UK airports receive stern warning over disabled flyers failing unacceptably

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As the UK emerges into the mixed reality of a post-pandemic and post-Brexit world, staff shortages and long delays at the country’s airports have started to take their toll.

Over the past few weeks there have been a series of stories about disabled passengers being left on planes for hours after landing due to a lack of support staff to transport them safely from the plane. at the terminal.

As wheelchairs and scooters must be stowed in the baggage compartment during transit, passengers with reduced mobility often depend on support personnel to operate specialist equipment such as external lifts, dumbwaiters and a chair extra-narrow to access their seat.

These episodes were reported by many members of the public, including BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner, who tweeted about his experience last month he waited for a long time alone in an empty plane for his wheelchair on a return flight from Estonia to London Heathrow.

On Friday, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority finally lost patience with airports and assistance providers.

In a letter sent by the regulator to all UK airports, the CAA said it was “very concerned at the increase in reports we have received of significant service failures”.

Noting that “our own reporting framework tells us that many more disabled and less mobile passengers had to wait longer for assistance than usual”.

UK airports have been given a June 21 deadline to let the CAA know what action they are taking to remedy the problems, or face enforcement action in the form of court orders if the problems persist.

Responding to the CAA’s announcement, Fazilet Hadi, policy officer at Disability Rights UK, said: “In recent weeks people with disabilities have experienced truly appalling service outages and been left on planes for hours without no communications”.

More tellingly, she added: “We are delighted that the letter recognizes that even in normal times, support services were not always of good quality”.

The tip of the iceberg

His last point is entirely on point and the sad truth remains that unacceptable delays in disembarking are just one of the many difficulties passengers with disabilities face when taking flight.

There remain, of course, physical infrastructure issues such as the lack of accessible toilets on board.

Additionally, protocols for determining a passenger’s ability to travel independently or emergency evacuation potential are often ill-defined, leaving the door open to subjective and inconsistent decision-making for undertrained staff. in the field.

It’s not just the disabled passengers of airline staff who may have to cope.

Surprisingly, during recent delays at UK airports, there have been reports of some non-disabled passengers, exasperated by the long queues, pretending to be disabled in order to skip the queue.

This further aggravated the situation by scattering already insufficient amounts of support staff throughout the airport.

However, the most serious event that can happen to a passenger with a disability is undoubtedly the loss or damage to their wheelchair or mobility scooter during transport.

This happens more often than you might think.

According to a Washington Post article published last summer, since 2018 several of the largest airlines in the United States have lost or damaged some 15,425 mobility devices, or 29 per day.

Not only does this completely destroy vacations as, without their mobility aids, some users end up not being able to leave their hotel room, but it can also have a significant impact on daily life.

Although equipment like electric wheelchairs may seem relatively easy to replace once at home, many such devices are highly customized for the user to meet their precise medical needs.

If endless legal and insurance wrangles with airlines over lost or damaged equipment ensue, users risk being stuck at home for weeks or months – unable to work and care for themselves. themselves or their families.

These consequences can be life-threatening, as seen in the sad death of 51-year-old disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa, who died in part because she had to spend months in an unsuitable wheelchair after his specially adapted wheelchair was accidentally damaged by United Airlines managers last summer.

Over months of waiting and negotiating for a replacement specialist chair, Figueroa exacerbated a pressure sore from using an unsuitable temporary chair which then became infected, leading to his untimely death.

The home care reform advocate, who had both a spinal injury and a leg amputation, said in a previous interview:

“Mobility devices are an extension of our body. When they are damaged or destroyed, we again become invalid. Until airlines learn to treat our aircraft with the care and respect they deserve, flying will remain inaccessible.

Set priorities

To move forward, this is the mindset that airports and airlines must adopt.

For people with disabilities, lost or damaged mobility equipment, or being trapped on board a landed aircraft, should not be treated as trivial inconvenience or a mere lapse in customer service.

In fact, they are more akin to outright negligence and a serious breach of health and safety.

When properly viewed through this prism, one would hope that the words of Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel is being given full consideration by the CAA after calling on a regulator with ‘real teeth’ to impose penalties following the recent chaos experienced by passengers with disabilities at UK airports.

It is also reasonable to hope that in the future, technology and innovation will help make air travel a more convenient and less stressful experience for passengers with disabilities.

Munich-based Revolve-Wheel has developed the Revolve Air, a wheelchair that folds up to 60% the size of regular folding chairs, meaning it can be stowed in overhead compartments as luggage by hand.

Meanwhile, Texas-based All Wheels Up is conducting crash tests and pushing for planes to be equipped with wheelchair tethers and restraints to allow passengers to board and fly seated in their own devices.

Nevertheless, innovation is only a fraction of the battle as much of the infrastructure exists today to enable passengers with disabilities to travel in greater comfort and safety.

After all, even as early as the middle of the 20th century, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a paraplegic, was able to use an elevator nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” to board and disembark his personal plane.

Much can still be accomplished by pursuing timeless accessibility initiatives – namely engaging in an ongoing and evolving dialogue with the disability community, alongside a commitment to prioritizing issues with measurable actions such as hiring and training more support staff.

In the end, people with disabilities often simply want equality. Just as with the general public – although it may be fanciful to think of eliminating the fear of flying – that fear should at least be confined to being in the air, rather than worrying about anything that could go wrong in the air. ground as well.

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