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* – 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