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How disabled people face broken air travel - and broken wheelchairs

(Peter Schatz / Alamy Stock Photo)

7 min read

The shine has come off air travel for most of us since the pandemic, but for disabled people wishing to take to the skies, flying is increasingly a frustrating ordeal. Tali Fraser reports.

Helen Dolphin had been looking forward to her family holiday in Lanzarote for months. Having survived meningitis in her 20s, the 47-year-old is a quadruple amputee and uses a wheelchair to get around. But in August, during the short period between dropping her wheelchair off at the airport and picking it up in Spain, part of her chair was unscrewed and lost.

“I didn’t realise until I was exiting a lift and my chair just tipped back and I fell out,” she says. Dolphin went on to fall backwards three times over the next two days. “It ruined my holiday because I couldn’t get it fixed while I was there. It tainted it,” she adds, “the whole point of taking my chair was so I could be independent and then I couldn’t be.”

It became clear that while in transit the anti-tip bars at the back of her light-weight powered travel chair had been removed, she thinks, because they may have stuck out and not fit neatly in the hold.

“If it didn’t fit, I am sort of OK with them taking them off, just as long as they reattach what they took from my chair. They didn’t even Sellotape them to the seat so I could do it!”

Dolphin’s experience is not uncommon for wheelchair users, but the route to compensation is unclear, with airlines obliged to pay passengers a maximum of only £1,200 when their luggage is lost or damaged, a figure set by the international Montreal Convention in 1999. Campaigners say this discriminates against disabled passengers, with a suitcase of clothes treated the same as a wheelchair.

Amy Wilson, 40, has experienced wheelchair damage while flying on several occasions. The backrest of her chair was broken on returning from Spain to Manchester; she once arrived in Paris to find her wheelchair deconstructed and the pieces left on the airport floor; and another time landed in Majorca to find a damaged wheel which her hotel’s handyman ended up fixing. All three incidents required her to take time off work while her wheelchair was mended. “It makes you feel so alone,” she says.

“Flying is an experience you really don’t want to do very often,” she adds, “the highlight of the holiday ends up being the moment I get back in my wheelchair and it is all OK, because then I can relax.”

Athena Stevens, 38, who has cerebral palsy, was left without a wheelchair for months after her £25,000 chair was broken during a flight from London to Glasgow. She reached a settlement only after media attention around her case led to her receiving an anonymous email suggesting she contact BA’s head of legal directly.

There is an option for travellers with expert mobility equipment to make a special declaration when they check in for their flight; this acts like an insurance policy, covering goods worth more than the rate set in the Montreal Convention (it can also be used for things like golf clubs). Airlines cannot deny passengers a declaration, but most charge a fee. It is available only on request and even then airlines can set their own limits on compensation, often with a cap of £4-5,000.

Wilson, whose wheelchair cost £10,000, had never heard of the special declaration before her chair was damaged. She says disabled people have so much extra work to do while trying to fly that “we shouldn’t be expected to do even more”. Dolphin thinks ministers need to act to protect wheelchair users, and sooner rather than later. “Too many people suffer from breakages and damages for them to not intervene, whether that is a requirement on the airlines to be better or something else.”

The highlight of the holiday ends up being the moment I get back in my wheelchair and it is all OK

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), which advises the government on the transport needs of disabled people, says the special declaration is “discriminatory and potentially illegal,” because if disabled customers want to protect their wheelchairs, they effectively have to pay more to travel.

Keith Richards, chair of DPTAC, told The House there are two main issues with the special declaration. First, levels of awareness are “so low, it is maybe one in 500 of wheelchair users”. Second, the payment cap “completely ignores the importance of the equipment”.

He believes equipment like wheelchairs should be taken out of international conventions limits so airlines are forced to take responsibility for damage they cause. Richards suggests national governments could act unilaterally to secure the move, rather than waiting for changes internationally. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission had previously called for British air carriers to cover the full cost of damage to wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Ann Frye, the government’s access and disability ambassador on airports, says: “If you have a very expensive, custom-built wheelchair, that could easily reach £40,000 to £50,000, so the whole business of compensation is out of kilter.”

Frye says she has received positive noises from inside government about the prospect of securing more appropriate compensation and to reducing current levels of damage.  “There is a desire from the Department for Transport to do this,” she adds. “I think there is more momentum now to get something done… we could take our own national initiative to set our own level of compensation, certainly.” The Department for Transport is conducting a review of the responses to their Aviation Consumer Policy Reform Consultation that was published earlier this year and will be setting out their next steps soon. The consultation included reforms to compensation for damaged and lost wheelchairs for UK domestic flights. But Frye adds that a large part of the issue is wheelchairs often being handled by ground staff employed by airlines “who are paid to work as quickly as they can – and often without the proper information”.

The whole business of compensation is out of kilter

Scottish Nationalist MP Lisa Cameron, who is chair of the Disability APPG, wrote to the last transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, to discuss what she describes as a lack of training across transport networks to support disabled passengers. She says: “There should be some training protocol for airlines to manage this particular type of baggage that is clearly very different to a suitcase. It needs to be resolved.

“Wheelchair users shouldn’t be sat on an airplane worrying about whether their wheelchair might tip over when they land,” she says.

In one positive move, Frye is in the process of developing an online training programme for airlines to teach staff how to properly handle wheelchairs.

Wilson welcomes the development and hopes it would become mandatory for airlines: “I would really like training to be in place because it is so annoying to have to constantly try to explain to people how to look after your wheelchair and then not have it mean anything because it still ends up damaged.”

Marion Fellows, another SNP MP, says airlines should face consequences, accountability and fines when they fail, something she plans to take up with the new disability minister. “The norm should be that it is safe, easy and not stressful for wheelchair users to fly,” she adds. “It should be the norm that your wheelchair is in the same condition as when you leave it and that is to do with training.” Fellows suggests fines from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as one solution.

Stevens agrees, saying “the only way something is going to happen is with fines.” She adds: “There needs to be some form of accountability.”

Over the summer the government, alongside the CAA, wrote to the aviation industry setting out expectations for their legal obligations to consumers, including assistance for disabled passengers, to be met.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We want all forms of transport to be accessible for everyone, particularly disabled people and those with reduced mobility.

“We have recently sought views on protections for disabled airline passengers – including additional enforcement powers for the CAA and compensation for wheelchairs damaged or lost on UK domestic flights – and will set out our response in due course.”

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