathrow also shook up senior staff who, again, invited him in to see what could be improved.

‘Things have got much better since I’ve complained,’ he says. ‘Both Heathrow and British Airways have made great strides. At Heathrow the wheelchair is now left at the door of the plane not in the terminal. More airports are doing that now.’

But there are still issues. He still complains of being unnecessarily man-handled.

“It’s really rude to grab you by the arm without your permission. Somebody did that to me at Geneva Airport and so I grabbed him back. The important thing is to never make assumptions and to treat people as individuals. It’s so simple to just ask ‘what can I do to help?’ and the answer sometimes might be ‘thank you, but I don’t need any help right now”

It could be that one reason Frank’s experience has improved, however, is that airports and airlines know that, if they mess with him, the story could be all over the internet the next day.

We know that, sometimes, ‘whinging’ is the only thing that works. At Which? Travel we want to hear about people’s experiences of using special assistance at airports or of travelling with a disability.

Do you agree with Frank that things are getting better?

Do you feel that access for disabled passengers is improving?
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What else needs to be done? Let us know in the comments below or send your stories directly to travelexperts@which.co.uk

Lorraine says:
3 September 2019

When I arrived at Luton airport fron Dublin dying wo use the loo only to find every disabled toilet was being cleaned or out of action. I had no dignity and felt all I could do was pee myself so degrading.

Martin King says:
3 September 2019

Due to health issues I have a problem walking namely that I can’t walk fast or for long distances so I have to use Special Assist at the airports. I am a frequent traveller so I am au fait with Special Assist procedures.
However during the past three years I have experienced problems with this service. Twice I was left waiting for so long the plane was waiting for me to board. One time they forgot about me and had to rush me to the plane when upon boarding some passengers sarcastically applauded my entrance. all this despite repeated reminders to them that I should be taken to the gate. On another occasion I was left in a cargo area while someone went to find transport for me to the plane. Now I try to switch off but my wife gets very agitated and upset with it all.


Judy Graham says:
3 September 2019

I was stranded at a distant gate at Heathrow. I had booked wheelchair assistance to the plane on arrival. But none came. The crew all left. I eventually managed to get myself up to the main concourse. Waved down a passing staff member, who radioed for a wheelchair to be brought to me. By the time I reached the luggage carousel, all suitcases taken xcept mine.Episodes like this put me off travelling – too risky.

My problems are not dissimilar to Martin King above and I have to have wheelchair assitance at airports and railway stations. I have had many problems at airports, to the extent that my wife and I have virtually given up flying as it is too stressful. At everyone’s favourite airport, Manchester, I went through security in a wheelchair and was parked out of the way in a corner with another disabled chap and his wife (I have never been asked, at any airport anywhere, if I would like to use Duty Free.). After our flight was called the second time, the other lady went to find someone to remind them we were there and was told we hadn’t been forgotten.
When it was obvious we had been, she set off again and returned with a very apologetic airline worker who blamed the problem on the airport for not having enough wheelchair lifts. Both of us offered to climb on board ourselves but this was refused as we were booked as ‘disabled’ and had to board as such. Eventually, after the scheduled departure time, an airport worker arrived and told us it was the airline’s fault as they didn’t give them accurate numbers of passengers needing wheelchair lifts. The two officials proceeded to to have a row in front of us, constantly sniping at each other’s companies while we all waited for a mobile lift to arrive. We finally boarded the plane with all the passengers glaring at us and it took off almost half-an-hour late.
And it’s not just about flying. There are still bus drivers, in every city in the UK I have visited, who do not wait for passengers to be seated before pulling away and having fallen more than once for the same reason, I cannot use the trams in Nottingham or Sheffield at all. Passengers who have mobility problems but still strive to be ambulent are, it seems, not even considered. On complaining to Stagecoach on one occasion (albeit several years ago), I was told I should really use a wheelchair.
My local railway station seven miles away is relatively modern, dating from the 90’s when passenger trains were re-instated. It has an accessible entrance by the station offices for northbound passengers and disabled passengers are expected as there is an accessible toilet. However, they can only use the station in one direction as the only way to cross the line onto the southbound platform is by a footbridge with steep steps that I cannot manage and there is no wheelchair provision. Very often, and especially on the railways and airlines, I believe we are experiencing tokenism, where grudging provision is made to comply minimally with the law and the demands of a company’s public image, but without any real respect for or understanding of disabled travellers or any real commitment to a change in corporate or organisational philosophy or staff education.
Apart from the fact I live in a semi-rural area in Derbyshire where buses are few and far between, it is almost impossible for me, and many, many others, to use public transport anyway so the car is the only option. The issue of disabled parking provision, or the woeful lack of it, is another cause of daily frustration to thousands of disabled and ought to be, but rarely is, encompassed within any debate about accessible transport. Yes, we’ve come a long way in the last twenty years but there is still a long way to go yet.

There are somethings airports or any other services can and should do to better help accommodate people with disabilities. But in opposition to that sometimes the things required would simply incur to great an expense. Like wider aisles for example. Bear in mind that expense would have to be passed on to everyone.. should we be asking the question …is that fair to everyone?

Reading these stories really brings it home to me how hard it is for people to just go about their day to day lives. Thank you everyone for sharing your stories.

Having attempted to get a pram around London I know how woefully inaccessible a lot of the underground is but I am genuinely shocked at how badly airports treat their passengers.

Joe Delahunt says:
5 September 2019

Luton station NO disabled access/ egress has to be seen to be believed

My wife has to utilise a wheel chair outside. We never fly or travel by train as I would not be able to remain calm and respectful of staff who do not respect the needs of a disabled person. It amazes me every time we go out how ignorant many individuals (public and staff) are of the basic requirements of disabled people. It is high time the law forced all establishments to provide proper access for the disabled. I cannot appreciate in an aging population how the majority of businesses ignore the less able.

Like some of your other contacts, as an amputee I need wheelchair assistance for the long walk to the gate and cannot ‘strap-hang’ on airport buses. Manchester has usually been good, but my experience a few weeks ago was different. No problem getting the assistance, but when we (myself and two other ladies who looked rather older than me) arrived at the gate the area was heaving with people waiting to board other flights who could not see below shoulder height. The man pushing me was very patient though I was tempted to say something to the selfish people who would not get out of our way. When it was nearly time to board, the staff realised that they had three ladies in wheelchairs who probably could not walk down the stairs and up the aircraft ones. After a lot of grumbling they decided we had to go down on the lift, sit outside, and wait for the ambulift to collect us and take us up to the plane door. The ambulift was summoned but could not get anywhere the plane for all the trolleys, luggage, etc. Another wait! Then they decided to push us round the trolleys etc to sit in the ambulift until there was room for it near the plane. Fifteen minutes later ( well after take off time) the ambulift driver gave up waiting and took us round to the back door on the other side of the plane. Up we went to the door but the driver had to knock for access. By this time, fortunately, we could all see the funny side of the situation, and my seat was next to the door and opposite the toilet so no further problems. You couldn’t make it up!
Zurich airport was, as usual, the model of efficiency. The disabled mini bus was waiting and we were taken in wheelchairs or a golf buggy through passport control and onto the floor above the rail station. No problems with the luggage carousel as you can send cases (for a fee, well worth it) from your UK airport direct to your holiday resort in Switzerland, arriving the same day. Time for a coffee!

H Binnie says:
7 September 2019

Did you know that there is not one single toilet for adults/older children who need toileting at Gatwick departures. Any passengers who need an accessible toilet have to leave the departures area to go back to the main terminal and then re check in which as on the occasion I witnessed then made the staff not let them go through security as they were late. Despite repeated assurances that the plane was waiting from the mother to staff and that her 17 year old tetraplegic son had had to have his pads changed and needed facilities they were not allowed through and the family about to miss their holiday. It was only the intervention of the special assistance man pushing my wheel chair that resolved it as a manager then escorted them through but this was done in front of a crowd of anxious passengers who were all stopped from progressing as well. How the young man felt about this public sharing I can’t imagine and later I found it was true when special assistance staff told me there are NO fully accessible toilets (with boosts etc) for adults in departures. It’s outrageous.

I regularly travel with six children and three young adults who all have varying degrees of disability some ambulant some not. I know we always present a challenge to all public transport so we plan each journey quite meticulously and give as much prior warning as possible. But we encounter many problems. At Manchester Airport We get charged £25 for airport drop offs because we exceed the 10 minute free limit. I was told the procedure ‘wasn’t designed for that’. We have been held in security for almost an hour separated from other members of our family and our belongings (passports, wallets, phones, laptops etc) while wheelchairs are swabbed and reswabbed and family members searched. We were body searched and eventually asked very invasive questions about our children’s conditions and medication. That left us with little time to prepare for the flight. At the gate the lift was too small to accommodate one of the wheelchairs so we were separated again while my son and I were escorted through the airport to a lift that was big enough and then had to walk back around the outside of the building across the apron to the foot of the aircraft steps only to discover that no ambu-lift had been ordered. The special assistance guy who had gone to so much trouble to find a large enough lift then asked “can he not manage steps?” The captain of the aircraft was agitated abut the delay and the Special Assistance chap told him nobody had asked for an ambu-lift. I don’t know whose responsibility it was to ask for a lift but I bet his other passengers hadn’t had to request that the steps be provided. Finally, when the lift arrived we were told that it could only access the rear door of the aircraft because of other vehicles and machinery blocking access to the front. So having reserved more easily accessible seats at the front of the aircraft and in the absence of an aisle wheelchair I had to carry my 26 year old son the full length of the aircraft only to find that our seats had been taken by other passengers. The cabin crew stood and watched while everyone debated about the need to move. I had to ask the cabin crew to help and they pointed out solitary seats dotted about the cabin, showing no understanding of the assistance our children would need from us during the flight and totally ignoring the fact that we had paid extra to pre-book our block of seats, presumably, unlike the passengers who were occupying them.
I didn’t intend to rant but this was such a humiliating way to start a holiday.

kathleen cannon says:
7 September 2019

I frequently travel with my husband who like many others requires wheelchair assistance to travel long distances . The problem I find again and again is that there doesn’t seems to be any continuity between airports . Each one has a completely different way of dealing with disabled travellers , and often it’s a lottery as to whether your experience is acceptable or not .

I now always need special assistance at airports due to a surgical mistake on my hip, which makes walking very difficult and extremely painful. I regularly have problems, as does my husband – he has given up travelling now because he was dropped off the buggy at Gatwick airport and suffered many an indignity there. For myself, only yesterday when I flew from Southend to Alicante I was wheeled into the bar area for a coffee and assured by assistance that they would return when the flight was called. No-one arrived and I had to struggle out of the wheelchair, lift my two hand luggage bags into it, along with my walking stick and holding on to the wheelchair, push it hobbling and in pain to the departure gate. When I arrived there one of the females on the gate treated me as though I was an alien from Mars. She told me to “walk round to the back of the wheelchair queue”. I then had to lift my hand luggage and stick out of the chair and get myself back into it, by which time I was completely exhausted with the struggle. Eventually a very helpful young man at the gate (not an assistance employee) came to my rescue and pushed me to the plane. I really do have some real horror stories of my husband’s experiences, but have quoted my experience as it only happened yesterday and I am still recovering!

Lessismore says:
9 September 2019

Unbelievable. My experiences don’t compare with these but show some more difficulties which will become more extreme as we become an increasing older population.

Parent with stick and I stood at the allotted Gate only for the Gate to be changed last minute. Got to the next Gate and then had to flatten ourselves against wall wait to allow the racing passengers past. On the return trip we allowed everyone off the plane so that we would not be mown down. We walked across the tarmac and reached the door only to find we were locked airside and had to phone for someone to let us into the terminal. You would have thought that they would have counted their passengers in!

Two of us having taken time off work taking elderly parent to hospital for an appointment and being unable to find a car drop off space with a wheelchair or seat nearby. Having to walk the length of two large floors of a hospital to find a wheelchair (not necessary in everyday life). Hospital transport was not easy for anyone with poor sight and poor mobility and took a whole day which brings the other problems of needing to go to the loo and the importance of being able to either find food or having to take food. When after a year of trying to get hold of a Blue Badge we succeeded there were never enough Blue Badge spaces.

It bothers me that the new Crossrail stations will not all be truly accessible to all. The Mayor of London intends them to be. Ealing Council has planned no car drop off point in the recent consultation yet this is a station which many people with luggage unable to drive themselves will want to use to get trains directly out of London to the west country instead of going into central London to Paddington in order to get a train back out again.

David says:
11 January 2020

Trains are improving – space for wheelchairs and toilets, although not all people with disabilities use a wheelchair – but stations are still as bad as ever. The gap from platform to train at my local station is a chasm (40 cm high and 30 cm wide) that many able bodied people struggle with. You cannot board with a buggy unless other passengers help.

Stations built on a curve seem particularly prone to large gaps between the train and the platform depending on whereabouts on the bodysides the doors are positioned. There is not an easy remedy for that but new trains being introduced in East Anglia have sliding ramps which deploy when the doors open. I have not had a chance to see one yet because the introduction of the new trains has been delayed for the usual excuses.

What do you mean “improving”? All I’ve noticed about the new trains is that far too many of them are now being made all open all the way through which makes them unusable full stop for anyone severely disabled like me with far more severe misophonia which is never recognised as a disability and is instead only treated with gross ignorance and contempt by those in power and control, both public and private.

I’m disabled with severe hidden disabilities which no-one EVER wants to know about, not the operators, or the media, or the government, or even a lot of disability groups! How come if someone with a wheelchair has problems there’s always a huge fuss about it but no-one anywhere ever wants to know about anyone like ME with severe misophonia and severe HEAT intolerance and all the designers and operators and the government keep doing is piling even MORE barriers in the way and making more transport an ultra-EXclusive club. And of course all this is in total breach of the so-called “equality” act which clearly defines disability as “ANY long term condition which adversely affects someone’s ability to carry out everyday tasks”, i.e. ANY long term condition, NOT just those requiring wheelchairs! And the so-called equality act is now supposedly applied to public transport, but now apparently it’s been somehow replaced on the sly with something called PRM-TSI which again only caters for wheelchair users and those with reduced mobility while completely ignoring the needs of anyone like me with absolutely brutal severe hidden problems. Far too often I’ve been absolutely FORCED into outrageous angry conflict with selfish loudmouths on trains but the staff, who are supposedly trained in hidden disabilities never know anything about anyone like me and all too often wrongly blame me for supposedly starting it which I furiously resent! This is why ALL trains MUST have QUIET segregation, NOT all open all the way through which the new trains are which seriously EXcludes anyone like me. It’s not all about access, and some wheelchair users need quiet too, that I know. Never mind just reduced mobility, what about severely reduced compatibility?! I’m absolutely SICK and TIRED of folk like me being totally ignored and only treated with absolute total contempt when they fully justifiably complain, equality means everyone, not just the select few who the government and the operators choose to recognise.