Campaigners have warned ministers that they will fight to ensure the government keeps its promise to introduce laws aimed at improving the protection offered to disabled air passengers.
In its long-awaited response to a consultation on protecting air passengers – which closed in March 2022 – the government said this week that it would introduce laws to remove the limit on compensation paid by airlines that damage wheelchairs or other mobility aids on domestic UK flights.
Airlines will also be “encouraged” to remove this cap voluntarily on international flights, and within the UK in the period before legislation can be passed.
The government also promised to boost the powers of the industry regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, allowing it to impose fines for the first time.
But these measures will only happen “when parliamentary time allows”, and there were repeated warnings on social media this week that the government’s promises will mean nothing until legislation is introduced and passed.
This means disabled campaigners and allies will need to keep pressing the government to view the legislation as a priority, with the likelihood of a general election within the next 15 months.
Disabled TV presenter Sophie Morgan (pictured), who has played a key role in campaigning for government action through the Rights on Flights campaign – after having a wheelchair broken twice in six months on flights – welcomed the government’s announcement this week.
She told Disability News Service: “They are going to look at the caps on compensation – that’s good, but when is it actually going to happen, and will this government actually see it through? We don’t know.”
Wheelchairs and scooters are usually carried in the hold of a plane, but the compensation for damage is limited by the 1999 Montreal Convention because they are treated as “baggage”.
These limits do not apply if the passenger has made a “special declaration of interest” as to the value of the equipment, but this often requires payment of a fee, while airlines may still set their own limits on compensation.
The government’s consultation response says: “Disabled and less mobile passengers should be able to travel without worrying about their wheelchairs or mobility equipment being damaged.
“It should be an industry priority to ensure that damage does not happen.
“We will be working with industry on ways to ensure that this kind of equipment is handled appropriately in order to minimise that risk.”
Morgan said it was “ridiculous” that it had taken the government so long to respond to its consultation.
But she said: “What this does is it sends a message that the government hears what’s happening, is listening to what’s happening, and is going to respond and react to protect us.
“We need the powers that be to understand that we are having problems and we need their support, and we don’t get that from the government very often.”
She added: “It’s a commitment, but… we don’t have a date, we don’t have a timeline, we don’t have any of that concrete evidence that this is going to be what it says it is, so we need to keep the pressure on, we need to hold them to account. We cannot let this go.
“We are not going to stop. They know that.”
The Rights On Flights campaign was launched earlier this year, although disabled people have been campaigning for years for successive governments to take action, dating back more than 20 years to Disability Now magazine’s Flight Rights campaign.
Morgan said that Rights on Flights seemed to have helped persuade the government to take action.
She launched the campaign, alongside the SNP MP Marion Fellows – who Morgan said has been “pivotal” to the campaign – and Disability Rights UK (DR UK), with a letter to the prime minister in February.
The letter asked for powers for the Civil Aviation Authority to impose fines on airlines and other organisations responsible for damaging wheelchairs and other mobility equipment, for leaving disabled passengers on flights for “prolonged periods” once they have landed, and for failing to provide adequate assistance.
They said then that the situation had reached “crisis point”.
This week’s consultation response also says that the government will promote new training, so that those who handle mobility equipment can do so without damaging it.
It will introduce new laws to force all airlines operating in the UK to join a scheme that provides a way for passengers to settle their air travel disputes without the need to go to court, by using an alternative dispute resolution body.
And it says the government will continue to work with the industry on improving accessible information and training for staff who assist disabled passengers.
Anna Morell, media and communications manager for DR UK, said of the government’s announcement: “This is good news, and has been a long time coming.
“Airlines now need to act swiftly to implement the gold standard practices outlined in the consultation and government needs to ensure that it does indeed make time to ensure that new legislation is passed.
“We will be watching to ensure that the pledges made today become action to enable parity for disabled air travel passengers.”
Tanvi Vyas, who leads on air travel for the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which advises the government on accessible transport, said: “Providing compensation for damaged mobility equipment is certainly a move in the right direction to increase consumer confidence.
“Understanding the international element to this and encouraging waiving [the cap on compensation] for international flights is crucial for disabled travellers to travel with assurance and consistency.”
She said she hoped the measures on training “raises the bar, enhances existing knowledge and sharpens minds to understand the gravity of the situation when damage occurs”.
Announcing the measures, transport secretary Mark Harper said: “I recognise the work airlines do around the clock in order to provide a good service to customers and today’s proposals set out how we can go even further for travellers.
“I’ve heard really concerning examples of passengers’ wheelchairs getting damaged and being left without full and fair compensation; it’s important that everyone can travel with confidence.”
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