British Airways cabin crew who work on flights in and out of Heathrow say that passenger assistance services at the airport are an “absolute shambles”, with waits of up to 90 minutes for disabled passengers left waiting to leave their planes.
Disability News Service (DNS) has this week spoken to two members of cabin crew who work for British Airways (BA), and both say there are delays with providing assistance for nearly every BA flight that arrives at Heathrow Airport with a disabled passenger on board.
They say the delays have particularly worsened in the last few months.
The company that provides passenger assistance services at Heathrow is Wilson James, which has also been criticised for its performance at Gatwick airport.
Only last week, DNS reported how Mike Smith, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s former disability commissioner, was twice failed by Wilson James at Gatwick, despite confirming his assistance needs in advance.
There have been a series of publicised failings this year at both Gatwick and Heathrow, and other UK airports.
One of the BA cabin crew told DNS this week: “It’s just an absolute shambles. Almost every single flight, you wait anything from half an hour to an-hour-and-a-half.
“People are missing their connections.”
Before the pandemic, he said, disabled passengers arriving at Heathrow with BA might have waited 20 minutes or half an hour “now and again”.
But he said he believed that – since air travel returned to more usual levels of activity as pandemic restrictions have eased – there have not been enough staff working for Wilson James.
He said: “It’s extremely uncommon to see the door of the aircraft open and to have someone there waiting to provide assistance.”
Another cabin crew member said disabled passengers were missing their connecting flights “all the time” because of the delays.
She said: “In nine cases out of 10 you will open the door and there will be no-one there and you will be chasing them. I’m sure it’s just a staffing issue.”
She said the last three or four months had been “really bad”, with the service provided to disabled passengers “pretty disgraceful”.
Both cabin crew members spoke this week of how frustrating and embarrassing it was having to deal with the delays when there was nothing they could do about it.
A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates the industry, told DNS this week: “We’re committed to helping make aviation… accessible for everyone and we know such incidents can be very distressing for the individual concerned.
“Significant service failings are unacceptable and airlines and airports have rightly apologised.
“We recently wrote to the whole industry outlining our concerns as we continue to work with the aviation sector to improve accessibility, using our framework to help improve and monitoring access for air travel for disabled people which saw millions of pounds being spent by airports to improve passenger access.
“We know that airports and airlines share our commitment to helping to ensure fair access to air travel.
“We will continue to closely monitor the quality of service provided and if these significant service failures continue, we will consider whether further action is needed, including using enforcement powers.”
An Equality and Human Rights Commission spokesperson repeated a statement given last week, warning that transport operators have “clear responsibilities in law to ensure travel is just as possible for disabled people as it is for every other passenger”, which includes “a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers”.
The commission says it is “monitoring reports of disabled passengers not having access to the support or facilities they required” and has “approached transport regulators and offered to work with them to address the risk of discrimination against disabled people and ensure fair access”.
A commission spokesperson also pointed to the advice guide it publishes for disabled air passengers, which includes details on their legal rights.
A Wilson James spokesperson declined to say if it believed the concerns raised by the two cabin crew were an accurate representation of its service at Heathrow, if it accepted that its own staffing shortages were partly causing the problems, and if it accepted that disabled passengers were being discriminated against.
She also declined to say if Wilson James believed that 90-minute waits for assistance were acceptable.
But she said the company had begun a recruitment campaign last August, and had recruited more than 500 new employees, which she claimed met the “required number of staff to meet the demand of assistance we are experiencing following the pandemic”.
She admitted that “many passengers have experienced longer wait times on arrival than normally expected”, but she claimed that provision of its services was “impacted by multiple, external influences beyond the control of Wilson James”, while there had been a “significant increase in the number of passengers requesting assistance”, accompanied by “lower notification rates for assistance from airlines”.
She added: “Our agents remain with their passengers from start to finish of their airport journey, which can be affected by several compounding incidents throughout the global aviation ecosystem.
“Well-documented examples range from delays in security or immigration queues to baggage collection.”
A Heathrow Airport spokesperson said delays “could be because of an issue with our service provider, or as is more often the case, it is because the airline did not pass on passenger pre-booking information to our service provider in advance of arrival”.
She said this was “one of the biggest causes of a misconnect and delay in providing the service on arrival”.
She said: “It isn’t acceptable and we are in constant dialogue with airlines to try and rectify this.”
She also said Heathrow did not accept that significant staffing shortages with Wilson James were at least partly responsible for the delays.
But she accepted that 90-minute waits for assistance were not acceptable.
She added: “At Heathrow we are determined to provide a welcoming and accessible airport that enables all passengers to travel with the dignity and care they expect.
“We apologise if any experiences at the airport have fallen short of the service level passengers deserve, and we will continue to work closely with our service provider, airlines and their ground handlers to improve upon this.
“As the airport rebuilds post-pandemic, all parts of the ecosystem are scaling-up resource to better match demand and we will continue to challenge ourselves and partners to ensure that all passengers can have a smooth and reliable journey through the airport.”
Picture: British Airways planes at Heathrow Airport; picture by Heathrow Airport
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