This article was produced by National Geographic Traveler (UK).
Since travel restarted post-pandemic, one theme has emerged amidst the overall chaos: travelers with disabilities being let down by airports and airlines. From special assistance to passengers left on planes for upwards of an hour at the end of a flight to wheelchairs damaged in transit, there’s been headline after headline in the past 18 months.
Now, it seems, things have reached a crisis point. After her wheelchair was broken on a British Airways flight in February, TV presenter Sophie Morgan has launched a campaign with Disability Rights UK. Called Rights on Flights, its goal is to improve the airline experience for all passengers with disabilities.
Why is now the time to improve these standards and experiences?
“The majority of the time when I fly, something bad happens,” says Morgan. “I’ve normalized the experience of something going wrong.” After her wheelchair was damaged, she decided to take action. “It was on the back of other stories over the last six months — I thought, it’s getting out of hand.” She has high hopes that change can be brought about. “The industry is recognizing its systems aren’t working. Solutions need to be expedited.” In short terms, Rights on Flights is asking parliament to enable the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fine providers who fail passengers with disabilities. In the long term, it aims to equalize the airline experience for all travelers, from providing made-to-measure assistance to advocating for wheelchair spaces on planes.
Has the situation got worse or is it just better reported now?
Roberto Castiglioni has been campaigning for better accessibility in aviation for the past 11 years as director of Reduced Mobility Rights. For him, the pandemic — which devastated the aviation industry — has had knock-on effects on special assistance. “Service levels have dropped significantly since the pandemic — the aviation industry is still struggling to catch up, with demand growing faster than expected,” he says. In other words, everyone’s suffering due to staffing levels, but what is an inconvenience for many can ruin a disabled person’s trip.
Does this only affect wheelchair users?
No. According to the 2021 census, 17.8 million people in the UK have some kind of disability, and many require help while traveling. That might mean taking someone with mobility issues to the gate, showing a blind person onto the plane, or allowing someone with sensory issues to pre-board. Yet many passengers are simply put in a wheelchair and taken to the gate, whether or not that assistance is useful. It’s a sign of an outdated system. “At a time when even fast-food chains allow people to customize their food, disabled people are still unable to customize their airport journey,” says Castiglioni.
Why are so many wheelchairs getting broken in transit?
One major issue is aircraft design. No passenger airlines have planes in their fleets that have space for a wheelchair on board — even those jets that have recently been redesigned or refitted. Chairs go in the hold, and are often mishandled. “Handlers see them as cargo, not as someone’s legs,” says Castiglioni.
Morgan is calling for legislation to ensure that future aircraft be fully accessible, with space to keep chairs on board and better designed toilets. Currently, wheelchair users have to ask the crew to take them to the toilet in uncomfortable, undersized ‘aisle chairs’ that most (but not all) planes have on board, then use the toilet with the door open.
Have any countries got it right?
It’s better in the US, where each airline is responsible for providing special assistance — in the UK and Europe, the airport handles it, meaning there’s little accountability.
Should the CAA fine airports for assisted travel breaches?
Morgan is calling for fines if airports “break equipment, don’t provide the right assistance or leave us on board too long”.
Of course, not only travelers with disabilities use special assistance at airports. Anyone who can’t cope with long lines at security, getting up the steps to the plane or walking the long distances at major airports can book it — from elderly to pregnant to injured passengers. With the system under strain, and airlines passing the buck when things go wrong, perhaps change will only come when the CAA gets enforcement powers.