Airports branded ‘poor’ on access over lack of consultation with disabled passengers

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One of the largest airports in the country has been branded one of the worst for accessibility, after it failed to consult with disabled people about how it could improve its services.

Manchester Airport is one of just four in the UK that were said in the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) annual review to be providing “poor” services to disabled passengers.

Two of the others, Exeter and East Midlands, were also criticised for their failure to carry out any consultation at all with groups representing disabled people.

The fourth “poor” airport, Heathrow, was criticised over the quality of its assistance service, with three-fifths of passengers who took part in a survey rating it as “unsatisfactory”.

In its second annual review of accessibility at UK airports, CAA found six “very good” airports, 20 “good” and four that were categorised as “poor”*.

It also found the number of disabled passengers requesting extra help at airports rose from 2.7 million in 2015 to more than three million in 2016 – an increase of more than two-thirds since 2010 – with satisfaction levels with assistance services consistently showing well over 80 per cent.

Disabled passengers are entitled to free assistance when traveling by air under European Union regulations, and CAA is the regulatory body that monitors the quality of this assistance.

The government is due to consult on how to improve access to air travel this autumn, while there will also be a consultation on plans to improve access across the public transport network.

Those airports that rated well in the CAA report were those that “regularly consulted with people that use the assistance service”, whose staff were “regularly praised by passengers for their understanding and patience”, and where assistance was “efficient and well organised”, leading to minimal delays.

Among those categorised as “very good”, Norwich had “created excellent partnerships with local disability organisations”, Glasgow Prestwick “hosted successful familiarisation and feedback events with charities representing people with sensory impairments and with learning disabilities”, while staff at Inverness Airport attended “numerous” local access panels.

But CAA said it was “unacceptable” for an airport the size of Manchester to fail to carry out any consultation at all with disability organisations in 2016-17, although it said discussions about improving this situation had been “constructive”.

Members of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) this week delivered a “damning” description of travelling through Manchester Airport. 

One member had to make their own way to the departure gate after arriving early in the morning for their flight and finding no assistance staff on duty.

Another said there were never enough staff on duty or wheelchairs available.

Some staff were said to be “kind, courteous and understanding” but many were said to treat disabled people as “little better than cattle”.

Brian Hilton, GMCDP’s digital campaigns officer, who spoke this week to several members about their experiences of the airport, told Disability News Service: “Disabled people are paying the same amount for flights as everyone else but are getting an inferior service at Manchester Airport.

“If Manchester Airport is serious about promoting itself as the gateway to the north it needs to up its game. It needs to talk to and listen to disabled people.

“It needs to implement practices and procedures that ensure disabled people travel safely and in comfort and are not made to feel like second-class citizens.”

GMCDP is the longest-established disabled people’s organisation (DPO) in the north-west of England, but Hilton said: “We have never had any contact from Manchester Airport saying ‘we would like to consult with you and your members.’

“There is a huge potential for joint working and making things better.

“It’s not that they are knocking on a closed door, they are knocking on an open door. We are willing to work with the airport.

“We want to see Manchester Airport as a beacon for accessibility.

“That can be achieved but there needs to be some will shown, some proactive action.”

In May, GMCDP published its manifesto for the Greater Manchester mayoral election, which called on the airport to introduce DPO-led customer service training, and to carry out regular access audits, which Hilton said should also be done in conjunction with DPOs.

A spokesman for Manchester Airport said the airport’s contractor OCS had recently recruited more than 100 new customer services staff to work with disabled passengers, and their initial training had included “hidden disability training”.

A new contract with OCS should cut response and waiting times, he said.

He said in a statement: “We acknowledge the CAA’s findings and comments relating to consultation with disability organisations.

“As referred to by the report, this is an area we have already taken steps to address.

“Starting this financial year, we have launched a disability engagement programme, with the first quarterly forum being held last month.”

Organisations who have joined the forum include the disability charities Stomawise, Support Dogs, Guide Dogs, Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People, Alzheimer’s Society, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Action on Hearing Loss and MS Society.

The airport also plans a “Disability Expo” in November, which will “showcase” how it supports disabled passengers.

He said: “We are confident that this work, coupled with the ongoing representation of a disability organisation [Disability Stockport] on our consultative committee, will lead to significant improvement in this area.

“Ensuring those who need assistance enjoy a positive experience at our airport is both a priority of ours and the organisations contracted to provide such services on our behalf.

“We regularly review customer satisfaction surveys relating to this area, with the majority of customers currently rating us very good.

“However, we constantly strive to deliver a better experience for all our passengers and will continue to do so in the months ahead.”

He added: “We have now started the journey of engagement to develop the service and improved accessibility. We’d welcome contact with GMCDP.”

Meanwhile, an investigation by the Trailblazers network of young disabled campaigners – part of Muscular Dystrophy UK – has exposed the “shocking” number of UK hotels that fail to provide hoists.

Hoists allow wheelchair-users to transfer into a bed or to use bathroom facilities when they cannot transfer independently, but almost 80 per cent of the 103 young disabled people who took part in the survey said they had been unable to go on holiday in the past five years because of the lack of hoist facilities in hotels.

A further mystery shopping exercise found only one in 20 hotels offered the use of a free hoist.

Lucy Watts, a Trailblazers member from Essex, said: “I haven’t stayed away from home since losing the ability to transfer and I’ve been unable to stay overnight purely because of the hoist issue.

“Hotels having hoists would mean I’d be able to take trips away.”

She added: “Disabled people face enough barriers in life. We shouldn’t be prevented from enjoying trips away because hotels won’t always make the effort to be fully accessible and inclusive.”

*CAA said the results could not be compared with its first annual review as the categories have changed