On 16-17 November CAFE held its third International Conference – Total Football #TotalAccess – in Bilbao. Over 200 delegates joined us for what was a hugely successful and positive event, celebrating the greater inclusion of disabled people across society through the unique power of football.

Naturally, a significant number of the delegates who attended were disabled themselves, including wheelchair users, people with limited mobility, partially sighted and blind people, deaf and hard of hearing people, and learning disabled people.

Over 25 countries were represented in Bilbao with delegates flying in from across Europe, in some cases taking two or even three flights to arrive in the city.

To our dismay, a number of delegates reported significant issues in returning home from Bilbao. This included CAFE Director Tony Taylor, and CAFE Fans Liaison, Access and Administration Officer Amy Wilson.

Tony flew back to Heathrow Airport with British Airways, and had requested a wheelchair to be waiting for him upon landing. This did not arrive, and after standing for 30 minutes Tony collapsed in the airport terminal.

Tony was left on the floor for over an hour before an ambulance arrived to take him to a nearby hospital.

Amy flew back to Manchester via Barcelona with Vueling Airlines. Amy received her wheelchair again in Barcelona, and it was also returned to the aircraft upon arrival in Manchester. However, at some point during the journey Amy’s wheelchair was improperly handled and was damaged.

We have also heard from more disabled delegates who had poor experiences during their return journeys. This has included wheelchairs being taken to the luggage carousels rather than delivered to the aircraft, and insufficient numbers of staff sent to aircraft by assistance providers.

Our work is primarily to improve access and inclusion across all levels of football. However, this quite rightly includes the rights of disabled fans and employees to be able to travel with their football clubs and national associations.

The rights of disabled people to request and receive assistance when travelling by air are enshrined within European law.

European Union Regulation 1107/2006 specifically outlines the protection of disabled passengers against discrimination, and ensures they receive the required assistance to travel.

Disabled passengers are required to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to departure, otherwise the airlines and assistance providers have the right to refuse assistance. In contrast, non-disabled passengers can arrive at the airport 40 minutes prior to departure and be fast-tracked through to their gate.

Disabled passengers are also entitled to board aircraft before other passengers, in order to transfer to their seat in a dignified way without an audience. However, travelling extensively both as and with disabled people, we know that quite often disabled passengers are boarded last – in front of a plane full of people – as assistance simply failed to turn up in a timely manner.

The experiences that our delegates have reported are not just in contravention of European law, but it is quite simply not an acceptable way to treat people. It is a clear demonstration of the discrimination that many disabled people face in exercising their right to travel.

Our message is clear – enough is enough.

We encourage all airlines, airports and assistance providers to urgently review their current practices and make the required changes. Experiences such as those mentioned above will only discourage disabled people from air travel, and it is a sorry reflection of the industry when disabled people feel unsafe when travelling.

To our delegates who had such poor experiences flying to and from Bilbao, we can only hope that you get the responses that you are entitled to and, in Tony Taylor’s case, we wish you a speedy recovery.

Finally, we urge all disabled air travellers to speak out about their experiences and let the airlines, airports and assistance providers know that this simply not good enough.

Back in 2013, we published a blog story on the negative experiences of disabled air passengers. Unfortunately, each of the issues raised in that blog remain a huge barrier to air travel to date.

Disabled passengers should not be treated as an afterthought, mobility equipment such as wheelchairs should not be treated as luggage, and disability discrimination should not be treated as acceptable.

This is not just about one airline, one airport or one assistance provider. This is a problem right across the industry that must be addressed and put right.

If you would like to get in touch to discuss your experiences of accessible air travel, please feel free to contact us at [email protected].

Read more:

Heathrow Airport wheelchair failure 'a disgrace'

'Airlines keep breaking my wheelchair'

BBC's Frank Gardner left stuck on Heathrow plane for a second time

Breaking Down EU Regulation 1107/2006

Published 20/11/2018