/ 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

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. I could recommend, that’s why I am writing this for others to see what happens.

Thanks for sharing your experience Carol. It’s very good to see that some airports are getting this right!

I agree once there the assistance is very good but the need for scooter permit on trains & coaches could prevent travel if not aware it takes time . This is particularly so with National Express Coaches who want everything taken apart ignoring fact that you can’t so preventing me using their service as on my own – single.
I have been pleased, since last wrote ,that the london Taxicard scheme are using taxis with side ramps .Apparently it is law in all new taxis. This is excellent but feel the scherme needs extending for scooter & wheelchair users from other areas 5-6 uses x a year as many come to hospitals as terribly expensive otherwise.It was taking 2 swipes to get there.
I can transfer but, had I not been able to get off ,Eurostar’s [ train] ramp, distinctly dangerous.
To forever be having to fill in forms & be assessed when drive through central London frequently is outrageous.

Mrs h Morton says:
20 September 2013

My wife and I booked a 9 day holiday to Murcia in Spain to stay with our daughter she booked our flight with Ryanair she booked wheel chair assistance for her as she can not stand up any length of time or walk far I needed a wheel chair once we arrived at Stanstead air port I left her on a seat and went to the assistance desk told them I have arrived I needed help to get her from the car park an assent followed me down to the car park ,he then took control we went back to assistance desk booked in the of to Ryanair check in desk then of to plane this worked like clockwork we were left there and ask if I could manage to get to gate 50 for boarding all went fine landed on time at Murcia the wheel chairs were at the steps of the plane this side went fine. Returned. After holiday to Murcia
Got wheel chair for my wife booked in got help to the plane got seated and we had a good flight back to Stanstead landed 11.50 Thursday the 19th flight number FR8021 That’s when the problem started there was no one there to put the choks under the wheels so nobody could get of 15min later
The passenger started to leave the plane because we were waiting for wheel chairs at the steps 30 mins later still no chairs .one assant turns up with one chair so off he went to get another one the lift tuned up to take a lady of the rear of the plane one hour later 2nd chair arrived I pushed my wife as there was no other help the one helper did his best to get us to the car park were I phoned my taxi and was told he would be there in 25mins it was cold and wet Stanstead you need to get the late flights with wheel chair assistance sorted out .

Lynne Haigh says:
20 May 2014

My husband and I were due to travel from Leeds and Bradford airport on Tuesday 13 May. I pre-booked disability assistance for my husband who has very limited walking and hand and arm movement. We had NO assistance whatsoever.
On arrival at the airport I went to the allocated desk and announced our arrival, We were told to check our bags in and go through to security where someone would be waiting for us there. There was NO-ONE.
There was a bus to take us from the terminal to the aeroplane and if it hasn’t been for two young men we would have had to stand on this bus. My husband cannot possibly stand on a bus, he cannot support himself. The lady who was ushering people onto the bus was not at all pleasant, bordering on discourteous.
My husband was subsequently ill on board flight and the plane had to be diverted to Gatwick where we were offloaded onto an ambulance to take us to East Surrey hospital.
I would have to say that in my opinion the lack of assistance at the airport contributed to my husband being taken ill.
What is the point of pre booking disability assistance if it does not exist!

Richard Burston says:
20 May 2014

Lynne, what a terrible experiance for both of you and I hope your other half is recovered or well on the way to recovery. Its good to let off some steam on here and its good if sad to see this lack of assstance being aired. I would however suggest if you have not done so already, contact the airport directly and inform them of the problems you encountered as this is definately not good enough and could in fact put either the airport or the ‘SERVICE’ provider in breach of the law. A situation that in your case certainly seems to have contributed to you missing your holiday.Good luck in future.

annabelle says:
31 December 2014

Can anyone advise the walking distance from the plane to street exit at tenerife south airport. Able to walk for 5 minutes but after that need assistance.

We landed at Tenerife Sur [South] in October 2014. On that occasion we had to disembark down steps and board a shuttle bus to take passengers from the plane to the terminal building [arrivals]. I seem to remember there was a lot of walking involved to reach the baggage reclaim carousel and then we had to stand for ages because the conveyor had got stuck and nothing was coming off. It was then a short walk to the roadside exit where coaches and taxis can pick people up but private car parking was some distance further out. I think you should prepare for a difficult transit. Our wait in the baggage reclaim hall might not have been typical but unloading hundreds of suitcases per aeroplane still does seem to take quite a long time at Tenerife Sur especially if the plane cannot dock alongside the terminal building. Some carriers might have better access to the terminal docking pontoons [we were travelling with Germania as a replacement for Thomson but it was a scheduled weekly flight from Norwich airport] or it might just depend on where airport control disposes the incoming flight; I suspect it is not possible to find out in advance.

On the return journey, we had to stand for over an hour in the departure hall because a computer malfunction at the check-in desks meant every passenger’s details had to be entered manually; that probably does not happen routinely but it was badly managed when it did [luckily we had plenty of time but some passengers had to run to the boarding gate]. There was a short walk and an escalator link to the security scanning area but many of the boarding gates, including ours, were a long way from security – but at least there was a pontoon connexion for our flight and no need to climb steps.

I would definitely recommend booking a wheelchair and an escort if you can do so in advance. It did not look as though such facilities were plentiful, although overall it is a smart modern airport, designed, of course, for the bulk reception and despatch of tens of thousands of people every day. The Canarians are gentle and caring folk who will look after you but the British holiday reps are a different species altogether.

Richard Burston says:
31 December 2014

To be fair I think John has painted a fairly unusual situation of Tenerife South airport as we all know computer malfunction is an everyday happening somewhere or other like air traffic control in the UK went on the fritz recently and brought most of the UK to an air standstill, not just one airport.
From a disabled persons point of view Tenerife is probably the best we have ever been to but they are not psychic. If you need assistance then book it when you book your flight with whoever you fly with.You should then IF NEEDED get escorted assistance at the departure airport through the security check into departures in a wheelchair very often bumping the queue. You will be normally left then until a short while before departure to be taken to the plane often by ambulift if the aircraft is not on an airbridge other wise pushed straight onto the plane. At Tenerife airport basically the reverse happens and you either get wheeled or ambulifted off straight to the police check point via an other entrance to the other passengers as you get to go in a lift and not walk up any stairs. Through the security doors into baggage collection. Collect you bags and the PRM guys or gals will take you to the taxi rank or the hire car area whichever. They really are first class there. You will note I have said if needed in capitals as not everyone is physically handicapped and deaf and blind/sight reduced people have different problems. What amazes me is on several flights not just to Tenerife but also to France which is quite often the number of people wheeled on and on arrival almost sprint off the plane like some sort of divine intervention has taken place at 35000 ft.
When you get back to Tenerife airport for your return just report to the PRM desk and they will again help as required with most passing through the staff security area on the same floor so again no stairs and straight into the shopping/food hall. If you are in a chair they will attach a small tag giving your flight no and time and a PRM person will come and collect you to take you for the aircraft transfer as needed. If you have not already requested PRM assist then do it now as the walk depending on the aircraft parking spot can be considerable or a very crowded bus with few seats. Enjoy your holiday and do not be afraid to ask for the help you need as it makes life a lot easier and less stressful.

Richard Burston says:
31 December 2014

By the way there are lots of PRM assistants at TFS but it is a big airport with thousands of passengers and there are dozens of wheelchairs. They really are geared up for this which is more than can be said of Billie at Bordeaux airport but thats another story.

Irene says:
31 January 2015

This is a slightly different perspective. I would call myself invisably disabed. I have arthritis in most joints – most seriously in knees. I can get around in evervday life without any issues, but I find airport security very difficlult. I cannot stand on one leg to take off or put on my shoes – this seems to have become a requirement – if they want me to take off my shoes why dont they provide seating to facilitate this?

My husband feels a fraud using the disabled facility at airports. But it is either travelling as a disabled person or being in agony and ruining our holiday or unable to go to work on our return.

He has problems with his spine and can get around normally in everyday life as long as he doesn’t have to stand in one place, dawdle or lift anything heavy. If we go shopping, he sits while I browse. I do all the carrying.

If airports had seating wherever there are queues, many people would not need a wheelchair. There are never any seats at checkin, passport control or security. When boarding, disabled get to board first but why are they called before they can board the plane and have to wait in a queue?

For many years, my mother could not stand for more than five minutes at a time or walk any distance. She sometimes had a lot of pain but for much of the time she was remarkably nimble and could go up and down stairs many times a day, drive a car and appear reasonably fit and healthy. Once she and the family had the courage to ask for help, it was amazing the lengths that people would go to to help her.

John Murphy says:
9 February 2015

is there any airline that does carry wheelchair users only, i.e, if the clients on such an airline were say 25 or more all in wheelchairs , thank you for your assistance in this regard,


steve prince says:
24 February 2015

can anybody help explain the system of transporting luggage and wheelchair user from car park to check in.how can my wife push my wheelchair and pull probably 2 suitcases?

Irene says:
9 March 2015

My mum had a cardiac arrest at Heathrow Airport November 2013.She was on the wheelchair.
The person which was wheeling her didn’t know what to do,no training no nothing ,left me and my mum to asking for help …Took them 20min until the police revive her ,unfortunatly was very late .She end up at the hospital with 99% brain damage and after a week in a coma she died.

Hello Irene, my sincere condolences go to you. If you’d like to, I suggest you get legal advice if you’d like to take things further.

Michael Bentley says:
11 March 2015

I just want to make a general comment and say that I am disabled (difficulty walking) and have had both good and bad experiences with different airlines everything from rude people and a broken walking stick to a broken mobility scooter and exceptionally bad service on (Singapore Airlines. Now I have flown 61 times on international long haul flights and am trying to find an airline that can look after me without ruining my holidays. I am about to fly on six more long haul flights between Australia and the UK between August to October this year. It would seem to me that if there is a good airline out there that will look after disabled passengers and go the extra yards it would make a lot more money with extra customers. I know that it would cost very little to do it and the staff need to be well trained in being courteous and friendly.

Graham Corfield says:
7 April 2015

Did you know that a UK company manufactures an aircraft boarding ramp (Aviramp) that completely does away with stairs to the aircraft. Wheelchairs are simply pushed and can even be pushed while staying with family and friends. Children can board safely without the fear of falling down steep stairs its totally dignified however European legislation (EC1107 ) does not help the UK airports operate this type of equipment.
Only certain airports who self handle PRMs can use them because the legislation creates confusion as to who will pay i.e. the airport or the PRM service provider or indeed the biggest confusion is who will attach it to the aircraft – the PRM provider cannot because its the ground handlers job and the ground handler could but the PRM service equipment is not theirs.
Bit of a mess is caused by EC1107 which was initially designed to assist people with reduced mobility

Richard Burston says:
4 May 2015

To be fair up until now I have had nothing but praise(except for Bordeaux) for the help and assistance given to my wife who has difficulty walking and cannot manage aircraft steps. Most airlines/airports request information as to the amount of assistance required to enable the required help to be rendered, wheelchair/ambulift etc and the norm would be to/from the aircraft door as a minimum. Is it this last bit that Birmingham and Dubai seem to struggle with as on a recent trip on Emirates (no problems there) from Birmingham to Dubai there were no wheelchairs or assistance anywhere near the aircraft (airbridge disembarque) so I had to struggle with the carry on and try to assist my wife a not inconsiderable distance to where a number of other passengers were already in a heated discussion with airpost staff about the lack of assistance. The return from Dubai had simular problems starting with the fact that ‘By Law’ the busses dropping off passengers for departures have to discharge them at the ARRIVALS terminal which is around half a mile over several very busy roads and into the departure area where then some assistance could be found. We were able to hand over the luggage and then I was informed that for the first time ever I had to get my wifes wheeled walker wrapped for loading which cost around £6.00. Arrival at Birmingham again no assistance at the aircraft doors and a fair uphill walk to a main corridor where there were a number of assistants waiting ‘patiently’ for the passengers with reduced mobility to arrive. I still had to locate a wheel chair and push my wife and deal again with the carry on luggage. Fortunately as we approached immigration some additional helpers appeared and assisted with my wife. In the baggage hall one of these went off to try to locate my wifes waking frame as walking frames and conveyer belts do not integrate well. Fortunately after a considerable wait it was located and took several minutes to unwrap the cling film.!! We were asked were we being met and having replied no we are in carpark no 5 we were then taken to the wrong bus stop as it seems there is more than 1 car park no 5. One is on site and the other is a fairly enjoyable bus ride to the middle of nowhere but at least it did take us back to the airport(odd really as one staff member was actually checking the car park tickets before putting us on the bus and ours was completely different to all the others I saw.) Got the right bus this time and saw the lad who took us to the wrong stop in the first place and had a little light conversation with him. Got to the car loaded up and headed for the exit. Inserted the ticket(prepayed) and the machine informed me I owed over £140 in fees, ok I was an hour late leaving due to the tour of the midlands countryside but hell there. I am pleased to report that on pressing to comms button and explaining the situation I was told there was a problem with the system and I owed nothing. We were at last on the way home.

Who ever said that “it was better to travel than to arrive”? Thank goodness you’ve kept your sense of humour Richard. For sheer perseverance and fortitude I think you and your wife deserve a reward.

Marane says:
13 May 2015

I feel sorry for all those wheelchair users and their travelling companions who have not had good experiences at airports as these are likely to put them off repeating the experience again. I have been disabled since the age of three and a half years old due to polio and l am now sixty four. As l grew older my disability grew with me and finally the time came when walking with a full length calliper and two elbow crutches was just too much of a struggle and l reluctantly gave in to being permanently in my wheelchair. I consider myself lucky to have been able to travel to different countries for holidays with my family. When l started travelling, airports were not as wheelchair friendly as they are now and the whole experience was a bit daunting but it didn’t put me off – that wasn’t an option – when l had a young child and a husband who looked forward to their annual holiday. We only had a holiday once in the year but each time we left from either Edinburgh or Glasgow to Majorca/Austria/Spain/Tenerife/America/Dubai and finally Australia l could see improvements each time – there were changes being made to make it easier for the wheelchair bound to fly. As for the staff whose job it is to look after us while we are at the airports l have only positive comments. In the years I have been travelling l haven’t had any occasions where l’ve had to make a complaint. This is where my husband would interrupt and say l am too forgiving but if the truth be known he expects much more than l do. I can see things have changed and are changing for the better. I am fortunate that my disability does not affect my hearing or my sight and l can communicate well with people around me and say what I want/ or don’t want but l know if I had a bad experience it would make me think twice about flying again so until that time comes l look forward to my holidays every year. I would love to be brave enough to go on holiday on my own just to see if l could be independent. Having been to Tenerife many times with my family l feel l know the script and reckon l would be just fine – it’s just taking that first “step” on my own. So yes, until l have a negative experience at airports l can only say l am more than happy with the way l am looked after and roll on July when l will be off again. I only wish everyone had the same positive experience to make it a holiday to remember for all the right reasons.

29 July 2015

I recently travelled with Easyjet and advised them that my travelling companion and I would need some assistance with luggage at the check-in desk and in the baggage hall. Despite being assured that we would have all the help we needed it did not materialise. I have complained to Easyjet but have had the ‘nothing to do with us’ response. This has made me very wary of air travel in future.

Richard Burston says:
29 July 2015

Hi, you did not actually say where you are flying from but I would say with respect that Easyjet are correct. You may well have asked for assistance and from personal experience I have found them extremely helpful however when you arrive at the airport you need to locate the PRM assistance desk and make them aware of your existence at the airport and then they should be able to give what is required.The airline will no doubt have passed on your request for assistance but they don’t actually provide it on the ground. Ring the airport and ask for the desks location and telephone no and check direct they can offer what you actually require.

V Anderson says:
14 March 2016

I travelled from Edinburgh airport in January 2016. I used an airport wheelchair, I had requested assistance, my daughter pushed it. When I got to security, I had to take off my shoes, hobble through metal detector, go into scanner, then had a body search. Why?what was the point of all three, why not give me a body search to start with. In New York I had a body search while sitting in the wheelchair.

Advertising by both airlines and airports lead one to believe assistance will be available. There are signs showing an old person standing with a stick as well as the traditional image of a wheel chair.
My experience has not been good.
I pre alerted one company when booking my flight- I think it was easy jet. When I arrived at Heathrow I went to a check in desk who sent me to another check in doorway marked assistance who sent me back to the initial check in desk who were most unhelpful and said I should go over to another area and wait in a queue for a wheel chair. I explained that my nèed was for help with my hand luggage which I could not carry for a long distance, or up any stairs or escalator. They told me that sort of assistance was not available. Why then do the signs show an elderly person with a stick?.
It is demeaning to be put in a wheel chair when one can walk. Taking a suitcase up or down an escalator can be dangerous as the case can rub against the sides of the escalator, pushing one off the step. Not all escalator hand rails move in tandem with the steps.

Stansted seems to follow a similar procedure, wheel chair or nothing, having forced one to walk an unneccessary long way through an endless shopping mall .

Assistance to travellers with disabiliy is a statutory obligation.

My worst recent experience was , following a 7 hour flight from Heathrow , I had to stand in a queue for over an hour ,with a large crowd, to get through immigration at Toronto^. No seats were available.

On their own, a person in a wheelchair cannot also manage a trolley bag, or a small hand-baggage trolley, so help must be provided. Elderly or infirm people just need to have access-all-areas personnel to escort them by the most sensible route from the terminal hall to the boarding gate and carry or push their cabin baggage.

My wife is 78 and suffers severe osteoarthritis. We have been using Heathrow T5 for some years to fly to Greece. Such is the vast size of T5 in 2014 we decided to reserve airport assistance when we booked our flights with BA. BA’s level 2 assistance operates from baggage drop to aircraft door, via the BA lounge (we fly Club Europe). We have used the assistance service six times so far and only once have we had adequate treatment. The service is operated by a contractor (EU rules dictate that the airport provides assistance, not the individual carrier). The contractor is named Omniserv. Our worst experience so far occurred last June. We waited more than one hour to be taken to the BA lounge . When we were collected no wheelchair was brought and my wife had to walk to a waiting buggy, maybe a distance of 120 metres. Ok, she can do it, albeit slowly and somewhat painfully. At the departure gate we were abandoned and my wife then had to proceed on foot to the aircraft door.
On our return I complained to both BA and Heathrow customer services. BA apologised handsomely but appear unable to influence the situation. The response from Heathrow threw up some startling information.
We had been recorded as checking in for assistance 35 minutes later than was factual, making Omniserv’s performance appear much better than it was in reality. Further, Omniserv stated that we were not assisted to the aircraft door because boarding had not commenced. This was untrue. On presentation of our documents we were ushered through to board. Another walk for my wife. Omniserv should have waited, if their version of events was true, until boarding was open and chaired my wife to the aircraft.
Our opinion of the T5 assistance service really couldn’t be lower. What other nationalities opine I dread to think.