23 Oct 2012

Air travel problems ‘the norm’ for disabled people

Horror stories about broken equipment and even being unable to use the toilet on planes are not the exception for disabled people – they are the norm, Channel 4 News finds in a series on disability.

Air travel problems 'the norm' for disabled people (Getty)

New figures, seen exclusively by Channel 4 News, suggest that problems for disabled people trying to travel by air begin the moment they try to book the flight and continue well beyond landing.

Shockingly, they also show that it is often so difficult for some disabled travellers to fulfil basic bodily needs when in the air, such as using the toilet onboard the plane, that they refrain from eating or drinking before or during the flight.

Sulaiman Khan, 27, from Woodford said doing this was both difficult and embarrassing – but sometimes necessary.

“It can be quite difficult at times especially on long flights, six or seven hours, and you have to wait until you land at your destination,” he told Channel 4 News.

Most people don’t understand how embarrassing and degrading it is. Sulaiman Khan

He has also had other problems, including broken wheelchairs, and difficulties transferring to his airline seat.

“You just want to get on with your holiday and enjoy life and most people don’t understand how embarrassing and degrading it is to go through that whole process,” he said. Mr Khan does not fly any more as a result of his experiences, but hopes he can in the future.

Not isolated incidents

These are not isolated incidents. The figures, compiled by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers, showed that air travel for the vast majority of disabled travellers can be nightmarish, bureaucratic, humiliating and even bad for their health.

The figures, which the charity will discuss in parliament on Wednesday, come as Channel 4 News examines whether anything has improved for disabled people as a result of the Paralympic Games in the A legacy to stand on? series.

Read more in the Channel 4 News special report: A legacy to stand on? 

Six out of 10 disabled passengers said their wheelchairs had been damaged when travelling with an airline, and the same number said they felt unsafe when they transferred from their chairs to an airline seat. Nine out of 10 said they felt unable to use airline toilets and therefore had to avoid eating or drinking before or during flights.

Tanvi Vyas of the Trailblazers group said: “Initially we thought that these might be one-off experiences, but we’ve found that the problems aren’t the exception, they are actually the norm and almost everyone finds that they have some kind of issue when they are flying.”

No Go Britain

This is not the first time that the problems disabled people have with air travel have been highlighted.

While it is illegal for airlines and holiday companies to refuse to fly people in and out of the European Union because they are disabled, many travellers are so scarred by their experiences that they can’t face trying again.

Read more from Sophie Morgan, Paralympics presenter, on flying with a disability

Earlier this year, Channel 4 News reported on the problems of flying for disabled people as part of our No Go Britain series. At the time, the sheer scale of the problem was not clear – and many hoped that the Paralympics could change the situation.

Since then, hundreds of people have got in touch with us via social media in another sign of how commonplace problems are.

On Facebook, user Maximus Wheels wrote: “I compete for the UK. Every time I have to fly I am a nervous wreck, please don’t trash my chair. I reckon this happens at least one out of three flights…in the past I’ve watched in horror as my chair has fallen out the plane.”

Natasha Freedman wrote: “I went through a 12-hour flight trying desperately not to use the toilets, because the idea of it seemed difficult without some assistance and I often feel that my dignity is being taken through the situation.”

It is not just wheelchair users either who have bad experiences.

Sheonagh Ferguson wrote: “I am a profoundly deaf cochlear implant user and one of the major problems I have when flying is that I can’t go through the metal detectors at airports, due to the risk of damage to the implant.

“I always carry a medical letter with me, but often find that I am treated with some degree of suspicion, or as if I have something to hide. This can make for a very unpleasant experience.”

There were some positive stories.

Better future?

The aviation industry says it is getting better. Virgin Atlantic has just bought 25 new and improved TravelChairs from the Meru charity, which provide postural support for disabled children during air travel.

On Wednesday, major airlines including Thomson Airways, British Airways and Monarch will all attend an all-party parliamentary group to discuss the issue. Gatwick Airport has recently invested £2m to improve accessibility.

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which will also attend the meeting on Wednesday, told Channel 4 News it accepted there were problems, but believed that the service was good “on the whole”.

“All UK passengers should have fair access to air travel and should not be prevented from boarding aircraft – providing they can fly safely,” a spokesman said.

The CAA recommended disabled passengers should give 48 hours notice of the support they needed to help airlines and airports prepare – and also made it clear that passengers who are unhappy with the service they have received can get in touch.

“On the whole, airports and airlines do provide a good service to disabled passengers and those with reduced mobility, and as we saw during the Paralympics, having everyone work together is the best way to ensure they get the service they deserve,” the CAA spokesman said.

“However, there are still occasions where people do not receive the support they need and we know this can be very distressing for those passengers. Passengers that aren’t happy with the service they receive should first contact their airport or airline. If they don’t receive a satisfactory response, they can refer their complaint to the CAA and we can take it up on their behalf.”