While growing numbers of disabled people travel by plane, improvements to access to air travel cannot be taken for granted.
I think we can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that flying with a disability is much better today than it was just five years ago.
Processes and procedures aside, access to air travel has received its most significant boost from the widespread acceptance of disability as an integral part of the human landscape.
While most indicators point in a positive direction, two recent incidents offer food for thoughts while giving an insight into what still needs fine tuning.
Last October 23rd, 20-year-old Joshua Gardner made his way to Leeds Bradford airport to catch a flight to Paris.
Normally, Joshua boards and deplanes via an ambulift, a special vehicle that allows passengers to avoid stairs.
On October 23rd, the ambulift was not available. Joshua was carried on-board the plane by two members of staff. The young man was strapped to an aisle chair, then lifted up the stairs to the plane.
“It was humiliating and I felt unsafe about being carried in such a way,” Joshua said. Photo evidence confirms Joshua’s recollection of the events.
I have taken some time to gather additional information and analyze the incident. The legal framework mandates airports must help passengers with disabilities board and deplane. However, the law does not give guidance on how this should be done.
In Europe, only Norway bans manhandling and manual lifting. In all other countries, passengers can be enplaned by any mean.
Two years ago, I personally tested a C-MAX Stair climber. It’s a specially designed power aisle chair that can easily climb stairs. Although it is perfectly safe to operate and use, I was terrified.
With that experience in mind, I can only empathize with Joshua, even more so because in his case there were no safety features other than the physical power of the two helpers.
There is an additional consideration to make. The cost of assistance airports give disabled passengers is paid for by a small tax airlines charge all departing passengers. In the UK, the tax is on average 30 pennies per passenger.
This money is used to pay the salary of helpers and all the hardware needed to give assistance. In other words, the purchase of safe equipment is a cost neutral investment.
Everything considered it is simply unacceptable that Leeds Bradford airport do not have redundancy in place to ensure the safe and dignified boarding and deplaning for passengers with disabilities.
Relying on staffs to walk the extra mile at the expense of personal safety like in Joshua’s case should never be an option.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority has the technical and administrative tools to send a strong response to this incident.
Perhaps the time has come for the CAA to snap out of their benevolence and act to prevent future incidents that could, it is important to remember, cause physical injuries or worse.
A few days ago, 48-year-old Neil Boffey was traveling from Barcelona to Manchester. The stroke survivor was taken on-board the plane in a truly demeaning fashion. Strapped to the aisle chair, he was hauled like cargo in an angled position from the front door all the way to the rear of the plane.
All other passengers had already boarded the flight, making the incident even more embarrassing for the man and his family.
In Neil’s case, an ambulift had been deployed to help him board the plane. But for unknown reasons, the ambulift went to the front of the airplane, not the rear.
Barcelona El Prat airport denies responsibility, blaming Ryanair for the seating allocation.
Having reviewed the incident and all photographic evidence I have determined the full responsibility of airport staffs in this incident.
Staffs are told in advance which seat is allocated to the passenger. In Neil’s case, it is evident the ambulift went to the wrong door.
The two helpers who hauled Neil in such undignified manner did so to ease their task. It is unprecedented, and frankly unsafe, to push an aisle chair in such angled position.
I think these two incidents highlight what needs improvement. Access to air travel is a reality for most, but it is apparent airports still struggle to give the right level of assistance to those who are more dependent on others to go about their lives.
Meeting their needs in a safe and dignified manner is crucial to achieving inclusive air travel and give access to almost everyone.
These incidents are also a wake-up call to lawmakers and operators alike; the framework of facilitation is in urgent need of a major overhaul. Without it, flying with a disability in the future will not be as easy as it is today.