4 Sep 2012

No Fly Britain: Are disabled passengers being grounded?

As London welcomes Paralympians from across the globe, Channel 4 News hears from disabled travellers about the challenges of air travel, including horror stories of written-off wheelchairs.

For Paralympic athletes, airports and airlines have rolled out the red carpet. Heathrow airport even has an onsite wheelchair repair service.

But for other disabled travellers, it can be a different story. As part of Channel 4 News’s No Go Britain series, we have been gathering your stories of flying – and we have heard some real travel nightmares, from travellers who have watched their wheelchairs fall off the plane to others who have felt “utterly demeaned” by their treatment.

Some got in touch to share good experiences, but many agreed that air travel was, at best, “hit and miss”.

Wheelchair user Zara Todd told Channel 4 News: “In the last three months, I have been on eight flights and had my wheelchair damaged on four. One was a write-off, and another time the damage means the wheelchair can’t go outside any more.

“I have a cheap manual wheelchair for flights – my electric wheelchair cost £7,000 and I wouldn’t dream of taking that on a flight. The manual chair is purely to go on planes and be battered. Flying is for the brave.”

Another wheelchair user, who wished to remain anonymous, was greeted on arrival in London by her wheelchair in pieces. Staff had dismantled it to get it on the plane without informing her – the chair is not designed to be taken apart – and she then had to put it back together with the help of a friend on arrival in the UK.

Flying is for the brave. Zara Todd, wheelchair-user

She has complained to the airline and been offered compensation, but told Channel 4 News that experiences like hers meant that powered wheelchair users would continue to suffer and fear air travel.

On Facebook, Caroline Miles told us: “Watching my lightweight chair unceremoniously fall onto the tarmac from the top of the conveyor belt… has scarred the flying experience forever. The ground crew simply didn’t care.”

Watch Channel 4 News tonight at 7pm for more on this story

However, another Facebook user, Gillian Upton Holmes, had a better experience on a flight a few weeks ago.

“Everything went very smoothly. We were fast-tracked through Stansted, my son could stay in his chair until he was lifted into his aeroplane seat. Very efficient and careful teams of mobility support workers at both airports,” she said.

“I was impressed, and have confidence to fly again, having avoided doing so for years as I felt it would be too complicated, especially with a budget carrier. Communicating precisely what you need with all concerned is crucial though.”

Watch: Tanvi Vyas of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers group talks about air travel for disabled people.

Key issues

One of the key problems is that regulations vary between airlines and countries. Moreover, a recent judgement found that UK disability discrimination laws do not apply once the plane is actually in the air. Another problem is compensation and insurance – often wheelchair insurance does not cover air travel because the risks of damage are too great, and compensation is limited by international law at a limit far lower than the cost of most wheelchairs.

There are EU guidelines – a new version was published in June this year, ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. At the time though, the European Commission warned that disabled air travellers were still facing “unjustified refusals” from airlines.

The guidelines show that disabled passengers are allowed to have two pieces of “mobility equipment” transported without charge, but they also clarify that passengers should advise airports and airlines of their disability at least 48 hours ahead.

But even this does not guarantee a good experience – many flyers say it makes no difference.

Charity the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, via its Trailblazers project for young disabled people, has heard “countless” stories of difficult air journeys from disabled travellers and has even recently launched a campaign to find out more. And of course, it is not just about wheelchairs.

Trailblazers project manager Bobby Ancil said: “Trailblazers tell us time and again of being let down by airlines who damage expensive wheelchairs, refuse to carry wheelchairs unless they are broken up into smaller pieces, and charge people to use oxygen canisters, which equates to a tax on breathing.”

'The dangers have put them off flying entirely'
The risks are very real. I am one of 400 members of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Trailblazers, all of us disabled and between the ages of 16 and 30, writes Tanvi Vyas, 28, from Stratford. Among the wheelchair-users of the group, I have not met a single person who has flown and not had their wheelchair damaged at some point. For some, the dangers have put them off flying entirely.

We have come to an ideal time to consider inclusive design and technology, with many airlines investing in new aircraft. Removable seating onboard that would allow wheelchair users to travel in their own chairs and sit with carers, and safe and secure storage of equipment, would transform air travel for disabled passengers. However, accessibility is of course not only a matter of physical design; it is equally important that the attitudes, communication and service that disabled travellers encounter reflects that we are equally valued customers.

Thanks to affordable flights, the globe is getting smaller and the opportunities to explore are tantalising. With a little consideration from the UK's major airlines, disability does not have to be a barrier to joining the party.

What is being done?

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the body which ensures that airlines abide by the European regulations.

A spokesman for the CAA said: “Travelling if you have restricted mobility can be especially challenging and stressful without good planning and effective processes from airlines and agents. The CAA believes that pre-notification of assistance needs is the key to airports and airlines providing people of reduced mobility with the assistance that best suits their needs.

“But if people find that they are not receiving their rights, they can contact the CAA who will look into the problems and may take up their complaints with the airline or airport concerned.”

There are also charities to help travellers, including Tourism for All and the Queen Elizabeth Foundation in Surrey, which has a new facility to help disabled people and carers prepare for flights, try out new equipment, and hopefully avoid past problems.

Airlines say they are taking the issue seriously as well.

EasyJet told Channel 4 News: “Every day we fly around 1,000 passengers requiring special assistance – more than 350,000 passengers every year across our network with the vast majority telling us they are satisfied with and trust EasyJet’s services.

“To ensure we can provide the best possible experience for our passengers earlier this year we have created an independent advisory group, chaired by David Blunkett MP, along with external experts from UK and European associations. The group was set up specifically to examine and overcome issues encountered by passengers with reduced mobility and ensure we fully comply with all related regulation.”

And that onsite wheelchair repair service at Heathrow? There will be a post-Paralympics legacy – the engineers are moving off-site, but they will still be offered as an on-call service for airlines and passengers.

Are you disabled? What are your experiences of flying? Get in touch with Channel 4 News on Facebook or Twitter #noflybritain #nogobritain