Negative experiences of ‘accessible’ air travel becoming the norm
By Mike Rice
Given the nature of my role, I am regularly required to travel by air across Europe. Sometimes, I travel by myself as a non-disabled passenger, whilst on other trips I accompany our Managing Director Joyce Cook, a wheelchair user. Recently in particular, my experiences have been like comparing night and day.
When travelling solo, I have navigated some of the world’s busiest airports with little-to-no hassle. The likes of Paris Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam Schiphol and Brussels are absolutely colossal, but barring the odd short delay or occasional turbulence these trips have almost always gone off without a hitch. I simply arrive at the airport, check in my luggage, breeze through security and board the flight.
Travelling with a disabled passenger is very much a different story.
The ‘adventure’ begins well in advance of the trip itself, as all wheelchair users are required to notify their airline of their assistance requirements at least 24-48 hours in advance. This process is different for each company – some require a simple tick-box exercise whilst others will have you listening to the same unidentifiable hold music on the telephone for eternity.
Once the day of the flight arrives, we are required to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to departure time. This is three times the 40-minute restriction that airlines place on non-disabled passengers. After checking in and notifying the assistance team of our arrival, we often have to negotiate being able to visit the shops and restaurants rather than being held in a usually empty room that some airports ‘reserve’ for disabled passengers. Why would anybody choose to be excluded from the rest of the airport in this manner?
Boarding the plane can become a real lottery, seemingly depending on the mood of the assistance staff. Disabled passengers are meant to board the plane before all other passengers to ensure their dignity, however we have had many experiences where the assistance has simply not turned up and the other passengers have had to board. This is unacceptable.
As a regular flyer, Joyce decided to purchase a specially-designed wheelchair that folds down and fits comfortably into an overhead locker. It really has to be seen to be believed. The majority of the time, this is not a problem and the wheelchair is stowed within seconds of transferring to the plane seat. However there has been a growing trend of cabin crew refusing to allow this, for no apparent reason. Cabin crew blame dispatchers, dispatchers blame cabin crew, and disabled passengers are stuck in the middle. Sometimes a lack of available space is given as the reason, though this becomes particularly disgruntling when non-disabled passengers then board the flight with huge suitcases.
On the topic of suitcases, I can’t stress enough: wheelchairs are not luggage. We have witnessed loaders toss Joyce’s wheelchair into the hold as if it were a pillow, which resulted in major repairs. On a recent trip, Joyce’s titanium wheelchair was completely severed. The cost of repairs exceeds €8,000 – the airline are only willing to pay an eighth of that under international conventions on baggage. How can a wheelchair be classified as the same as a rucksack?
The real motivation behind writing this blog is a recent experience we had with one of the world’s biggest airlines. Due to a change in our schedules, we planned to return from a trip a day earlier and logged into the airline website to alter the flights. However, as one of us was a wheelchair user we found that the website would not let us do this. After numerous calls running up a massive phone bill, and hours spent trying to check in, we were eventually told that the booking had been changed. This was not the case. After arriving at the airport, it transpired that we were still due to be flying the next day. All of that hassle had been for nothing, and it was purely because one person on the booking was a wheelchair user. That is blatant discrimination.
We have spoken with many disabled passengers who face the same issues every time they fly. Most dread having to travel, some simply refuse to do it. This isn’t right, and the airlines have a duty to provide an equal and inclusive experience for all passengers.