/ Travel & Leisure

Disabled passengers ‘passed around like parcels’ in airports

Airport with invisible disabled passengers in graphics

Airports are obliged to offer adequate assistance to disabled passengers, but our investigation found this often isn’t the case. Our undercover reporter was left alone for hours in distress, which just isn’t good enough.

When it comes to flying, most of us just take it for granted that we’ll be able to saunter around the airport, browse through the shops and grab a coffee before boarding our flight.

But, what if you couldn’t see? Or, if you were in a wheelchair or had a broken leg and were reliant on airport staff to escort you through the airport and onto the plane? Do you think your airport experience would be quite so leisurely or straightforward?

Airports have a legal obligation under EU Regulation 1107/2006 to assist disabled travellers. But, as a Which? Travel investigation discovered, the assistance provided to disabled passengers is at best patchy, and at worst, neglectful.

Passengers left feeling humiliated

While airports are getting it right some of the time, dozens of letters sent to Which? Travel revealed that many passengers have experienced distress or frustration as a result of poor levels of assistance from airport staff.

In a number of instances, assisted travellers described being ‘passed around like a parcel’, ‘abandoned like a piece of luggage’ or simply left feeling humiliated. While some were extremely complimentary about the assistance they received, others were dismayed by the service and have even been put off flying again as a result.

We decided to test this for ourselves. So we sent four frequent flyers – two guide dog owners and two wheelchair users – undercover on domestic flights around the UK to assess the level of assistance at seven different airports. All four passengers encountered problems with the assistance they received with three of them experiencing significant problems.

Richard’s story

Richard* – one of our guide dog owners – had a smooth outbound journey from Glasgow International to Birmingham airport but his return journey was a different story.

Richard had an assistant who helped him check-in at Birmingham airport before taking him through security to the departure area – so far, so good. Once in the departure lounge, Richard explained that he needed to use the toilet and wanted to buy a cup of tea.

Instead of accompanying Richard to the toilet, the assistant made a call on his mobile phone and told Richard he’d be back in a few minutes. Richard never saw him again.

Instead, a fellow passenger came to Richard’s aid and her husband took Richard to the disabled toilet, which was on a different floor. By the time another airport assistant came to take Richard to the boarding gate, he had been left sitting alone, in the same spot for an hour and 35 minutes.

Richard was understandably upset at being ‘dumped’, especially as he was so desperate to use the bathroom. He was also hungry and thirsty as he’d had nothing to eat or drink for several hours. His guide dog also went without water for a long period as a result.

The invisible travellers

Richard told Which? Travel that he felt utterly abandoned by airport staff because, as a blind traveller, he was completely helpless without sighted assistance. Unfortunately however, Richard said his experience is nothing new. In fact, all our undercover investigators found fault with at least one aspect of the assistance they received.

We’ve written to the airports in our investigation and asked them why they failed to provide adequate levels of assistance. We’ve also written to the Civil Aviation Authority asking how they propose to ensure that all airports meet their obligations under the legislation. We’re awaiting their replies.

It seems that when assistance fails, it can fail significantly and can cause real distress and humiliation to passengers. This is unacceptable. And although many people receive excellent assistance at UK airports, more needs to be done to ensure that all airports provide the best care possible.

* not his real name


With regards to airport assistance and passenger safety why are passengers not strapped in on the Ambulift at Tenerife Sur Airport. How do I know this? Because me my disabled mum and my brother were injured when we were not secured safely whilst travelling on an ambulift there and we were travelling in an elevated position when the vehicle crashed into a bridge overhead! We still don’t know if anything is happening with regards to why this accident was allowed to occur and the police have not been on contact since it happened on 16.1.17

I need answers and until I can speak with lawyers which seems incredibly slow it’s hard to piece together.
My mum has facial and head injuries amongst others, my brother and I both sufferEd concussion and whiplash injury plus he also had knee injury.

It’s all very well saying speak to your travel insurance. We all need answers now.

Because of spinal stenosis I cannot stand or walk for more than three minutes. I guess I have been lucky with disabled assistance around the world except for London Heathrow which is really degrading and disgusting.
1. Flying within Europe was taken by buggy to a lift and told I had to go rest of way on foot as buggy could not go to lower floor. At the bottom of the lift the gate was the fourth one along. Told them I could not manage this. Did not listen but walked with me. Half way along I could go no further.
2. Flying to US with Virgin, was taken despite the fact they had my ticket to the BA flight
3. Unfortunately this gets worse. Coming back from holiday too many disabled passengers on flight for buggy. Wheelchairs brought us up to buggy. I was one of the first up as near the front of plane. Left while they went back for others. They got on buggy I did not. In the meantime my husband had seen the problem and he and another passengers wife decided they would walk. Unfortunately the other passengers husbands/wives did not and result I was left in the evening going dark outside with no-one around at all. They said they would come back for me. They did not. After about three quarters of an hour of panic – still no-one around a member of staff passed on her way of duty and was horrified to find me. She took me all the way back. Very kind.

4. This last holiday took the biscuit both ways. Terminal 5 again. Booked in for BA flight. They have a disabled end to their desk and you sit until assistance collect you. A most unpleasant man arrived with wheelchair to take people up to the floor above to get buggy. He looked along the line and said I want you to walk with me to buggies. A lot of people worried about this and he said it was not far. It was. I didn’t volunteer and eventually he came back for me. Once upstairs we waited and took buggy to holding area and thenanother buggy to flight. Because the gate was in a circular area and many people he dropped us well away from the desk. My husband queried this and was told they could not take buggy any further I would have to walk and push through all the people queuing to get on plane. My husband asked ab out a wheelchair to get on plane and was told there might be. There wasn’t To get to this plane there was a double passageway all downhill which we knew I could not do. Fortunately the man in the yellow jacket who would be moving the gear from the aircraft said to us do not worry the plane cannot go until I clear it and it is not going anywhere until you have the wheelchair you booked. Eventually a wheelchair arrived and I was the very last person onboard.

Coming back was even worse. Eight disabled people, one wheelchair then no more. Eventually the BA staff on the plane persuaded people to walk up to buggy point up the slope, down a corridor round a corner you get the idea. I said I could not go that far. Husband decided he would go ahead to claim luggage andrelease space on buggy – I did not see him again for one and a half hours. No chair came – the cleaners cleaned around me pointing out to the flight manager they were not supposed to do this. The new crew came and much debate as to whether to leave me with new crew or whether the flight manager and captain would wait. I was feeling horrible by this time – though have to stress that the crew were very kind. Eventually I said I would try and walk and it was decided that the Captain would carry everything and the flight manager help me. At this point a wheelchair appeared and I was taken up to the buggy where all the others were waiting either sympathetically or impatiently depending on the passenger.
We were then taken to the luggage collection and turfed off. We were at the disabled passenger point at the start of the carousels but no-one on duty. Our luggage was at carousel 11 the last up the long corridor. Most people decided they had to walk and set off leaving just me and another lady. The buggy driver took her in a wheelchair saying he would be back for me. He wasn’t – there was no one at all around because latish evening. I looked up the corridor and could just see 11 in the very far distance and but too far to see my husband. So there I waited by myself and no-one came. Eventually the same thing happened. Someone passed going off duty and was appalled at me being left there found a wheelchair and reunited me with husband.

We will NEVER travel from Terminal 5 again and settle for Birmingham or Manchester. BA very apologetic and crew were lovely but I have never felt such a nuisance in my life.

David Richardson says:
24 January 2018

All Terminals are awful for Assistance. They are the worse in the world.

Lisa says:
14 May 2018

I flew back from Palma airport yesterday, I had disabled assistance booked. Once we landed we waited nearly an hour for a vehicle to collect us off the flight to then be told they didn’t have one, I ended up having to come down the stairs to a wheelchair waiting at the bottom, was taken thru to baggage claim where my daughter was to,d she would have to push me the rest of the way as the male assistant had other stuff to do. I ended up having to walk the rest of the way on crutches as my daughter couldn’t push we as well as getting baggage. Was an absolute disgrace. There was 4 disabled people on the flight, 3 of us managed to get down stairs eventually but 1 person didn’t, not sure how they got on. I have complained to Ryanair and am awaiting a response. Palma airport was even worse when we were trying to checkin, never again I swear

Tracey Greaves says:
30 October 2019

I flew from Southampton airport in July 2018, It was a frightening experience. Transport through the airport was a wheel chair, nothing unusual. I was then taken airside to the base of the steps to get on the airplane. I would like to point out that I unable to walk very far unaided and have problems with stairs. They expected me to get out the wheelchair and climb the stairs. I told them I could not do this, and one went off to get a collapsable canvas/metal framed chair, which I then had to sit in – there was no offer of any safety belt/harness or anything to hold onto. I was then lugged up the steps backwards, by two helpers. One behind me, going up backwards, and one at my feet, both lifting me up one step at a time. I would scream “Health and Safety” – as in lack of it.

I have had a recent and terrible experience with airport special assistance at Corfu airport. One assistant to cover all the disabled travellers. The assistant was special needs, had no support or supervision and did not understand the needs of the passengers nor the urgency of getting through the airport to catch a flight. I am limited to a few paces at a time using crutches, cannot stand for more than 5 mins and any exception leaves me in terrible pain and distress for days. The result of this lack of care meant we had to walk through the airport, through security bag check, through passport control and all with 10 mins to gate closing. I was in great pain, falling and so distressed.
I have written complaint to the airport management, to Fraport Greece, to the CAA and to Easyjet. I have had no real answers, even though this whole pantomime broke the 2006 regulation for transport of disabled passengers. I am now seeking redress with the airport. Anyone know of any other way of getting through this? Any disabled legal body or advise group please?