Heathrow wheelchair ordeal raises London 2012 questions


A leading activist has accused airline staff of ignoring the needs of disabled passengers at Heathrow, just weeks before thousands of Paralympic athletes and other disabled visitors will flood through the airport.

Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), was returning from a disability rights conference in Denmark organised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

She had asked British Airways (BA) cabin crew on the return flight last Friday evening if they could arrange for her fold-up wheelchair to be brought to the door of the plane on arrival at Heathrow’s terminal five, as it had been when she arrived at Copenhagen on the outward flight.

But as she left the plane, she was told by the airline’s ground handling crew that they would not bring her wheelchair to the plane for “health and safety reasons”, even though they would only have had to wheel it to the entrance, rather than carry it.

Instead, she had to transfer into one of the airport’s own wheelchairs, and then transfer again into her own chair once she had managed to reclaim it from the carousel in the busy luggage retrieval area.

Newman said: “I had to use the generic chair, which for me with my spinal and muscular condition, although it was functional, it hurt. It was very uncomfortable.

“The only time I have been abroad over the last few years is because of UKDPC and the UN Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities].

“I find it appalling that I go to Europe and I contribute a UK disabled people’s organisation’s perspective, as part of an ongoing dialogue about inclusive society, and then I come back and I am treated like a piece of shit.”

A spokesman for BA, the “official airline partner” of the London 2012 games, said: “We are extremely sorry for the inconvenience and distress experienced by Ms Newman on this occasion, and a member of our customer relations is contacting her to apologise directly and to offer a gesture of goodwill.”

He said BA was continuing to introduce new measures to improve its disability assistance programme, including improving the consistency of returning passengers’ wheelchairs to the aircraft door.

Other measures include providing seat maps on BA’s website, so disabled passengers can choose a seat that best meets their needs; and offering space to stow wheelchairs and mobility aids in aircraft cabins.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has published new guidelines to clarify the rights of disabled air passengers.

The commission said it had published the guidelines as thousands of Paralympians and disabled spectators prepare to travel to London for the 2012 Paralympics.

It said that many disabled air travellers still face problems of “unjustified refusals” to allow them to board aircraft, and other “unfair demands” when attempting to travel.

The guidelines cover travellers at all EU airports and the operations of EU airlines anywhere in the world as well as non-EU airlines within or leaving Europe, and clarify existing EU rules on the rights of disabled air passengers.

Xavier Gonzalez, chief executive of the International Paralympic Committee, said: “Just like the many passengers with a disability who fly on a daily basis, our athletes regularly experience unnecessary problems travelling through airports and with airlines. This should not be the case when we are striving for equality in society.

“This summer, 4,200 athletes will be travelling to London for the biggest ever Paralympic Games.

“The experience they have travelling on airlines and through airports could shape how they view the success of the games, regardless of their athletic performance.”

14 June 2012


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