The equality watchdog’s disability commissioner has told UK airlines to “show leadership” and promise to pay full compensation to disabled passengers whose mobility equipment is damaged in transit.
Lord [Chris] Holmes spoke out after it emerged that airlines were still relying on a loophole provided by the Montreal Convention that allows them to offer only minimal compensation for wheelchairs and other equipment damaged by airlines, 14 years after a campaign was launched to address the issue.
Disability Now magazine launched its Flight Rights campaign in 2002*, after concerns were raised by leading disability consultant Phil Friend, who helped launch the campaign, about the frequency of wheelchairs being damaged or even lost by airlines.
But despite European regulations, introduced in 2006, that provided new rights for disabled passengers – which mean airports and airlines must now provide them with free assistance – the issue of compensation for damage and loss to wheelchairs is still unresolved.
Under the convention, compensation for damaged items – including wheelchairs – is calculated on the basis of weight rather than value.
This week, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) told Disability News Service that it had decided to investigate how often mobility equipment was being damaged by airlines or airports across the UK and what measures were in place to support disabled passengers when such incidents occur.
The CAA decision came following publicity about the case of disabled actor, writer and director Athena Stevens, whose electric wheelchair – worth more than £25,000 – was badly damaged when she tried to take a British Airways flight to Glasgow from London City Airport.
Eight months on, Stevens is still trying to secure the compensation necessary to repair her wheelchair and reimburse other significant financial losses, and this week wrote an open letter accusing both the airline and the airport of breaching her rights, lying, double standards, jeopardising her health, discrimination and appalling customer service.
Lord Holmes was highly critical of both British Airways and London City Airport.
He said: “Disabled people are often deterred from flying for fear of loss, damage or destruction of their mobility equipment. Athena’s story is a case in point.
“She has been left without a replacement chair for eight months. We’re not talking about a suitcase or a set of golf clubs – this is a person’s mobility and independence.”
He said UK airlines had a “moral responsibility” to stop hiding behind the Montreal Convention when they damage mobility equipment.
Efforts by the European Commission to introduce new regulations that include measures to allow disabled air passengers to receive full compensation for damaged wheelchairs were approved by MEPs more than two years ago, in May 2014.
But the European Council – made up of EU heads of state, including UK prime minister David Cameron – has so far prevented it becoming law.
Lord Holmes said: “This is an issue which cannot wait any longer. We are therefore calling on British air carriers to show leadership and proactively adopt this policy voluntarily to ensure that disabled people are offered full and, most importantly, timely compensation if their mobility devices are damaged by the carrier.”
Phil Friend (pictured) said that he was still frequently asked for advice about mobility equipment that had been lost or damaged by airlines, 14 years after he helped launch the Flight Rights campaign.
He said the situation was slightly easier now because companies such as Fish Insurance will insure equipment against damage by airlines, although they will not cover the full cost of expensive electric wheelchairs.
But he said: “The whole air travel experience is still back in the dark ages as far as disabled people are concerned. And we are paying the same fares as everyone else.”
He added: “The whole experience on air travel is fraught with concerns and enormous anxiety.
“Your anxiety levels increase, you’re just not sure what state your chair will be in when you get it back.”
He said the 2006 EU regulations had led to “an incremental improvement”, but they had not dealt with the issue of “proper compensation for people who lose very, very expensive equipment”.
A London City Airport spokesman said: “We have been in communication with Ms Stevens from the outset and the airport has made every effort to assist her in resolving this situation. Because this is a legal matter we are unable to provide further comment.”
British Airways claimed that “in those circumstances when we are responsible, we pay compensation to the value of the damage caused over and above the limits of the Montreal agreement”.
But Stevens has told DNS that the airline was lying and that it had told her it “would not pay above [Montreal Convention rates], even if it was seen to be their fault”.
*The relevant Disability Now stories are no longer available online other than through specialist archiving websites
**The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published advice for disabled air passengers