Disabled passengers question watchdog’s rosy view of airport assistance

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Disabled people who use UK airports have questioned a report which found significant improvement in the provision of assistance to passengers over the last year.

The Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) third annual report into the assistance provided at the UK’s 30 biggest airports ranked 16 of them as “very good”, and just one – Manchester (see separate story) – as poor.

Last year, just six airports were ranked as “very good”.

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

The CAA report for 2017-18 points out that Heathrow, which last year was rated “poor” but is now said to be “good”, had invested £23 million in its assistance service, through new equipment, new technology and additional resources.

Gatwick, Stansted and Birmingham were all classified as “needs improvement”.

CAA said that more than four-fifths of disabled passengers surveyed said the quality of assistance provided in 2017-18 was at least satisfactory, but one in 10 said it was “very poor”.

The regulator also said that the airports often criticised airlines – which usually fund the assistance service through local agreements – for being “more focussed on cost saving than in ensuring a high quality assistance service”.

The CAA report adds: “If this is happening it is not consistent with the brand values of major airlines.”

Responses from disabled passengers on social media suggested CAA’s report had exaggerated the quality of airport assistance services.

They were responding to disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson (pictured), who had asked disabled people who use airports what their experiences have been.

Most of those who responded – although not all – were scathing of the services they have received at UK airports.

One, tweeting at @strictlywheels, said she had to complain “probably every other time we fly”, with a lack of consistency and wheelchairs being treated “appallingly”.

Another, Tom Staniford, @tomstaniford, said the service was “mostly awful”, due to “poor quality, slow service, lack of care [and]ignorance”.

British wheelchair basketball player Billy Bridge, @Billy_Bridge8, said he flies frequently but in the last four or five years he has experienced just one smooth journey.

He said: “Airports just can’t seem to grasp how much easier they can make flying for disabled people.”

Disabled academic Professor Tom Shakespeare, @TommyShakes, was one of the few who said his experiences had been “almost always positive”, although he said he always takes himself to the departure gate, rather than relying on the airport’s assistance service.

But another, @celticchickadee, told Baroness Grey-Thompson that airports “seem to be struggling more and more with capacity”, either because of cutting staff or failing to keep pace with demand.

And @prettytwitten said: “I don’t complain every time I have a bad experience or I’d be complaining every time I went somewhere. There is always something.”

Ruth Murran, @ruth_murran, added: “My good experiences are because of individuals, rather than the system.

“I am fortunate in being able to wheel myself to the gate so can mostly avoid being patronised. Hate the uncertainty and unpredictability.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson told Disability News Service said she believed the quality of airport assistance was “getting worse” and was “too variable” and that the CAA figures did not reflect the experiences of disabled passengers.

She said that flying was “one of the few time times I feel disabled”.

She said: “From the people who’ve been in touch with me, many don’t complain because they’re exhausted by the whole process, or it is too hard to do so.

“It all depends on people as well as the process and understanding what disabled people’s needs are.

“Personally, I’ve had more challenges flying in the last two years than the previous 20.”

She added: “The lack of understanding about how important it is to bring a personal mobility aid to the gate still astounds me.

“They should be brought in a timely manner and disabled people shouldn’t be made to feel grateful for getting on or off a plane.”

Baroness Sugg, the aviation minister, said in response to the CAA report: “It’s essential that passengers with reduced mobility or hidden disabilities get the service they deserve every time they fly. 

“The CAA has stepped up its work in this area and plays an important role in showing where improvement still needs to be made.

“I welcome the progress made by airports to improve accessibility and will continue to work with all of the aviation industry to make flying easier for disabled passengers.”

 

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