Whenever traveling by air it’s crucial to let the airline know of any specific need, a process commonly called prenotification.
In the past few years, most airlines worked very hard to make sure passengers can let them know of their individual needs when booking a flight either via their website or through dedicated call centres.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for bookings made through travel agents. This is shameful for two reasons: differently able people are more likely to book their flights through travel agents who usually charge a premium for their services.
Last week I attended an event focusing on building awareness on accessible air travel. A recurrent concern shared across attendees is that far too often the information they provide travel agents gets lost in translation.
Thankfully, this is not the case with those travel agents who specialize in flights and holiday packages for differently able passengers.
Travel agents such as Enable Holidays, who sell bespoke accessible holidays abroad for wheelchair users, people with limited mobility and their travel companions always make sure the information they receive from their customers is correctly passed on to the airline.
Why prenotification is crucial to a smooth and pleasant journey is quite simple: the information a passenger gives the airline is passed on to airports and cabin crew so that the best possible assistance is given on the day of travel.
European law is clear on the subject. Airlines or their ticket agents must make essential information available to passengers with special needs at the time of booking.
Furthermore, travel agents and tour operators shall take all measures necessary for the receipt at all their points of sale, including sale by telephone and via the Internet, of notifications of the need for assistance made by differently able persons and forward the information to the airline at least 36 hours before the flight.
In the UK, most travel agents are members of the trade association ABTA. Article 6.C of ABTA's Code of Conduct states that all members shall "comply with all relevant statutory and regulatory requirements."
On August 2013, Reduced Mobility Rights published a damning report exposing the fact that all but two UK online travel agents were not in compliance with the law.
Following our report, ABTA management agreed more needed to be done to improve the quantity and quality of information available to passengers with special needs on members’ websites.
Three and a half years later, travel agents’ customers still report significant problems with the quality of information they receive and the fact information they provide is not passed on to airlines.
Breakdowns in communication translate in a long wait for assistance at airports and sometimes even missed flights, a nightmare scenario for everyone, a tragedy for those who rely on the help of others to travel.
These complaints tell us ABTA have a legal and moral obligation to stop dancing around the issue and ensure all its members give passengers the type of service they are entitled to.
The time for window dressing, sugar coating, and empty pledges has come and gone. This is time for open heart surgery to uproot communication gaps for good.
Mind you: I am not telling the trade association to reach for the stars or re-invent the wheel. ABTA can take resolute and swift action by learning best practice from members like Enable Holiday and make their handling of bookings for differently able customers the benchmark for all members.