Helen Whately: In our increasingly connected world, it’s unacceptable for disabled people to be excluded

Posted On: 
4th February 2019

While able-bodied people have benefited from the freedoms and opportunities that come with cheap, easy air travel, for disabled people flying is too often a frustrating ordeal. My bill would ensure their needs are no longer ignored, writes Helen Whately

"My bill includes provisions to make the whole journey better for disabled people, from when they arrive at the airport to navigating the terminal and getting on and off the plane."
Credit: 
PA

My surgeries are generally a mix of people seeking help with their individual situations and groups wanting to discuss a local issue. But from time to time a constituent will come with something that stands out as a national problem that clearly can and must be solved.

When Dustin West came to my surgery, in his wheelchair, to tell me about his frustration with airports, it was one of those moments. He told me how he had nearly missed a flight because of a lack of disabled parking spaces, and it dawned on me how difficult air travel must be if you are a wheelchair user. While great progress has been made for accessibility on buses and trains, planes are another story.

As I began to investigate, account after account emerged of the frustrations faced by disabled people flying. Every aspect of air travel can be a trial if you’re disabled. At the same time, the situation suddenly started hitting the headlines. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner tweeted about his hour and a half spent alone on an empty plane at Heathrow while staff scrabbled about looking for his wheelchair. And a video of a severely disabled man dragging himself across the concourse at Luton airport (after his wheelchair was left behind on a flight) went viral.

These incidents have rightly shocked people, but for some they are all too familiar. While able-bodied people have benefited from the freedoms and opportunities that come with cheap, easy air travel, the needs of disabled people have too often been overlooked. If you’re deaf or blind, it’s easy to miss announcements or get lost. Staff at the check-in desks may not be trained to recognise disabilities and know how to help, especially if a condition is hidden, like autism.

Disabled people have told me that being manoeuvred into your seat in front of the entire plane can be mortifying, and risky if the person assisting isn’t properly trained. Once in their seat, a disabled person often can’t get out, even to go to the toilet. I’ve heard that people avoid drinking water for hours before a flight and wear incontinence pads.

Wheelchairs can be lost or broken during the flight, leaving passengers stranded when they arrive. In a world that’s getting ever more connected, many jobs demand frequent travel – and it’s unacceptable for disabled people to be excluded.

Airports and airlines are aware of these problems and many have been trying to do better. But the consensus among the disabled people I have spoken to is that progress is patchy and, all the while, they are having to deal with difficulties or miss out on opportunities that involve air travel.

So, in July 2018 I introduced the civil aviation (accessibility) bill 2017-19. My bill includes provisions to make the whole journey better for disabled people, from when they arrive at the airport to navigating the terminal and getting on and off the plane.

It would introduce a minimum proportion of disabled parking bays at airports. It would encourage airlines and airports to improve staff training so that they know how best to help disabled people, including people with hidden disabilities. And it seeks to improve compensation for customers, particularly when a wheelchair is damaged in the hold – which can cost thousands of pounds.

One of the problems disabled passengers have when things go wrong is that the airlines and airports disagree about who is at fault. That’s why my bill would require a named person at the airline or airport to be responsible for a disabled passenger so there’s no more passing the buck. Looking longer term, it would establish a working group for aircraft design so that planes are built with disabled people in mind.

It has felt like a very timely campaign because, in parallel, the government has been working on an inclusive transport strategy and a new aviation strategy. Both lead ministers – Nus Ghani and Baroness Liz Sugg – were keen to discuss the proposals in the bill. Aviation 2050 – the green paper for the aviation strategy – included many of the proposals, including increasing the compensation for damaged wheelchairs and looking at redesigning planes to be more accessible for disabled people.

When I introduced my bill, I knew that it would struggle to make it on to the statute book. But the fact that it’s had such a clear influence on the government’s strategy shows that private member’s bills can be an effective lobbying tool and a chance for backbenchers to make a real difference.

The aviation strategy is going in the right direction, but there is more to do. We still need better parking facilities at airports for disabled people, and a named person to hold to account if there are failings at any part of a passenger’s journey.

We have to make sure that airports and airlines focus on the most difficult problems to solve first, rather than heading for the low-hanging fruit and calling it job done. Complaints and compensation must recognise the particular difficulties for disabled passengers and make the industry change their ways to meet the needs of these passengers.

There’s still a long way to go before catching a flight is as accessible as taking a bus, but simple changes like this will help end the dread many disabled people feel about flying, and make it fairer.   

Helen Whately is Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent