On 16 December Reduced Mobility Rights management met with the EU Commission Transport Cabinet and Passenger Rights Unit.
Much has been achieved in the last few years to improve access to air travel for passengers with disabilities, yet more can be done to further improve the quality of assistance available to passengers with special needs traveling by air.
On Monday Reduced Mobility Rights Director, Roberto Castiglioni, met with Hanna Hinrikus, Head of the passenger rights portfolio at the Transport Cabinet of the European Commission, Jean Louis Colson, Head of the Passenger Rights Unit at DG MOVE, and Ruth Lopian, Policy Officer at DG MOVE.
The packed meeting agenda comprised a number of significant topics among which efforts on disseminating information through airports, tour operators and travel agents, interaction between National Enforcement Bodies and members of the public, ways to curb abuse of assistance services at airports, availability of aisle chairs on board aircraft, and future challenges related to invisible disabilities.
“The Commission has recently launched an awareness raising campaign which we expect to result in much better
awareness levels at least among European citizens who regularly travel by any mode of transport,” Hanna Hinrikus said, in reference to the Passenger Rights campaign the EU Commission launched last June.
More can be done to disseminate the Passenger Rights Campaign. “We regularly update European air travel associations as well as associations for other modes of transport about our campaigns,” Ruth Lopian noted.
One of the key issues is poor dissemination in airport terminal buildings, and through tour operators and travel agents. “We are liaising with ACI Europe (Airport Council International) to further improve availability of information on Passenger Rights inside airports,” Mrs Hinrikus and Mrs Lopian said.
Within the scope of applicability of air travel passenger rights law, (EC)1107/2006, Tour Operators and Travel Agents must make essential information available to passengers with special needs at the time of booking.
Last August, Reduced Mobility Rights conducted a research on travel agents compliance with air travel passenger rights law. The study found the vast majority of travel agents prove insufficient or no information at all.
In recent years, some travel agents associations have drawn up guidelines; however, their poor dissemination continues to hinder awareness. In 2012, ABTA published a set of guidelines drawn up in association with the UK CAA; the research found that on average seven out of ten members the Association of British Travel Agents did not follow up on the document and are yet to comply with the guidelines.
Last November, a complaint was filed against Glasgow based Barrhead Travel who allegedly told a MS sufferer an aisle chair would be available on the aircraft on a flight operated by an airline that does not provide such facility.
The 2012 interpretative guidelines on passenger rights law state “where possible, disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility should be informed in advance that an on-board wheelchair is not available in order to allow them to make an informed decision as to whether to travel under those conditions or not.”
“There may well have been a misunderstanding or a mistake as to the exact nature of the passenger requirements, but that in itself does not amount to a breach of the Regulations,” a spokesperson for ABTA said.
The Passenger Rights Unit has a clear position on the issue. “We are going to remind National Enforcement Bodies to actively monitor Tour Operators and Travel Agents compliance with Regulation (EC)1107/2006,” Ruth Lopian said. “We wish to express our appreciation for the information Reduced Mobility Rights provides the European Commission, DG MOVE, and NEBs to help them improve the application of the Regulation."
Availability of on-board aisle chairs is also a big issue for passengers with severe mobility impairments. “The 2012 Interpretative guidelines already recommend that on board aisle chairs should be made available when and where possible,” Mrs Lopian said.
The guidelines state “on-board wheelchairs should be used for this purpose where available. By comparison, this is already an obligation under US law for all planes of more than 60 seats. [ ] Air carriers should, where possible, take into consideration the needs of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when deciding on the design of new and newly refurbished aircraft. This may include the provision of a suitable on-board wheelchair and the design of accessible toilet facilities.”
Reduced Mobility Rights renewed the need for a new recommendation to airlines on the adoption of on board aisle chairs, to ensure the industry anticipates what should be a requirement in future equality legislation. The Transport Cabinet is positively considering the request.
Widespread wheelchair abuse is having devastating effects on services busiest EU airports are required to provide passengers with disabilities. European Regulation (EC)1107/2006 states that pre-notification is an essential element to ensure appropriate assistance is provided to passengers with special needs.
However, EU legislation also mandates airports to make all "reasonable efforts" to provide assistance to not pre-notified passengers. The not uncommon simultaneous arrival of large numbers of not pre-notified passengers inevitably triggers knock on effects on assistance services, leaving pre-notified passengers paying the highest price as they experience severe delays with assistance.
“We made it clear in last year’s guidelines that pre-notified passengers can be given precedence on non- pre-notified requests for assistance,” Ruth Lopian said.
However, airports and assistance providers often argue that the time collars set forth by Quality Standards response times with assistance to not notified passengers in ECAC’s Document 30, Part 1 are direct cause for delays for all assistance services.
“Document 30, Part 1 is an excellent reference document; however, it is a formidable guideline lacking legal status,” Jean Louis Colson said. “Airports can use Document 30, Part 1 to inspire drafting their own Quality Standards per Article 9.1 of (EC)1107/2006, but there is no obligation to follow it by the letter.”
Airports have room for manoeuvre when setting Quality Standards. The Regulation mandates that “airports shall set quality standards for the assistance specified in Annex I and determine resource requirements for meeting them, in cooperation with airport users, through the Airport Users Committee where one exists, and organisations representing disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility.”
While reference to Document 30 represents good practice, the document should be regarded as guidance and not mandatory structure for the crafting of Quality Standards.
Mr Colson confirmed the EU Commission point of view on the good state of application of (EC)1107/2006. In this respect, the Head of Passenger Rights Unit does not anticipate an imminent revision of the Regulation.
Facilitation of communication between passengers and National Enforcement Bodies can still be improved.
Reduced Mobility Rights found that lack of communication standards between NEBs and passengers may cause unnecessary frustration. In addition to this, some NEBs offer access to the complaint process only in the national languages.
“DG MOVE has no say on national policies of individual member states as regards the use of languages on national authorities' websites,” Ruth Lopian said.
Next March, Reduced Mobility Rights will publish its ground-breaking research on the impact on the air travel industry of invisible disabilities like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. The Study will be officially presented on 25 March 2014 at the Passenger Terminal EXPO2014 Conference in Barcelona, Spain.
“We are very interested in learning more about Reduced Mobility Rights research on invisible disabilities to evaluate their impact on future legislation concerning air travel and passenger rights,” Mrs Hinrikus and Mrs Lopian said.
The meeting ended on a cordial note with the exchange of information on guidance for airports and airlines to improve passenger access to disability information.