Amid growing disabled passengers complaints, London Heathrow airport assistance services blame traffic and immigration queues for poor access at BAA flagship Terminal 5.
The most recent complaint filed by two disabled passengers against Heathrow's assistance adds a new twist to the on going series of failures disabled travellers experienced at London's main airport, the vast majority of which concerning passengers who had prebooked assistance.
"I want to let you know about the extremely poor special assistance my wife and I received at Terminal 5 on both our outbound and return journeys to Cairo," Michael and Julie Turner told Reduced Mobility Rights.
Mrs Turner travels with her own wheelchair while Mr Turner usually books wheelchair assistance provided by airports.
On their way to Cairo on 13 October 2012, the couple, who had pre-booked assistance, had to wait 40 minutes at the check in desk. "With no sign of further assistance in sight we decided to make our way through security to the special assistance waiting area. There we experienced a further extended waiting time almost to the time of gate closure," Mr Turner said.
Mr and Mrs Turner's experience returning to Terminal 5 on 21 October was no better. "On our return there were a number of other disabled people on the flight. Other people were loaded on to buggies, and while there was space on the buggies, staff insisted my wife and I waited at the gate," Mr Turner recalled. After an endless wait, the couple once again decided to make their own way out of the airport. "At the very least I would expect staff in these roles be trained to listen to what disabled people say."
The couple, who filed a complaint with British Airways, received a response from OmniServ, the company providing disabled passengers’ assistance at Heathrow Airport on behalf of BAA.
OmniServ blames heavy traffic and immigration queues as key reasons for delivering poor service. However, BAA's service provider admits to inadequate training of attendants, and hinted at overstretched resources.
"Our records show that [on 13 October] you arrived at the Landside Host desk at a busy period. Several aircraft had arrived simultaneously either late or early, and our agents were held up in queues at Immigration which impacted our resources," Kay Harris, Customer Care Manager for OmniServ, said,
"The flight [of 21 October] had a high volume of PRM passengers, all of whom, with the exception of one, were IATA coded WCHR, this indicates to us that they can walk short distances and manage steps. Electric buggies were used to clear the flight, and the bracket on the back of the buggies is for our own wheelchairs, for Health & Safety and Insurance reasons we would not use this for our passenger’s personal devices," Kay Harris said. "I appreciate this was not clearly explained to you and Mrs Turner, we have identified the agent who has been spoken to by the Terminal Manager and reminded that clear and concise information forms part of care and consideration we must show our passengers."
Similarities in recent complaints paint a picture of understaffed, undertrained and overstretched assistance services at London Heathrow airport, specifically at British Airways Terminal 5.
Reduced Mobility Rights understands it is not uncommon for disabled passengers to hear attendants complain about poor working conditions. "My attendant said to me "we are treated like slaves", a disabled passenger recently told us.
“Assistance services for all airlines at Heathrow are provided by the airport authority [BAA]. We work closely with other airlines to lobby the airport to provide a better quality of service for customers with reduced mobility," a spokesperson for British Airways said.
Caroline Pidgeon AM, leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group and Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee issued a concerned statement following the growing number of complaints about London Heathrow airport poor access
"I am extremely concerned to hear of the cases of poor treatment and sometimes blatant discrimination revealed by Reduced Mobility Rights. They very much reinforce the recent reports from Channel 4 News and the Muscular Dystrophy campaign," she said. "I will also be asking for briefings on the steps that both BAA and CAA intend to take to address this series of complaints about poor access."
Despite numerous reports of denied pre-booked assistance, a black and white breach of the law protecting the rights of disabled passengers, Heathrow airport has so far avoided enforcement by the Civil Aviation Authority.
"While both Heathrow and the CAA recognise that no level of failure is satisfactory, we are confident that working with ourselves, and their stakeholders, the airport is taking the right steps to continue to improve their position,” a spokesperson for the CAA recently told Reduced Mobility Rights.
About the author
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reduced Mobility Rights, Roberto Castiglioni is an expert of PRM regulations and handling procedures, and has personal experience as travelling companion and carer of a passenger with reduced mobility.
Roberto is a member of ESAAG. Chaired by the Hon. David Blunkett MP, the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group, ESAAG, provides Easyjet with strategic guidance and practical advice on the evolving needs of passengers requiring special assistance. Easyjet is the largest airline in the United Kingdom by number of passengers carried.