People with disabilities getting 'unacceptable' treatment by airlines worldwide post-COVID-19

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By Julia Buckley of CNN

As most people are excited to get back into the air, travellers with disabilities are finding things rather more difficult.

Delays, snafus, even lost and damaged luggage? Welcome to the world of travellers with disabilities, who've been dealing with all this for years.

"It's definitely got worse since the pandemic," says Roberto Castiglioni, director of Reduced Mobility Rights, which advocates for disabled travellers.

"Staff shortages are not only having an impact on not enough [assistance-dedicated] agent," he says. "Where airports have seen shortages in security staff, there are very long lines to go through."

Anyone who can't stand for, at times, hours - whether elderly, pregnant or sick - has to request assistance, adding extra stress on a short-staffed system.

The pandemic saw the aviation industry haemorrhage staff worldwide - a major cause of the chaos seen at airports worldwide in 2022. But it isn't just a lack of manpower we're facing. "There's been a massive loss of corporate culture and knowledge," says Castiglioni - and for travellers who need extra help, that cuts deeper.

Disabilities affect roughly one in five of the population and there are many passengers who use what's termed "special assistance" when moving around airports.

That could be someone partially sighted needing guidance to the gate, someone with sensory issues needing help at pinchpoints such as security or during boarding, or a passenger with a bad knee who can walk to the gate, but can't do steps.

Around 27 million passengers with disabilities flew through US airports in 2019, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

And with a system already under stress, the results can be devastating.

"I've travelled by air 16 times this year, and only twice was the airline on time," says David Blunkett, a UK politician who served as home secretary, and now sits in the House of Lords, the country's upper parliamentary chamber.

"I'm fine - I've got someone with me on all occasions and I'm mobile, but my heart went out to those who aren't. [Travel] chaos is bad enough for people who can adapt quickly but for those with special needs it can often be a catastrophe."

In June, a passenger who'd booked special assistance died at London's Gatwick Airport when he decided to make his way into the terminal unaided instead of waiting for assistance. A staff member had arrived at the gate to take three passengers to a buggy, and had already taken the first person when the man decided to walk. The airport has launched an investigation into the incident.

'You can customise a burger, but not this'

Regular fliers will be used to seeing airport staff pushing passengers around in airport wheelchairs, but not everybody who uses special assistance actually needs a wheelchair. Many find it's a one size fits all policy, and are bundled into one nonetheless.

"People who are disabled in whatever way - whether a hidden disability or a sensory disability - are presumed to be unable to walk, so wheelchairs or buggies are offered where it's self-evident that you can walk," says Blunkett, who is blind, and regularly offered a wheelchair at airports, even though he doesn't need one. He calls the current situation for travellers with disabilities "unacceptable."

Woman being wheeled in wheelchair at airport.
Photo credit: Getty Images

The current system of booking assistance is "massively outdated," says Castliglioni. Passengers requiring help are assigned a four-letter code, which is supposed to refer to either their disability or the level of mobility help required. But if you don't fit neatly in a box, beware.

"Let's say you have reduced mobility, plus you have Alzheimer's and a stoma - if you give that information to the airline or the booking agent, that information will be lost, because the system, the way it's designed today, will transform that into a four-letter code," he says - effectively, whether you can do stairs or not.

"It's bizarre that in this day and age where you can customise a cheeseburger in a fast-food restaurant but you can't customise your journey when you book assistance. The more information airlines and airports have about your needs the better, but if the information you provide is lost because the underlying communications system isn't fit for purpose you encounter a lot of problems."

Blunkett says the people on the ground need to be better trained and sensitive: "Ask the person concerned what's the best form of help you can give."

'If I reported every incident, I'd never leave the airport'

Thought your suitcase going missing was the worst thing to happen at baggage reclaim? For wheelchair users, there's more at stake. Narrow aisles means regular wheelchairs can't fit onboard; users must check them at the gate, where they are usually physically lifted by ground staff into the hold. Shockingly, it's not a given that the chair will emerge at the other end, as John Morris knows all too well.

Morris, a frequent flyer who runs site Wheelchair Travel, owns two wheelchairs - both of which have been damaged on flights in the last few months.

"My wheelchair was destroyed in early July, and I didn't get a replacement until the middle of September," he says - which he describes as "a fairly quick response time."

In order to be able to live normally during the repair period, Morris bought a second chair out of his own pocket.

"That one is also badly damaged right now," he says.

Morris, who runs site Wheelchair Travel, estimates that his chair gets damaged on about 50% of flights - seriously so up to 10% of the time. It's such a common occurrence that he only bothers reporting major incidents: "If I spent time reporting damage for every wheelchair getting scratched, dashed or dented I'd never leave the airport."

'We're not viewed as important'

Wheelchair wrecking is so common that not a month goes by without a case hitting the headlines.

In August 2021, Engracia Figueroa's custom-made chair was destroyed on a United flight from D.C. to Los Angeles. The airline opted to repair rather than replace the chair; she died in October of an infection which her advocates said had stemmed from a pressure sore caused by the loaner chair which was not customised.

United said in a statement: "We arranged for a loaner wheelchair from Ms. Figueroa's preferred supplier the same afternoon she arrived at LAX, and her preferred wheelchair vendor completed repairs to Ms. Figueroa's damaged chair within one week. Unfortunately, United was unable to return the repaired chair to Ms. Figueroa for more than a month because she did not respond to our repeated attempts to arrange its delivery."

Last November, Brandon Aughton was denied boarding to his Ryanair flight from the UK's East Midlands Airport to Malaga in Spain, when ground handlers decreed that his wheelchair was too heavy. The airline had approved his chair in advance, but handling agents Swissport declined to load it. Swissport did not respond to a request for comment.

In the US, the DOT now requires major airlines to report how many wheelchairs have been damaged annually.

For Carrie-Ann Lightley - who's wanted to fly from her native UK to Australia for eight years, but feels "daunted" - having her chair broken isn't the only thing to worry about.

"The problem is the process and training - ultimately [assistance staff] aren't trained to look after human beings, but to move luggage," she says.

"I don't feel I get an equal service to others. I pay the same price as everyone else but I can't even access the toilet independently. Not a week goes by without a headline about assistance failures, but we're not viewed as important enough a customer group."

Lightley, who has an accessible travel blog, has never booked a last-minute flight - "the thought terrifies me, with the amount of preparation," she says. When booking her ticket, she has to book assistance and a space for her chair, often giving its weight and dimensions. She must insure her mobility equipment for the trip, and work out whether she can risk taking her regular chair, or should stick with an inferior back-up.

Man being wheeled in wheelchair at airport.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Lightley likes to travel independently through the airport, and meet staff at the gate to check her chair, but, like Blunkett, she isn't always allowed.

"It's frustrating - I want to spend money at duty free like everyone else," she says. And yet in some airports, she's kept in a holding station "with no access to the toilet, or food and drink. It's very dehumanising."

At the gate, she transfers into a narrow "aisle chair" to be taken to her seat. Usually, this is before the rest of the flight boards, but if the assistance arrives late, "I've been pulled down the aisle of a busy plane with everyone staring at me." If she needs the bathroom onboard, she goes through the same procedure. The result? "I always choose short-haul and restrict liquids."

This summer, she travelled for the first time by Eurostar train to Amsterdam. "I could independently move around the train, get to the toilet - it put me on a level playing field. Flying I find very stressful and quite emotional."

"I don't think flying and wheelchairs are incompatible," she adds. "I think it's not a high enough priority for the authorities."

In March 2022, the DOT issued a proposed rule to include accessible toilets in new aircraft - but not for 20 years.

'Sometimes it's hell'

It's not only wheelchair users who are falling foul of special assistance failings - those with invisible disabilities are being let down too. Linda Galbraith, from Edinburgh, flies about once a month. Galbraith has respiratory disease, contracted after an infection following cancer surgery, and has difficulty managing stairs and inclines. That means that when she flies, she books wheelchair assistance to help her through the airport.

"Sometimes it's hell. Other times it's OK, but not very often - overall it's mostly bad, which is really sad," she says.

Take a recent intra-European flight. Travelling alone, she was picked up by the assistance staff, "left somewhere," and then collected to board her flight "at the last minute," by which time the plane had boarded.

And when she came to board, Galbraith was told by the dispatcher that there was no longer room for her hand luggage because she had arrived too late.

"I said I needed it, because it had my nebulizer and all my drugs. I had gate-checked it once before, and it had been lost for three days," she says.

"The dispatcher said I couldn't board with it unless I produced a letter saying that I'd die without it. She was shouting at me - I felt incredibly vulnerable."

The argument caused the flight to be delayed, but Galbraith was finally allowed to board with her medical equipment.

"I was dreading it," she says of her entrance onto the aircraft. "I thought people would hate me, but the crew said they were sorry and offered me something to drink."

Galbraith says she's also been chucked off a plane before assistance arrived (the crew "just wanted me off" so they could leave, she says), been told "just push your luggage, you'll be fine" when assistance hasn't arrived, and been denied access to an airport lounge on the grounds that "disabled people aren't allowed in" - she suspects staff didn't want to make two journeys when they could just leave her at the gate. She thinks that staff are not adequately trained about invisible disabilities: "I don't look disabled, and I probably look younger than my age after 10 years of steroids got rid of all my wrinkles."

More vacancies than candidates

For Kully Sandhu, director of the Aviation Recruitment Network, finding staff for low-paid airport jobs is still a problem. His clients have had to "significantly increase" pay rates for lower paying roles this year, "or be left in a position with no staff."

But he says recruiting assistance staff will always be tricky, because of the demands of the job. "You're on your feet throughout your shift, pushing wheelchairs from check-in to the gate and onto the aircraft - people favour the standard check-in vacancies," he says.

The sector hasn't yet recovered from the pandemic, when many staff left the industry and others were fired. "There are more vacancies than candidates," he says.

Lack of accountability

For Castiglioni, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means access is "taken for granted" in the US - but it's not the same across the pond. Where in the US, airlines must sort special assistance for their passengers, in the EU and UK the responsibility is with the airport, which contracts out the service to external companies - while taking the passenger information from the airline.

That not only adds two extra layers of confusion, but means that when things go wrong, customers often find that the buck is being passed.

"The real problem is the lack of responsibility because they pass you from one [company] to another," says Galbraith. She reports assistance failings to the airlines, but is often rebuffed. "The airline says, 'It's not our fault' but my contract is with them, not the contractor."

"It's a really serious problem," says David Blunkett, who believes there's a lack of accountability. "At the moment, travellers fall between the stools" of the different providers. The UK's Civil Aviation Authority should be given "really powerful enforcement powers," he believes.

Heathrow Airport told CNN: "All of Heathrow's contracts are monitored to ensure they are meeting standards required."

A spokesperson for Wilson James, which has operated special assistance at Heathrow since November 2020 (and Terminal 5 since 2019), said that the company has only experienced "normal operations for about five months." They added: "There is no question that there have been several challenges in recovering from the pandemic, including higher than forecasted passenger numbers.

"We have been aggressively collecting information and feedback... with the aim of addressing gaps in overall [assistance] service delivery that better serves passengers."

Meanwhile, website AccessAble is collating access reports on UK airports.

In the US, the Government Accountability Office has reported that passengers with disabilities are at extra risk of security screening.

It warned this week that the DOT "has taken steps to develop new regulations, but has been slow to address other issues, such as the availability of wheelchair-accessible restrooms on some airplanes."

DOT has taken just one disability-related enforcement action since 2019, according to the GAO, which has urged it to "increase transparency over its enforcement-related activities."

Shoots of hope

There is some progress. Castiglioni praises Italy's civil aviation authority, ENAC, which had a blind team member personally audit Italian airports for accessibility, along with co-workers.

Then there's UK-based Aviramp, which manufactures motorised, portable ramps to the aircraft door, where steps would normally be used. This means that passengers with special assistance can board aircraft along with the rest of the plane, instead of being separated at the gate and brought to the aircraft in an "ambulift." (mobile elevator) It also means airplanes don't have to spend so much time connected to the gate, allowing the airport to service more aircraft. Other passengers who might have difficulties with steps - elderly, young or those unable to carry their hand luggage - can board with more comfort.

The first Aviramp was sold in 2011 to Roland Garros Airport on Réunion Island. They're now at 144 airports worldwide, including Dallas Fort Worth, Cancun and Toronto. The company has now created a "Chair Lifter" to get wheelchairs into the hold without manual lifting - the point at which damage usually happens.

"People were saying, 'We've done it like this for 60 years, go away,'" says CEO Graham Corfield of his initial pitches to the industry. "But [ramps are] more dignified for people with disabilities."

"Lots of people [with disabilities] wish to remain independent when travelling through an airport, and it's their birth-given right to do so," says Castiglioni. "That's why policy must be adapted to ensure those who wish to, can."