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Airport chaos hits disabled passengers the hardest

Ezra Johnson
Transport for All's Campaigns Officer

Another month, and another news cycle of airport chaos. We look at how disabled people are being put off air travel altogether.

A crowded airport scene. There are dozens of people queuing up to go into baggage reclaim. They are facing away from the camera so the backs of their heads are visible.

Another month, and another news cycle of airport chaos. The headlines this summer have been awash with stories of flights being cancelled, long-awaited holidays put on hold, and weddings, work trips, and family visits all abandoned. The effects of these disruptions on people’s lives are being widely felt, and the frustration and anxiety that they are causing is stopping some people from making plans all together.

But for many disabled people, this is the degree of difficulty they have to contend with every time they travel.

Even when airports and airlines appear to be running as usual, disabled people face barriers at every stage of their journey, from purchasing tickets to the point of disembarking. A survey in 2020 found that this lack of confidence in accessibility services has left almost half of disabled people feeling their ability to fly was restricted in the previous two years. For nondisabled passengers, this summer has offered a glimpse into what disabled people have been experiencing for a long time.

The effects of these disruptions to travel are not just inconvenient, stressful, and frustrating as they are for everyone, but they can also put disabled people in serious danger. A missed holiday is bad enough, without the additional risk of being abandoned on the plane for hours, having essential medical equipment damaged or destroyed, and as one of our members told us, “physical injury, indignity, and humiliation”.

The assistance people are provided at airports can be an incredibly disorienting and degrading experience. We have heard horror stories from our members about being insulted, segregated, and even physically restrained to chairs in some cases.

“You get taken and parked somewhere. The problem is when you’re visually impaired you can’t see where you are, you don’t know who is going to talk to you, nobody talks to you – you’re just left. And then you get taken to a chair and left. You can’t ask to go to the loo, people don’t talk to you. You could be left there for 20 minutes or half an hour. You could be parked in five different spots. It’s endless and lengthy and no one explains what is happening, you can’t understand where you are. You don’t feel in control of the situation.”

Transport for All workshop participant

Once the plane has landed, procedure dictates that a disabled passenger must remain seated and wait until everyone else on the plane has disembarked before assistance arrives. We hear many accounts of assistance being delayed resulting in disabled passengers having to wait on the plane, sometimes for hours, after it has landed and everyone else has gotten off. With the additional strain on air services in recent weeks, these delays have become more frequent.

Victoria was left on a plane for 90 minutes, and had to resort to social media to try and attract the attention of the airport to get her off the plane. At the very same airport, just days later, a disabled man fell to his death after disembarking himself after waiting for assistance. Until this system changes, access barriers are removed, and disabled passengers are given the autonomy and dignity that other passengers are afforded, disabled people will continue to be let down again and again.

So, what action is being taken? Recently, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) wrote to airports reminding them of their obligations. Last month the Government published an Aviation Passenger Charter which details the rights disabled people have while travelling by plane. This is a positive step, making clear to disabled passengers what they can expect, and acknowledging that these expectations are not currently being met.

But what this doesn’t address is the really central problem: disabled people shouldn’t need a charter. Nobody should have to become an expert in airline regulations to go on holiday, and the onus should not be placed on disabled people to ensure they get the service they are entitled to.

This is part of a broader problem, where disabled peoples’ access to air travel is treated like an add-on, a nice-to-have. This results in a culture where disabled people are expected to plan meticulously, make constant phone calls, and complete dizzying amounts of paperwork to simply get on a plane. In their letter to airports, the CAA repeated this sentiment, writing that:

“…passengers’ pre-notifying the requirement for the service should help ensure that a better service can be provided, particularly in a period of greater use of the service and resource challenges. We would encourage airlines, working with airports, to consider any further actions that can be taken to support encouraging more passengers to pre-notify.”

What this fails to address is that most of the high-profile stories this summer have come from passengers who have pre-booked assistance. Disabled people are already doing more than should reasonably be asked of them while travelling. It is time for the airlines themselves to do their bit.

Disabled people are not asking the world. We are simply asking for the same dignity and assurance that most people expect when they fly. All disabled people want to know is that our medical equipment won’t be damaged, that we won’t be left for hours on a plane, and that we will be able to take our kids on a summer holiday, attend weddings, make a business trip, and see our friends and family again. And, like everyone else, we want to get a big Toblerone from duty-free on the way.


If you have experienced issues travelling by air, get in touch

We run a free helpline offering advice, support and information. Call us 020 7737 2339.

A man standing in front of a painted brick wall smiling at the camera. He is holding a cane and is wearing glasses, a black jacket and a grey t-shirt. A man standing in front of a painted brick wall smiling at the camera. He is holding a cane and is wearing glasses, a black jacket and a grey t-shirt.

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