Mixed response to government’s plans to improve access to air travel

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A trio of disabled peers who have all been fierce critics of the discrimination faced by disabled air passengers have delivered a mixed response to the government’s proposed new “passenger charter”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Friday (7 December) that a planned consultation on a new aviation strategy, expected by the end of the year, would include plans for the new charter.

A draft version of the charter, seen by Disability News Service (DNS), includes a series of proposals aimed at improving the way disabled passengers and others with reduced mobility are treated by the air travel industry.

The government’s announcement came just days after the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell (picturedcalled on the government to start handing out “heavy fines” to the air travel industry when it failed to ensure its services were accessible to disabled passengers.

Another disabled peer, the Liberal Democrat president, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, told peers last week how she had been left in tears after being dumped in a corner facing a concrete wall while airport staff tried to find her wheelchair following a flight from Heathrow to Madrid.

The draft charter includes a plan to remove limits imposed on the compensation paid when a wheelchair is damaged during a flight; and stronger enforcement powers for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which will allow it to fine airlines and other parts of the industry that breach access regulations.

There are also proposals to improve the way wheelchairs are stored during flights; to raise awareness among disabled people of airport assistance services; and to tighten standards on how long passengers should wait for their wheelchairs at the end of a flight.

If the draft charter was adopted, it would also mean airlines having to make “all reasonable efforts to arrange seating to meet the needs of disabled passengers”, while some new and refurbished aeroplanes would have to include at least one accessible toilet.

In addition to the passenger charter, the government is to support a working group from the industry, which will include wheelchair manufacturers, disability representatives and the CAA, to achieve the “longer term goal” of creating a system that will allow disabled passengers to “travel safely in their own wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin”.

But the president of the Liberal Democrats, the disabled peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton, told DNS that the charter proposals did not go far enough.

She said: “A charter places very little obligation on either the carriers or the airports to deliver.

“This means that the disabled traveller will have very little recourse when things go wrong. 

“Baroness Sugg [the aviation minister]talked about fines for carriers and airports that fail to deliver but we haven’t yet seen how easy it will be for complaints to be made and judgements passed that actually result in fines.

“The record on fines for train operating companies missing their targets has been woeful. 

“A charter will not be enough to change the culture and practice that results in disabled passengers being let down time after time, being treated as a piece of luggage and trapped in disabled ghettos. 

“We need more: we need clear standards which if missed give disabled passengers the equivalent of a delay repay* when trains are late, as well as large fines for carriers and airports if they miss wider accessibility targets.”

She added: “This government is very fond of codes and charters which sound great but actually don’t change anything for the consumer because they have no teeth.

“We have the same problem with the Victims Code, which sounds lovely but there is no duty on the agencies (police, criminal justice system, councils) to actually deliver it. So they don’t.” 

The crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell was more optimistic.

Although she has not yet been able to examine the charter, because of the Brexit debate occupying both houses of parliament, she said it appeared to be “quite a big leap for the industry and realistically that’s all that can be achieved in the short term (the coming year)”.

But she said industry members had now recognised that they “must up their game significantly to address the increasing flow of criticism, otherwise the bad publicity will accelerate dissatisfaction from the public at large, which in turn will damage their business, economically and image wise”.

She told DNS: “I am hoping in the slightly longer term, the industry will address what we know from experience will be continuing discrimination with stronger regulations and fines.

“Because if they don’t, the campaign will just increase and eventually hurt them.”

After speaking to Chris Wood, the father of two disabled sons and founder of the campaign Disabled Flying, she said she believed it was necessary to capitalise on the apparent willingness of some parts of the industry to introduce a way to allow wheelchair-users to travel on aeroplanes in their own wheelchairs.

And she said it was crucial that disabled people were “centrally involved” in “developing the design of the reasonable adjustments and advising on the service delivery as a whole, so that it is fit for everyone and discriminates against no-one”, and that it was time to demand “more co-production”.

She suggested that disabled people should join Wood’s campaign in the absence of a successful disabled-led alternative, as he had been a “fantastic” ally to disabled people.

Another crossbench disabled peer, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, said removing limits on compensation for damaged wheelchairs would be “a step forward” and would “make some airlines think a bit”.

She also said that the working group would mean that some disabled people who are currently “completely excluded” from flying might have an opportunity to do so, which she said “feels like an open door”.

Baroness Grey-Thompson said there still needed to be better recognition that disabled people face “discrimination and poor treatment”, with too many passengers given the impression that their experiences are only one-offs.

She said: “I think the charter is a step forward. It should be easier to sort out the problems disabled people face.

“They shouldn’t have such bad experiences and be made to feel that they are an inconvenience.”

A spokeswoman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “It is encouraging to see the government putting a major focus on the flying experience of disabled people, especially following the widely reported and unacceptable failures that have occurred in this space.

“These recommendations are a positive step towards tackling discrimination against disabled passengers.”

Nusrat Ghani, the DfT accessibility minister, said: “We need to address the fact that 57 per cent of disabled passengers say they find flying and using airports difficult.

“That’s why our proposed passenger charter includes measures designed to make real changes that will improve the accessibility of flying, building on the ambitions set out in our Inclusive Transport Strategy earlier this year.

“We are committed to continuing the progress the industry has already made in making the aviation network truly open to all.”

*The national rail compensation scheme for unexpected delays and cancellations

 

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