A woman with invisible impairments had a major panic attack at Heathrow Airport after staff refused to provide the assistance she needed because she was not a wheelchair-user.
Sophie Grand had spent months emailing British Airways to ensure she would receive the assistance she needed to cope with her anxiety and panic attacks for her flights to and from the Maldives last month.
Now she is calling for Heathrow Airport and British Airways to take action to ensure that passengers with invisible impairments can receive the assistance they are legally entitled to when traveling by air.
She had been assured by British Airways that she was entitled to assistance, and that the service was not just for wheelchair-users and others with mobility impairments.
Her previous visit to Heathrow Airport – after returning from her delayed honeymoon – had led to a panic attack, which had persuaded her to try for the first time to obtain the assistance she is entitled to.
She finds that being accompanied by a member of staff eases the risk of panic attacks as she passes through busy sections of the airport such as passport control and security.
The outward flight from Heathrow in January went off reasonably smoothly, despite having to explain to check-in staff why she needed assistance, and both visits to Velana International Airport were “plain sailing”, thanks to efficient and professional assistance.
Grand, who works as a further education training consultant and has a masters qualification in education and inclusion, said: “It was fantastic. For the first time in about 10 years, I got to a holiday destination without having a panic attack.”
But there were problems from the moment she and her husband Paul landed back at Heathrow on 13 January.
A member of cabin crew told them that they were not booked in for assistance, and Grand had to explain again why she needed support.
Another member of BA cabin crew tried to find her someone to provide assistance when they disembarked, but Grand and her husband were left at the special assistance desk.
Grand said: “The two women at the desk refused to give me special assistance because I didn’t need a wheelchair and kept asking me over and over again [about her impairment] and I kept explaining.
“I ended up having a huge panic attack. I couldn’t breathe.”
By the time she had recovered, the busy passport control hall had cleared and there were no queues and she and her husband were able to leave the airport.
She said: “It was absolutely the worst experience trying to fight for special assistance and having to re-explain my invisible disability over and over again.”
She has complained to both Heathrow and British Airways, but she believes the airline was most to blame.
Now she wants to see improved staff training on the needs of disabled passengers who do not have physical impairments.
She is determined to give evidence about her ordeal to the inquiry launched last week by the Commons transport select committee into the effectiveness of laws that are supposed to ensure an accessible transport system.
She said: “I’m frustrated. In the year that we’re in, with the knowledge that we have, how this is still happening is just beyond me.
“I feel very privileged to be able to explain my situation and write complaints and articulate how I feel but I think there are people who unfortunately may not be able to do the same and this cannot happen anymore for people like us.
“We have the choice to not go on holiday anymore and whilst this isn’t ideal it is something we are thinking seriously about.
“However, there are others in my situation who do not have a choice. They may need to travel for work or to visit family and are faced with the same treatment I received.
“This is concerning and very frustrating to think about.
“I hope my story will add fuel to the fire and make other people realise that this is not OK.”
A Heathrow Airport spokesperson said: “At Heathrow we want all of our passengers to have a smooth journey every time they travel and we’re disappointed to learn this wasn’t the case for Sophie.
“Our team is currently investigating this incident, the learnings we can take from this and we apologise for any distress this caused.”
British Airways said it had failed to carry over the assistance request when Grand and her husband changed details on their booking.
It has apologised and offered her a voucher worth £200 as a “gesture of goodwill”.
A BA spokesperson said: “We’re sorry for the experience our customer had when recently travelling with us, and don’t underestimate how this made them feel.
“Unfortunately, due to human error, the requested assistance was not communicated to the airport teams, and we’re putting steps in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the future.
“We’re in contact with the customer to apologise and resolve the matter.
“We aim to become the airline of choice for customers with invisible and visible disabilities, and we’re committed to ensuring a seamless travel experience, including becoming the first UK airline to formally recognise the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard scheme.”
But Grand said: “Following the response from both British Airways and Heathrow, I do not feel reassured that necessary changes will be made anytime soon for those with invisible disabilities.
“Heathrow did formally apologise and spoke to members of staff about this incident.
“British Airways chose to offer compensation in the form of a voucher. This is something I doubt I will ever be able to use as they have blamed a system error when we upgraded our flights.
“This does not acknowledge the amount of different times I spoke to British Airways ground and cabin crew staff after the upgrade was purchased who still did not provide me with the assistance I needed.
“Therefore, I will be taking my complaint with British Airways further to the Civil Aviation Authority.”
Picture: Sophie Grand and her husband Paul in the Maldives
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