UK airports and regulators are under pressure to act over the repeated discrimination faced by disabled air passengers, after two prominent campaigners were failed by assistance services within 24 hours last week.
Mike Smith, the equality watchdog’s former disability commissioner, was twice failed by Gatwick’s assistance team, while Cllr Pam Thomas, a disabled city councillor in Liverpool, and the council’s cabinet member for equality, diversity and inclusion, was left on a plane at Manchester Airport for more than an hour.
Smith, who was a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) board between 2009 and 2012, was travelling between Gatwick and Stockholm.
On his outward journey from Gatwick on 22 June, there was a delay while he waited for assistance at the departure gate, and then he had to be carried onto the plane by his own personal assistant because a member of assistance staff had failed to bring the aisle chair needed to transfer him onto the plane.
A week later, on his return to Gatwick, he was left waiting on the plane for 45 minutes after his Norwegian flight from Stockholm (pictured).
When two members of the assistance team arrived, they offered no apology until he pointed out he had been waiting for three-quarters of an hour.
They then apologised and told him: “I’m sorry, we are very short-staffed at the moment and the airport is very busy.”
When he finally made it into the terminal, he noticed the airport did not appear at all busy.
The previous day (28 June), Cllr Thomas waited more than an hour at Manchester Airport after a flight from Stockholm.
She had booked and confirmed her assistance in advance.
She said the SAS airline crew waited with her and called several times for the assistance, while the cleaners “came and went”.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “Flying is something many non-disabled people take for granted and are totally unaware of the experience of disabled people.”
There have been repeated incidents across the country of disabled passengers being left on planes and failed by airport assistance services in recent months.
Last month, a 92-year-old disabled passenger at Gatwick had to hammer on a window and shout for help because she believed she had been abandoned by assistance staff.
Gatwick also had to apologise to disabled journalist Victoria Brignell after she was left on a plane for more than 90 minutes after it landed.
The previous month, another disabled journalist, the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner, spoke of being stuck on an empty plane at Heathrow airport.
Smith told DNS he believed there was systemic discrimination across the airport industry in the UK, following the repeated failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers, particularly wheelchair-users.
He said: “Given that it keeps happening, it’s clear these organisations are failing in their legal obligations.
“It needs looking into by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or EHRC and action taken.
“If this was in the US, people would be suing left, right and centre, but because of the difficulty of taking legal action under the Equality Act by individual disabled people, these organisations clearly do not feel the need to fulfil their legal responsibilities.”
He said he believed the “underlying issue” was a lack of assistance staff following the pandemic.
He said: “I presume it’s because they laid everyone off when the airports were not being used much, and now people are flying again they haven’t recruited quickly enough and trained people in manual handling.”
He added: “I don’t want compensation, I just want them to sort their act out.
“Why should you have to be a disabled person in the public eye to get this taken seriously?
“If it happens this often to those of us who have connections to journalists, think how often the story is not told when it happens to members of the general public.”
An EHRC spokesperson said: “Transport operators have clear responsibilities in law to ensure travel is just as possible for disabled people as it is for every other passenger.
“This includes a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers. Nobody should get left behind.
“We are monitoring reports of disabled passengers not having access to the support or facilities they required.
“We have approached transport regulators and offered to work with them to address the risk of discrimination against disabled people and ensure fair access.
“Where we hear about concerns of unlawful activity, contrary to the Equality Act, we consider these carefully and take action in line with our published litigation and enforcement policy.”
A spokesperson for Wilson James, which provides the passenger assistance at Gatwick, apologised for its failures.
She said the failure on Smith’s outbound flight was “due to an error in resource allocation on our team’s part”.
She said the inbound flight from Stockholm a week later had arrived 45 minutes behind schedule, at 17.05, which clashed with other flights.
She said: “While we were able to allocate the first agent to Mr Smith at 17:14, and they reached him at 17:22, the required second agent was unavailable until 17:48. Our records show that Mr Smith disembarked at 17:54.
“On the date of the inbound flight, London Gatwick experienced high levels of demand for our [persons with reduced mobility] service and, coupled with late flight arrivals that day, Wilson James failed to provide the level of service we strive to deliver.”
She added: “Much of the aviation industry relies on a ‘just in time’ delivery of services and scheduling, meaning that even small disruptions can have large, compounding impacts across whole airlines and multiple airports.”
She said this was impacted by the “extreme level of disruption the industry is experiencing at the moment”, and she insisted that the company’s current staffing levels at Gatwick were “in line with projected recovery, using peak passenger data from 2019”.
A Gatwick spokesperson also apologised for Smith’s experiences and said the service he had received was “far from the standard it should be”.
He said: “Wilson James deals with a significant number of passengers each day, and more often than not the service works well.
“But on the occasions passengers do not receive the level of service expected, we will always strive to improve.”
When Smith tweeted about the incident on the day of his return, tagging Gatwick, he was asked to submit a complaint online.
He filed a complaint, but he had yet to receive a response by this morning (Thursday).
When he was shown the responses of Gatwick and Wilson James by DNS, he said: “It appears these organisations are admitting the service isn’t staffed adequately.
“You use ‘just in time’ approaches for stacking supermarket shelves, not helping people.
“I cannot believe that there are not flight delays all the time. Logically this means that every day they are failing a disabled person every time there is a flight delay.
“It’s probably worth adding that cabin crew often apologise, saying it happens a lot in the UK, and I rarely experience these kinds of delays in other countries.
“It’s a UK problem. And it’s the fault of both the providers and the way that the airports commission the support. It really is time they sorted their act out.”
A Manchester Airport spokesperson said: “It is disappointing to hear this passenger had an unsatisfactory experience at Manchester Airport.
“Like airports across the UK, Manchester contracts a third-party company [ABM] to provide special assistance, which is booked directly by the passenger with their airline.
“We take special assistance requirements very seriously and, prior to the pandemic, were rated ‘good’ in the Civil Aviation Authority’s most recent Airport Accessibility Report.
“We are confident that most people with special assistance needs travelling through our airport have a positive experience, but we recognise that this was not the case here.
“We will continue to work closely with our specialist provider to ensure passengers requiring special assistance receive the best service possible and to understand how a repeat of this case will be avoided.”
ABM declined to say if it accepted that Cllr Thomas had faced discrimination under the Equality Act, and whether the delay she faced was a one-off.
But an ABM spokesperson said in a statement: “We understand the importance of the special assistance service we provide to passengers.
“We always aim to deliver that service with efficiency, respect, and care and regret when passengers experience anything short of these standards.
“Learning from these moments, we are actively working with our teams, clients and partners to implement efforts to minimise the impact on passengers as we navigate this phase of the pandemic recovery.
“Special assistance providers are one part of a larger network of airport services that continues to face challenges, including a national labour and resource shortage.
“In addition, our teams are currently experiencing higher volumes of special assistance requests than our busiest pre-pandemic peak.”
The Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates the industry, refused to comment on the latest failures.
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