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Airports: Elderly and Disabled Passengers

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they have received about the treatment of elderly and disabled airline passengers at United Kingdom airports.

My Lords, the Government are advised in these matters by their statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which has recently advised the Government to consider lifting the exemption of air transport services from the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act concerning access to goods and services.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware that there are considerable discrepancies in the way in which elderly and disabled people, particularly those using wheelchairs, are treated by airports and by individual airlines? The introduction of the new EU regulation, which makes charging for assistance unlawful, is very welcome, but why is it necessary for us to have to wait another year before those provisions come in? In addition, is my noble friend aware that blind and partially sighted people have particular problems at our airports, especially with respect to the accommodation of their guide dogs?

My Lords, I am very concerned to hear the noble Lord’s first point. One reason why it will take a little longer for this regulation to be introduced is that we want to hear very clearly from those who have the misfortune of a disability or suffer an impairment due to frailty through age; we want to use that time to consult properly so that we can collect together their thoughts and reflections on how we implement the European regulation. For that reason, the process of implementation is two-stage, culminating in July 2008. We shall set out our thinking later this year through the consultation document.

I understand that the noble Lord’s second point raises the particular concern that some guide dogs have experienced difficulties at airports with regard to the issue of “spend”, which is a technical term.

My Lords, I am not aware that airlines do that but, if the noble Baroness has any information and details in that regard, I would be happy to pass it on, because airlines should not be following that practice.

My Lords, when will the Government take decisive action on this matter? We know what the Minister has said about preparing a consultative document, but when does he envisage that the Government will do something about this?

My Lords, the first swathe of the regulations will be implemented by July 2007 and, following further consultation, the second phase will be fully implemented by July 2008.

My Lords, background evidence suggests that no-frills carriers are among the worst at providing adequate support. Will the Government ensure that those carriers realise that if they do not look after this group of people they will acquire considerable bad publicity and the rest of their messages may well be overlooked?

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s point and am sympathetic to the thrust of his argument. One benefit of the EU regulation will be to put in place minimum standards and ensure consistent levels of service throughout all European airlines. That is one issue that the regulation should finally sort out.

My Lords, the assistance that airports and airlines are willing to provide is very welcome and the EU regulation is doubly welcome in that it will have a standardising effect on what airlines and airports are willing to do. Does the Minister recognise, however, that one problem at the moment is that inappropriate assistance may be offered? For example, blind and partially sighted people may be offered a wheelchair when that is not what they need; it would be much more appropriate, if it is a long distance to the gate, to have a buggy to take them there or even just sighted guiding assistance. Through the consultation process and in any guidance issued as a result on the implementation of the EU regulation, will the Government make it clear that disabled people should be asked what kind of assistance they would find most valuable?

My Lords, I am entirely with the noble Lord on his point; the code of practice should absolutely cover that. We are aware that the issue of appropriate assistance is real and should be dealt with through adequate training provisions, which the code of practice will cover.

My Lords, it is clear from the questions that we have all been heavily and well briefed by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I shall stick to what it has been asking so that we clear its sheet, as it were.

Will the Government’s assurances given during the passage of the Civil Aviation Act 2006—that airlines’ practice of charging for the checks required to comply with PETS will be outlawed in 2008 when the EU regulations are fully implemented—be honoured? What practical changes will be necessary for that to happen?

My Lords, we should of course honour that commitment. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware that booking services are already covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. It is reasonable to expect airlines to make reasonable adjustments to allow visually impaired people, in particular, to access services on equal terms. Under the new regulations it will be unlawful for airlines to charge a fee, for instance, for the carriage of assistance dogs. All of these issues are covered in the operation of the guidance.