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Improve the experience of passengers requiring assistance at UK airports

5 min read

Ahead of his question in the House of Lords on Thursday 3rd May, Lord Blunkett writes for PoliticsHome on improving the experience of passengers requiring assistance when travelling through airports in the UK.

Back in March of this year, the renowned security editor of the BBC Frank Gardner found himself left high and dry on an incoming aircraft from across the world.

Having travelled overnight, he found that his wheelchair had been taken out of the hold and whisked away into a terminal rather than to the door when it clearly belonged!

As someone who has only just recently acquired a new guide dog after five months without, I not only sympathised with him but understood entirely his frustration about independence, dignity and of course mobility.  It's only when you don't have these things readily available that you know just how much you miss them.

As it happens I have a role with the chairmanship of the easyJet Special Assistance Advisory Group and work closely with Roberto Castiglioni who chairs the Heathrow Accessibly Advisory Group, on his work in relation to airports.

My question on Thursday, 3rd May to the Lords transport Minister Baroness Liz Sugg arose from the fact that the Government in responding to the publicity around Frank Gardner's experience, indicated that they would be coming forward in the course of the year with further proposals to encourage and perhaps tighten up the use of regulation, and the improvement in joining up the work of airlines with that of airports.

What has struck me in the time I've been involved with trying to improve the experience of passengers, is the fact that this is not just a two-way but a three way street – and much more.

It involves airports and the work of the CAA, regulation (both domestic and European), and above all the important connectivity with airlines flying in, and the service provider offering backup and assistance to passengers requiring an extra help.  Bizarrely often known as Passengers with Restricted Mobility – although the actual service applies to all kinds of people with hidden disabilities as well as those with the obvious need to have some guidance or support through the airport, and on and off the plane.

Baggage handling has become a real issue.  Frank’s case highlighted the importance of having minimum obligations which reflect what we would normally have called “common sense" in terms of what happens with wheelchairs.  Campaigners have already achieved a great deal in terms of on-board wheelchairs (designed to be able to access the gangways) and an ongoing campaign to see if adaptations could be made to allow some wheelchairs to actually be slotted in to the cabin.

This is not just about social responsibility or reputational gain, is actually a win-win.  If airports and airlines get this right with those whose services they purchase, the experience of passengers requiring assistance will improve but so will the generality of the way in which the processes work, embarkation and disembarkation will become faster and smoother, and there will be a knock-on effect in terms of the quality of service to everyone else.  And yes, the airline and the airport will gain.  There are genuine financial and economic savings from getting this right even though initial expenditure is required on sensible things like training, basic quality standards when contracting for services, adaptations to the physical environment and of course the important area of usable and accessible technology at all stages of the journey.

It will be important when Britain has left the European Union that we are still engaged with, and part of the broader endeavour.  By its very nature, travel does not respect boundaries and therefore signing up to and seeking to improve the regulatory framework, and adhering to it, is an imperative not an add-on.

In some areas legislation might need improvement but in many, existing regulations properly enforced and the weight of government placed behind basic adherence to standards, can make an enormous amount of progress, often without a great deal of expense.

This is about “people like us", and anyone who has a relative requiring support, will know that most families have someone who at some time, will want the beneficial outcome of the work that is now underway.

All of us hope to continue travelling and enjoy a quality of life in old age, all of us would in my view want to see those with a disabled child able to fly around the world with a degree of understanding, that's why this matters.


Lord Blunkett is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords.


Scope have responded to Lord Blunkett. James Taylor, Head of Campaigns, Public Affairs and Policy at Scope said 'Our research shows businesses - from transport operators to financial service companies to retailers - too often fail to recognise the needs of disabled consumers. As a result they could be missing out on their share of  £420 million of revenue a week. All companies need to get better at serving disabled consumers, and charities and disabled people’s organisations are ready and available to support them.'

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