/ 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

Peter Gibson says:
29 March 2011

In the UK we have become so pampered by the state we expect everything to be done for us and so it becomes normal to expect every minorities needs and sometimes religious preferences to be catered for. I find that in general there is a general lack of understanding amongst the public and so it not unreasonable that without fairly intensive training it would be difficult for the average airport staff to imagine all the implications of a certain disability. I find the UK airports not too bad but we are now resident in India.

In India there is an attempt by the airlines and the airport authority to provide wheelchair assistance but there are few disabled toilets and the wheelchairs can be extremely dirty and sometimes very uncomfortable. I often have to literally carry my wife to her seat from the aircraft door as the wheelchairs are too wide for the aircraft door. Once I had to carry my wife in my arms like a baby up the step into the aircraft because the aircraft steps where to narrow for the wheelchair to be carried up (as is the usual practice when there is no air-bridge). This conditions are dangerous for my wife, for the people carrying her up the steps and of course I risk injury as well.

Also there can be humiliating treatment of the disabled in the security. My wife was told to get off the wheelchair and stand up! The security woman frustrated with my wife’s inability shook the chair and demanded that she stand as there was insufficient space for the wheelchair to ge through the security screening booth.

I appreciate this discussion is about the conditions in the UK airports but please be aware that the relatively good service you experience you receive in the UK is unlikely to be reciprocated in many overseas destinations.

When my Mum and Nana came over to Haarlem to visit me, they had to wait an hour at Schiphol before they arrived with a wheelchair, pretty terrible really.

A few years agao I did work experience at Frankfurt airport in the Lufthansa Betreuungsdienst which was a pickup service for elderly and disabled people.

So perhaps its not the airports that have to provide this support, but the airlines.

Pink Armadillo says:
30 March 2011

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Netherlands, flying with my husband and friends from Stansted to Schiphol and back again. This is my first time flying since having to use a wheelchair, and although I was a bit nervous, it couldn’t actually have gone more smoothly! I had pre-booked special assistance through EasyJet for both flights; we found the check-in staff in both airports helpful and reassuring, and the special assistance teams were equally helpful, even to the extent of finding us the quickest routes through passport control and security. The security staff at both airports were professional but kind, all asking if it was ok to search me and if I had any pain anywhere. I can stand and offered to do so to help with the search, but they insisted that it wasn’t necessary and that I should stay sitting. Both searchers were female (as am I) and were able to wheel me a little way away from the security queue for a little privacy. All airport staff were also helpful to the couple we were travelling with, telling them where they could wait for us and taking them through passport control with us. I’ve emailed them all to say thank you, as they all did such an excellent job, starting and finishing a very memorable weekend in the right way.

I do think making the time to book any help you need is essential – they do need to be able to have the right resources in the right place at the right time and we need to help them to help us.

LondonRambler says:
30 March 2011

My wife is a wheelchair user. We have always had the best service at Stansted Aitport.
We travel to airports by minicab. It would be useful if the airport had signs outside indicating the best entrance nearest to the disabled holding point inside the airport.

Alice Morden says:
31 March 2011

Since the EU regulation, I have, on two occasions, requested assistance for my foster son, age 27, who is has a learning disability. He only needs assistance locating the correct boarding gate. He can independently follow directions from that point. He and I were very pleased with the assistance he received – all went smoothly both times. Before EU regulation, assistance for my son was totally denied in spite of the Disability Act of 1996. On two occasions prior to the EU regulation, we requested assistance for my son to the boarding gate. Both times we were firmly told that only the “old and the infirm” would be assisted. (On the second occasion, he was refused assistance even after informing the supervisor that compensation had been awarded for a previous identical transgression!)
We reported the airlines involved to the Equality Commission who took on both cases. My son received compensation in out of court settlements both times. For him at least, things have moved forward.

jean says:
31 March 2011

I traveled with BA home after having major surgery on my foot and was unable to put my bad foot to the floor. Ground staff took my zimmer frame from me once seated after boarding the flight telling me it would be put in the hold and would be available on my arrival to my destination.
On arrival it was not on my flight,it followed on the next flight.
I was now in the position of not being able to get into my apartment,as I needed to get from the garage area to the lift,then down a long corridor to my apartment,with no way of getting there without a my zimmer frame.
What options did I have, being 15 st I could not take up the offer of neighbours to carry me into my apartment,(health and safety issue),so only option was to ring the ambulance service.Once in how was I going to get around .A nightmare .

david says:
1 April 2011

using airports in the uk thoes who can drive donot need a passport, as your driving lincence will do.

but it you are blind you donot have a driving lincence, and thay will not accept the guide dogs id card as id.

it shuld be no passport no flight as i was told by the driving lincence people that a driving lincence is not a form of id

15 November 2016


Lesley Donachy says:
3 April 2011

My husband cannot stand for any length of time and uses a wheelchair to go through airports and onto planes. We have always found the Passenger Assistance at Newcastle Airport excellent. Also Spanish Airports are really aware of their EU regulations and the Wheelchair Assistance at for example Tenerife Sur airport has always been good – friendly, aware, efficient.
However even very good airlines with excellent disabled policies can be let down by their Handling Agents – we have always pre registered as disabled for a regular Jet2.com flight, but for the last three years the agent at the departure desk has seemed unaware of the promised reserved seating for the disabled and we have had to buy extra legroom seats for a price – just as well I am not disabled as I have had to sprint across the airport with my Credit Card in my hand. Last year even this was not available as the only seats they could give us were an A and D (either side of an aisle, one aisle, one window) which meant that I was totally unable to assist my husband while travelling. He had a really terrible and uncomfortable flight and is really worried that he will never be able to travel by air again. On this flight the 5 disabled travellers and their carers were scattered round the plane in a seemingly random manner which was commented on by Passenger Assistance at both Tenerife and Newcastle Airports
I have written to Jet2.com Customer Services and they really do believe in the excellent Company Policy – which doesn’t help if it is not applied!

Priya says:
12 May 2011

My parents travelled last year to UK and US. My dad had problems walking and my mom too but my mom could manage.. My dad had heart problems and his heart was very weak. He could only walk only 10 steps together. I had arranged wheelchair facility for him. They had a horrible experience in Heathrow airport. They have been waiting for long for a wheel chair and then they were asked to walk for long distance to get a wheelchair though my dad explained he was unable to walk and they wouldn’t listen. He walked all the way and was breathing heavily. After walking some distance a guy came with the wheelchair and picked him up. In the baggage area my dad explained he can’t lift suitcases but the guy forced him to give him a hand and he put the baggage in a trolley and just left them there. My dad had tough time pushing the trolley and cameout to the visitors area. The way my dad was pushing the trolley and coming out breathing heavily made me cry. He was asking for water as soon as he saw me and wanted to sit. I never thought someone would be treated so badly in UK. After visiting me in UK he died after 5 months. I wanted to give him a pleasant experience in UK before he died but I don’t know how someone had a heart to leave them abondoned in baggage area. I believe they should have left them in the visitors area where I was waiting. They also travelled to USA where they had a good treatment. They were treating the elderly people who needed assistance in a nice way. Heathrow airport should improve a lot in this area.

I found the Disabled Assistance at the Airport not so bad because can transfer and if emergency would not block the way . However disabled contacts had not been trained used to blame when refused to resolve .Rather than make life difficult for those who can’t transfer easily how is safety issue going to be addressed? There is also a problem with too steep ramps on trains blaming the disabled rather than themselves. What I found horrendous was couldn’t get to & from airports with scooter without it costing more than return flight. Worse still LA , DPTAC refused to assist or forward issues to those who make decisions. EHRC is appalling. So did a Pledge via Pledgebank to develop Shopmobility at airports worldwide not one person signed or got back ??!!!

Angel0 says:
26 August 2011

I had assisted travel for the first time at Gatwick this May. I have sciatica and scoliosis and can’t walk too far or stand for any length of time.

I was directed to the assisted travel security check lane.

They called me over the tannoy, took me to the gate in an electric buggy and pre-boarded everyone in the buggy.

On the return journey they took the passports of those on the buggy over to passport control which meant I didn’t have to stand for ages in that queue.

Andrew says:
3 October 2011

I went to London HEATHROW Airport in June of this year (2011). I was flying from there to the USA. I am disabled and have severe problems wit mobility. I had arranged in advance to utilise the service that the airport is legally bound to give to all disabled persons. I was travelling alone, however my carer got me through check-in. My carer then was told that I had to go to a certain area and that the fully trained airport staff would look after me from there. So I transferred to one of the airports wheelchairs. Then my carer was told that he would not be allowed through to the departs area. So I was completely under the care of the airport staff.
What happened in the department lounge will put me off using this kind of service again. The lady who seemed to work for both London HEATHROW Airport and the airliner I was traveling with US Airways. So I was pushed in to what can onlybe described as a concourse area. I was then told to get out of the wheelchair and that I had to sit in backless seats. The reason for me being told to get out of the wheelchair was that they needed it as they do not have enough. The lady who brought me through asked if I would help her by doing a satisfaction survey, I know would not of done this until they had completed their service.
So getting back to me just being dumped in the departing lounge. I was given this bleeper and was told that someone would come for me. Now the worst thing was due to my medication I get a really dry throat and mouth. Now could I go and get any drinks, no, could I go to the toilet, no, I was just simply dumped without anyway at all of getting or having basic needs. Now I was there for about 2 hours and in that time this big block which I had around my neck which I was told would bleep, yes it did do this. However it did this on a number of occasions. Now there was a lady in which they (the staff) had also dumped alongside me, now she was blind and again, she could not get any drinks or go to the toilet. She also was given this big block beeper to wear round her neck.
I was getting very annoyed and I was feeling poorly and then on top of everything I heard my flight number being called. Now nearly 3 hours of waiting without being able to get to the toilet or have a drink and this stupid bleeper going off all the time (this made me feel that I was an alien, how dare people just give you this thing. It certainly made me feel like I was not part of the everyday world. Surely a better descreet way needs to be implemented. What this was doing was here are the disabled people, I thought that we are all equal! NOT GOOD ENOUGH!).
Anyway eventually this really obusive lady in an electric cart stopped and asked for the ladies and my name. She said why are you still here? Then she said that it was our fault for not going to the nearest desk. I did tell her that the lady was blind and that I could not walk. She completely ignored what I was saying and she just pushed us onto this electric cart. She dropped of the lady at her gate and did not even direct her to the flight desk. Then she got to my stop and she told the US Airways staff that I was late checking in. This was a blatant lie. I told the US Airways staff and thet were not bothered. I at that point had been at London HEATHROW Airport for five hours. Then the ladies at the flight desk said that I will have to wait until they had a wheelchair. Well none arrived. The staff from the plane had to get me down. I feel absolutely disgusted in the way I was dealt with. The service or shall I say the lack of service was nothing short of a complete disgrace. I paid a lot of money to travel and this was what I got even before I even flew anywhere. I am completely confused! Why does the person who took me through to departures have to leave a disabled person, especially one who cannot walk completely by themselves. Why did she have to take away the wheelchair? At least then I could of found someone else to help me with getting a drink (a bottle of water) or getting me to the disabled toilets. I just think it’s a shambles and that a ten year old would have more common sence. We are living in a developed country, so why treat disabled people like third class citizens?
The people in charge need to listen to what disabled customers suggest, I know that money is tight for all companies, but at least run a service that works!

There is a website called Fix My Transport run by Fix my Street where I have been pointing out how the LAs are deliberately disregarding disabled issues reducing the limited parking provision .Their set up too disregards. What do they do if no action ? Tell you automatically to petition the council those causing lack of provision . In fact the PM’s petition site pledgebank where they treat everything like spam or use someone who cannot comprehend to decide, is no longer so now I have had to go to USA one Care 2 where you can petition .
RecentlyI had problems at all London major sites V&A , Southbank Tate .The Tate Britain & Modern allowed Thames boat Thames Clippers to overcharge & treat in similar fashionregarding transfer then told me couldn’t go into exhibition when protested to Manager which was a call centre employee who told me to go when said wouldn’t go he said would call police & say was driving mobility scooter erratically .
I have made 50 calls & emails asking for this issue to be addressed MPs & associated organisations too ??!! Even Camden & Islingtons Scootability has noone addressing the fact they are blocking access to longer term scooter use Even Disability & Executive Councillors go back to person [Call centre Manager] causing problem then leave you in limbo because not constituent when my own borough Islington have a policy of negligence [ even Fairness Survey] since raised issue of discrimination in 2001 .
Unfortunately this attitude continues in airports as since deregulation to the marketing call centres noone is monitoring or intervening on ethical / discretionary issues.

Dorothy Turner says:
2 July 2012

I had booked assistance with Thomas Cook before going to Tenerife. My husband was unable to stand or walk very far, so we booked a wheel chair and assistance at East Midlands Airport, help was available, if a little lacking, on the way out. When we arrived at Tenerife the help from SIN BARRERAS was excellent, they could not do enough for us, and all with a smile, we were assisted right to the waiting Taxi. It was a different story back at EMA, after getting to the door into the security area we were on our own. I was panic stricken, how was I going to manage a wheel chair and a trolly with two suitcases to push, there was nobody around to help. The only thing left to do was that my husband had to walk through immigration right out to arrivals where our Son was waiting.

I have contacted EMA about this matter, but have received no reply.
This experience has ensured we will not be flying again.

Richard Burston says:
8 November 2012

I would have to say that the treatment my wife gets at both Cardiff and Bristol airports has been brilliant both inbound and outbound. As already stated Tenerife Sur is also first class but Bordeaux at its Billie terminal is a whole other ball game.Report into the desk for a tag for the mobility scooter and asked to sit in the corner and await assistance and await and await and await until about 10 mins before boarding is due to start. So can you get a drink, no, what about using a toilet, er no unless you want to make your way back into the main terminal building so you have to wait until assistance arrives and then boy do you get some looks because you have the audacity to actually need to use the toilet as you have only been sitting around for some 2.5 hours waiting for that assistance. I contacted Easyjet who I have to say were first class with their help on board and they stated that unfortunately all they could do was bring it to the attention of the airport authorities as it was beyond their direct control. They did however apologise for this ‘inconvenience’, pun intended. This has happened there now on the two occassions we have flown to France so we will se what happens next time.

jonty says:
22 December 2012

As a disabled traveller I have a compact mobility scooter and have had no real problems with special assistance. the only major problem been at Newcastle international airport (on my return journey believe it or not the baggage handlers put my mobility scooter (weighing almost 40 kg) on the baggage carousel which fell about a meter down on top of other cases on the carousel. mu partner almost suffered severe injuries trying to lift it of, had it fallen on to some one it could have caused serious injury, What on Gods earth were the baggage handlers thinking of, when I complained to the baggage handlers manageress she said she would look into it, a year on still not a word or apology.

I hasten to add not once have I been mistreated or neglected at any other foreign airport.

Nouanta Phomasoukha says:
27 December 2012

Dear All! Here,I’d like to know when the air operator tell the way to ho in and out the plane via the immigration to abroad,please?

Bhawna says:
8 March 2013

I was looking for design considerations for disabled people in Indian Railways and Airport and so landed here. Before this blog I read
where blogger explains pathetic situation in Indian Railways.

Lived in west for few years and found west very friendly towards disabled people. Though there can be many issues in western world but still I consider it God’s grace for disabled and handicapped people to be living there.

In India things are very bad. from design and architecture of railways, airports, bus depots, bus stops, stations and roads everything is unfriendly to disable people. people is general are apathetic until and unless disability strikes their near and dear ones.

Happy to see people blogging about this.

mark harrison says:
17 May 2013

I currently work for the firm that provides assistance at Birmingham airport and my own daughter is disabled which gives me a different perspective.If anyone has any questions, I would be more than willing to answer any.

John Howson says:
13 June 2013

My wife and I are flying from Birmingham to Almera at the end of this month, we have requested ‘via my agent’ for assited travel, because of the posible distances to and from the the checkout ect.

My wife has ms and uses one crutch for short distances, I also use two crutches for even shorter distances.

After reading some of these comments I am truely conserned, this is our first holiday in 4 years
and I have tried to anticipate every problem.

I would love to hear your input


Richard Burston says:
13 June 2013

If you are concerned about the asistance at Birmingham contact the passenger assistance help desk who should be able to confirm if the agent has indeed done his job for you and if he has not you can then do it yourself. Alternatively contact the airline direct who in my experiance will very often if possible reserve you more accessible seats at no extra costs.

Mrs A Freeman says:
15 February 2015

Hi i travelled with my partner to the canarys last year i booked wheelchair assistance before i went as my partner has a heart problem and cannot stand or walk for a long period. i went to the wheelchair assistance point with my partner and two cases only to be told i had to check in my cases first. as i explained to them that he couldnt stand for very long. the person was very rude to me and didnt show any compassion at all. my question is can i go and get wheelchair assistance first before i check in my cases as i am travelling again in two weeks time. many thanks

Mrs Carol Evans says:
13 August 2013

I have just come back from Lanzarote, and my first experience at travelling with assistance. Well, I started at Birmingham, where I booked in, waited in the area provided, was collected in a wheelchair, and taken directly to passport control. My handbag was taken and put through, given back to me, I was searched, and put directly in front of the doors of the plane. I was boarded, shown to my seat, and was at the front.
When arriving in Lanzarote, I was last off the plane, taken in a wheelchair to the passport control, went straight through to baggage, and was transported so fast, it was great.
On my return, told the rep, who contacted assistance, who took my case, put it through, got my boarding card, was taken, and searched, took right to the gate, boarded the plane first again, landed in Birmingham, collected, took me to the baggage, collected my case. First class treatment all the way. This was with Thomson might I add. The assistance I had was first class. I was not left unattended at all. I flew out in the morning, came back on a night flight. I will certainly use this assistance again, due to back problem. The service I received I could recommend, that’s why I am writing this for others to see what happens.