Airline no closer to solution on powered wheelchairs five years on


An airline has been unable to explain why it is still refusing to accept powered wheelchairs on its flights, at least five years after the issue was first raised publicly.

EasyJet claims health and safety rules mean it cannot ask baggage handlers to load any wheelchairs that weigh more than 60kg onto its aircraft.

The issue was highlighted this week after the mother of 12-year-old Declan Spencer, from Leicester, was told by easyJet that it would not allow his powered wheelchair into the hold of their holiday flight to Cyprus because it was too heavy.

EasyJet said it “welcomes more than a quarter of a million passengers with reduced mobility every year and we regularly carry powered wheelchairs, provided they can be collapsed into separate parts weighing less than 60kg each”.

But it has been unable to explain why it cannot pay for suitable equipment to load heavier wheelchairs onto its aircraft, or why it appears to have taken no steps to solve the problem since at least 2006.

Five years ago, Clare Gray, from Gloucestershire, raised almost identical concerns to the Spencers when easyJet told her it could not carry her wheelchair on a flight from Bristol to Newcastle because it exceeded the 60kg weight limit.

Declan’s mother Alexandra has now had to cancel their easyJet seats at short notice and book with another company, Thomson Airways.

She said easyJet’s policy was “ludicrous and discriminatory”, and added: “We have been told that they are refusing to carry Declan’s wheelchair on health and safety grounds to protect their staff, but this seems extremely hollow when you consider that every other airline in this country is prepared to accommodate us.”

European regulations, introduced in 2008, should prevent airlines discriminating against passengers with “reduced mobility”.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is supposed to enforce the regulations, but this week it said it was “still reviewing the circumstances of the complaint to identify whether easyJet acted reasonably”.

CAA said each case “should be treated on its respective merits and the airline should work to find a solution where practicable”, while it was working with UK airlines on the issue of wheelchair weight and had raised the matter with the European Commission.

The Spencers’ case was taken up by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign (MDC), whose Trailblazers network of young disabled campaigners criticised easyJet in a report last August.

MDC said it was “totally unacceptable” for an airline to impose a rule that “makes it all but impossible for users of powered wheelchairs to use their service”.

An MDC spokeswoman added: “It seems to us that other budget airlines have found solutions. How is it that Thomson are finding solutions and easyJet aren’t?”

Ann Bates, a disabled transport access consultant and former deputy-chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, has flown often with easyJet and always supervises baggage handling staff as they remove two heavy batteries from her chair, taking the weight below 60kg.

But she said some wheelchairs were not so easy to dismantle, while she also would not want to risk baggage handlers dropping her chair.

Bates said it seemed “reasonable” for easyJet to invest in machinery that could load heavier powered wheelchairs onto its aircraft.

30 June 2011