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Air Travel: Disabled Passengers

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 23 November 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of air travel for disabled passengers.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group. I thank the House of Lords Library for its helpful briefing, as well as Transport for All, Disability Rights UK and Rights on Flights for their continuous campaigning to improve the service that disabled people receive when trying to travel by air.

I emailed the group of disabled Peers prior to this debate and am grateful to those unable to attend today for their comments and to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for being here. Every single one of us has faced repeated problems, and our experience reflects that of the wider disabled community.

More than a decade ago, when I started using a wheelchair regularly, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, warned me that flying with a wheelchair was a fraught issue. A couple of days ago, she said to me:

“Until I gave up flying, I was regularly left on aeroplanes, sometimes for hours waiting for my power chair to be brought to the door of the plane. In the end I decided I simply couldn’t stand the stress anymore after my power chair was smashed by the bag handlers at Heathrow. I didn’t find out until we arrived in Canada and … was unable to use the chair independently (my husband had to push me everywhere) for the entire holiday. We could not find any repairers near enough to our location who stocked the part needed. I was not compensated and only after several complaining letters did I receive an apology”.

What has changed since then? Not a lot. Disabled passengers are still having to fight for their right to be able to use a plane, travel through an airport and rely on their wheelchairs and mobility equipment not being treated as baggage. Not only is failing to provide a safe service in breach of the UN charter for disabled people but it is legally discriminatory in the UK, the EU, the USA and many other countries. Worse, every glitch in the journey is emotionally exhausting. This is not like losing a suitcase. Damage to mobility aids can mean that you cannot get around in the country you are travelling to, and the level of payment, set internationally, when damage is done on the journey does not recompense for the actual cost of repairing the mobility aid or the hiring of an alternative, if that is even possible, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, told me.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, told me that he avoids flying whenever he can, because he feels he is treated like cargo, not a customer. Disabled passengers have to sit around and wait: check into the airport at least an hour before everybody else and wait on the plane, and wait on the plane while one’s chair is, or more usually is not, brought from the hold. That reminds me of arriving at Mexico City Airport and waiting for my wheelchair to arrive in the baggage reclaim area. British Airways had put it in the special wheelchair container—I wish everybody used those—and through the glass window I watched staff remove it from that then try to put it on the moving conveyor belt. Unsurprisingly, it got stuck because the chair was larger than the hole it was going through. It fell off the conveyer was damaged. That was not a good start to being a UNICEF visitor followed by an international conference.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, told us that it is the practice that we need to change, rather than just keeping stepping up enforcement, because enforcement is not working. Too many airlines send out messages that disabled people are just not welcome. He says that changing practice would ensure a win-win because smooth journeys mean an end to horror stories and a better reputation for the airline and service providers in the airport, even though it is only the airline that has responsibility under 1107/2006.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, told our group that he has been left on planes twice this year when ground staff forgot about him. On one occasion the pilot took him off the plane and even through passport control. The pressure for that, by the way, is that the new captain and crew for the next flight cannot come on board until the last passenger leaves. There is no comparable pressure on ground staff. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, also talked about the ridiculous process we have to fill in for our wheelchair dimensions and battery details when booking the flight, then again when the airline confirms the booking, then again when you check in online to get your seat, then again when you arrive at check-in and again when you arrive at the departure gate.

My experience of three flights this year has forced me to reconsider whether I should fly at all. In May I flew from Gatwick to Stockholm with Norwegian. All forms were repeatedly filled in, and Gatwick and Norwegian accepted my lightweight travel chair with two lithium batteries, carried into the cabin by ground staff for safety as per IATA guidance. After my conference I returned to Arlanda Airport. I got through check-in, again repeating battery details, but when I got to the plane the ground staff told me that the pilot had refused to allow the lithium batteries to be brought into the cabin because under IATA rules they cannot be in the hold. I asked to see the pilot, showed him my outward ticket from Gatwick and said, “But your colleague flew me out”. At that point he said, “Well, on this one occasion you can fly, but not again”. Thank goodness I had flown out with the same airline.

In September I flew Wizz Air from Luton to Vilnius for the day to speak at another international conference. I checked in to be told that my lithium batteries were now too big. They were not, according to the IATA chart, but the ground services manager refused to come to talk to me directly, so I had to leave my chair at Luton and fly without it. I was in considerable pain, and not just for that one day.

In October I flew Wizz Air from Bucharest to Luton after speaking at another international conference, this time about the barriers that disabled people face. This time I took my regular dry cell battery wheelchair—this one—to avoid the row about lithium batteries. The ground services manager in Bucharest had got his battery types muddled and would let me on the plane only if I personally carried them both into the cabin. These batteries are old-fashioned bus batteries. They are bigger than old-fashioned car batteries. I cannot lift even one of them easily, and under IATA guidance they are designed to remain in situ in the hold with the electrics immobilised. He refused to allow me on the flight. It cost me €900 to fly back with British Airways as there was only one seat available over the next 48 hours. Worse, the Wizz Air complaints system does not work for this type of problem because the flight was not delayed or cancelled. The CAA has now kindly put me in touch with a senior Wizz Air manager, but I was in despair for seven hours at Bucharest Airport that day.

Here is the problem. The current systems allow too many tiers of staff to make ill-informed decisions that muddle up different regulations and different types of batteries. In my role as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group I recognise the importance of keeping batteries safe and getting it right. IATA has two sets of guidance: the Battery-Powered Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Guidance Document and the Dangerous Goods Regulations, which sits with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air. The latter, the DGR, is related to commercial freight and differs entirely from the Battery-Powered Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Guidance Document, but it is not clear.

My first question to the Minister is: when will there be one clear international flowchart with one set of common data relating to wheelchairs and mobility aids and one standard for service for disabled passengers? There is much confusion about what is or is not included, and I fear that is often an underlying problem when things go so wrong. There are moves for a universally accepted wheelchair passport, which would help, but it must be recognised by all the airlines, not left to the whim of checking staff or even the pilot.

There must also be a standard for training staff and for ensuring that disabled people are not handed on from person to person. On one journey at Madrid airport, I was handled by four different people before I could get to my own chair. At one point, I was literally just dumped in front of a concrete wall airside and told to wait for the next person to arrive; I was on my own for nearly 15 minutes.

There are plenty of talking shops. I have sometimes been invited to the industry/departmental meetings convened by the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, in the past, as have other Peers, and it is good that disabled people and organisations are involved, but until there are real changes nothing will change. The examples that I have given today are repeated every day when disabled people travel. Everyone is horrified when they hear what has happened, but there is no urgency to solve it. The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said that if non-disabled people received this level of service it would simply be deemed unacceptable. Personally, I think there would be riots.

My last question to the Minister is: how can this Government get all the parties together to change what is happening? I do not mean just in the UK. This is a global problem that can be solved only by Governments, regulators and airlines coming together. It can and must be improved so that disabled people can travel and live their lives like everyone else.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for tabling this debate today and asking such pertinent questions. Nothing that she has said has surprised me. This issue is close to my heart, and working on this speech has been relatively cathartic.

As an athlete, I was privileged to be able to travel extensively, and with that have come many interesting experiences. The issue with being a disabled traveller is that the bad journeys are so horrendous that it is easy to think that getting on and off a plane in a vaguely timely manner, not being forced to sit in a special little room—which is claimed to be better for us—and not having a damaged chair is fabulous, when actually it is just what non-disabled people take for granted. When your view of travelling is so skewed to expect it to be bad, it is easy to see why things are slow to improve.

I do not mind checking in early, getting to the gate early, having to give up my day chair and not getting off until the end. I understand that, being disabled, I have to do things differently, but, even with all that, we do not have equality. I shall take a few moments to recount some of my favourite disasters. If I had the whole hour, that would still not be enough to cover them all.

When flying with my then young daughter, the two of us had preboarded but I was told that I was not a responsible adult to fly with her and that I needed to find someone, literally anyone—in fact, a stranger—to say that they would take responsibility for her.

Over the years, both my racing chair and my day chair have been severely damaged and even lost. One time my day chair was put on a completely different plane to me, which was incredible, seeing that it was carried down the steps and the hold door was right next to them. I realised, thanks to the length of time that I was left on the plane when I arrived back in Birmingham, that there was something wrong, and my day chair did not arrive. I was asked whether I really needed it. That is potentially a fair question, as not everyone is a permanent wheelchair user and I might have been able to use an airport chair. I was asked if I could walk and I said no, I was paralysed. The next question was, “Have you ever tried to walk?” Clearly I was missing the obvious: maybe I had just not tried hard enough.

Later, I was excited to be told that my missing item was going to be returned to me. When it landed on my doorstep, it was two sleeping bags with another person’s name on them going to a destination that I was nowhere near. The individual who dropped them off queried whether I actually knew what I had lost. When I said it was a wheelchair, I was asked whether I was sure it was a wheelchair. My day chair was returned to me several months later pretty much sawn in half, and I was offered £200 compensation for a £5,000 wheelchair.

Disabled people are asked to preboard to give us more time to allow the use of an aisle chair, but on one occasion, when the team did not turn up to help me on, the airline had to start boarding the rest of the plane. When I eventually managed to get on, the pilot announced to the whole cabin that we were late because of me. I have to say that I was angry for being blamed. I was not even accorded the courtesy of being called a wheelchair user; I was called “the wheelchair”. That has happened so many times.

Another time, when I was refused my day chair at the gate, even though it had a gate tag on it, I was blamed for delaying the next flight. My daughter was two years old and by that age we did not use a pram for her; she used to sit on my knee for longer walks, and the distance from the gate to baggage was too far for her to walk. The airport would not allow her to sit on my knee in the airport chair because it was not insured to carry two people. It was suggested that, if she could not walk that far on her own, perhaps she could crawl.

I have also been refused boarding after checking in because the pilot told me, “We already have three of you”. I am not entirely sure what the three of us were. I was travelling with the British team, so we had to work out which three of us should take the first flight to get to our destination in order to compete and which athletes could be left behind. On a different flight, I was asked whether I really needed my racing chair to compete. The answer was yes.

One airline told me that it had put me in a specific seat on the plane because if there was a problem it did not want me getting in the way of anyone else getting off and risking non-disabled people’s safety. In fact, in front of other people I was told that if the plane went down, I was not likely to make it off. I was clearly being told that my value as a disabled person did not exist. As disabled people, there are things that we know and do not need to be told, certainly not in front of other passengers. This happened when we were going off to compete in a major games.

Another airline sent me a form which asked me whether my impairment would cause offence to other passengers. When the airline then rang up to cancel my flight because it had decided my impairment was offensive—it told me that on the phone—I happened to have a TV crew at my house doing an interview about the competition I was trying to get to. That allowed me to get a full refund. The airline wanted to charge me for it cancelling my flight.

It is not just me. Wheelchair athlete Nikki Emerson said that when she flew to Australia for the Commonwealth Games airline staff told her she would “upset other passengers” by “climbing on the floor”. She had had to drag herself up the aisle after being told she would have to wait an hour to get to her seat from the toilet. I have also been refused access to toilets. I totally understand that the cabin crew cannot and should not assist inside the toilet, but because of the inaccessible nature of the cabin there should be a reasonable expectation of an aisle chair. The reality is that some airlines that run short-haul flights do not even have an aisle chair on board. Many might be surprised to know that “short haul” can include flights of up to four hours’ duration.

Victoria Brignell, who works at the BBC, was left on a plane at Gatwick for 90 minutes, and I despair of the number of times that Frank Gardner has posted about being abandoned. When I talk about train travel, I joke that I want the same miserable experience of commuting as everyone else, which I do not get, but I always hope for slightly better on planes. I know that Frank is not arguing for any special treatment, but if an airline cannot flag his name in the system and make sure that he gets on and off, given the amount he travels and his public profile, what hope is there for anyone else?

While airports and airlines call this unacceptable, change just does not happen. I commend Sophie Morgan on using her platform to highlight this issue using the hashtag #RightsOnFlights. Many are campaigning to ensure that disabled people who need to remain in their wheelchair, such as my noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton, are able to travel. I am really interested to see that some trials are now taking place that would stop people being discriminated against.

The reality is that we are always asked to be patient. We are treated as though it is the first time that it has ever happened when, quite frankly, it is not. Earlier this year I met the CAA, which was very helpful, but, sadly, I am now of the opinion that financial penalties are perhaps the only way things will change. It has gone on far too long and it is far too distressing for many disabled people. The time for excuses should now have passed, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Brinton for providing the opportunity for this important debate. Noble Lords will forgive me if I occasionally have to look over my shoulder; the only timer in the room is over there.

My experience of provision for people with disabilities when travelling is at one remove: my late husband, Steve Hitchins, had a leg amputated in 2015 to save his life from sepsis and, after a few months in a loaned wheelchair while the wound healed, was fitted with a prosthetic leg. This was heavy and unwieldy, given especially that the amputation was above the knee, so he could not walk very far and needed wheelchair assistance when travelling by air or train to get to or from the gate or platform. I learned a great deal about access problems in the four years before he died—of unrelated causes—in 2019. I came to the conclusion that provision for the protected characteristic of disability is not only 20 years behind that of other protected characteristics under the Equality Act but is flavoured too often with patronising pity rather than simple efficiency.

In the period that Steve used a wheelchair, he once found himself stranded inside the courtyard of Somerset House. It was the anxiety about how on earth he would get out, as much the inconvenience, that was so distressing. We took only a couple of flights, but my recollection is of quite a lot of toing and froing at the airport to check that the promised wheelchair assistance would materialise and anxiety as to whether it would appear in time. The problem is often the outsourcing of the service and lack of seamless communication. Because he was not taking his own wheelchair, Steve did not have the issues referred to by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.

The helpful Lords Library briefing tells us that, in their December 2018 consultation on the future of aviation, the Government noted that 70% of passengers who had requested assistance when flying in the previous 12 months were

“happy with the service provided”.

That is fine, but it means that 30%—almost one in three—were not. There seem to have been lots more consultation exercises and responses from both the Civil Aviation Authority and the Government than actual delivery of improvements.

In June last year, the CAA said that significant service failings were “unacceptable”. It warned airlines that they could face enforcement action regarding their legal obligations. What enforcement is actually happening? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. In June this year, the Government said it would seek to

“legislate when parliamentary time allows”—

in the time-honoured phrase—on enforcement powers of the CAA. We have learned in this House not to hold our breath regarding such promises. Can the Minister give us a date for such legislation? What is happening in the meantime on enforcement?

Many passengers—including, as we have heard, colleagues in this House—have been left stranded on planes without their wheelchairs being returned to them or with wheelchairs and other mobility aids lost or damaged, and the ensuing fight for compensation. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, has spoken about poor experiences and said that disabled people are

“routinely … told they are not allowed to fly on their own because of health and safety”.

To anyone who is, for instance, single or widowed, or for any reason whatever is travelling alone, for business or pleasure, this is a massive and patronising inconvenience.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, had a documentary on the BBC World Service last night, entitled “Tanni’s Lifetime Road to Disabled Equality”, about how not only in the UK but worldwide countries are still struggling with providing proper access for people with disabilities. One thing she highlighted—not about travel—was that 40% of the disabled people who lived in Grenfell Tower died in that fire. She campaigns on evacuation provision. As she said, the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, whose being stranded on a plane waiting for the return of his wheelchair hit the headlines, complained on the noble Baroness’s programme about being treated as an “invalid” or “special person” instead of a service user like any other with particular needs. He wants common-sense practice, not “policy”, to guide service.

My main experience with my husband was of train travel, so I will say something about that, if I may—I think my noble friend Lady Brinton is permissive on this score. Provision for him was pretty hit and miss, with lots of pre-booking and checking up necessary. It arrived, more often than not, though often with a delay or with it needing to be chased by phone, but a majority of times is not good enough. I do not know if the situation has improved these days, with apps, but being stranded on trains is reported regularly. People’s needs differ. I recall one hairy occasion at St Pancras when, getting off a Thameslink train, the only offer was a ramp, but that was of no use to Steve, by then on his legs. He could step down but the big gap between train and platform without well-placed grab rails was nerve-wracking. By the way, Steve found the grab rails in the new electric taxis not to be very convenient, but they are great otherwise.

In the programme I just cited, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, reminded us that step-free access to trains, once promised for January 2020, has been put back to—unless I misheard—2070. Can this possibly be true? Even if there is level boarding from platform to train, there remains the problem of reaching the platform. Disgracefully, it was proposed at one point that seven stations on the Elizabeth line would be denied disabled access for cost-cutting reasons. This was reversed after an outcry but, of all the things to cut, what a telling reaction it was that slashing disabled access was top of the list.

Lifts at stations are very often out of action, sometimes with a casual apology notice stuck on. I wonder if Network Rail and the train companies understand the devastation that can be caused by a broken lift. It means either a horrible struggle up the stairs with great difficulty, maybe with a suitcase, or simply being unable to travel. Breakdowns need fixing in a maximum of hours, not days—let alone weeks.

My worst experience with my late husband was on our last holiday abroad, in May 2019, to Amsterdam on a direct Eurostar train. It was ruined, despite Eurostar’s promise in its website’s “special assistance” section that:

“If you’re travelling with a disability or reduced mobility, free special assistance is there to help you get to and from the train. At many of our stations, you’ll be helped by our Eurostar Assist team; at some of our stations, you’ll be helped by the local team. Although some local teams provide a slightly different service, we work closely with them to make sure everything goes smoothly”.

When he arranged the service, my husband was not told that the Amsterdam station’s “slightly different service” meant no loan wheelchair to meet him off the train, such as was provided at St Pancras to get on it. It provided a ramp only to passengers travelling in their own wheelchairs. Eurostar later claimed that we should somehow have known that

“free special assistance … to help you get to and from the train”

did not include a wheelchair loan at Amsterdam, as it did at St Pancras, since we were reliant on a Dutch railway service. I pointed out that our contract was with Eurostar, not NS, the Dutch railways.

The train manager on the Brussels-Amsterdam section of the outward trip came to find us to say, “I know you are registered for assistance but there is in fact no wheelchair loan at Amsterdam”. He clearly understood that we would not know about that and would be hearing it for the first time. We had been allocated seats in the end carriage of the outward train, which I had not thought was a problem, given that we were going to get a wheelchair to the door of the train. When we did not, my husband had the longest possible walk to the lift, which was a physical challenge for him with his prosthetic leg and distressing for me to observe. Even the memory of it distresses me. This was anything but the promised smooth experience.

I will spare you the details of the ruined weekend, with me making phone calls all over the shop to Eurostar and, when the company told me to, to SNCB, Thalys and goodness knows what—even though it was Eurostar’s responsibility. I have recounted this tale at some length for the snapshot it gives of not only poor service and lack of communication but poor co-ordination between providers, disingenuous explanations and attempts to wriggle out of responsibility. That is common to all modes of travel. I expect the Government and/or regulators to stop all this.

I am sorry; I have gone on. The fact is that we have an ageing society where the demand for assistance from those with either disability or reduced mobility can only grow, so the urgent need is for all those access and assistance promises to finally be fulfilled.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Brinton for bringing us the opportunity for such an important debate. She has recounted some very sobering experiences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke, I recalled the apparent progress that we made during the 2012 Olympics in developing public understanding, appreciation and awareness of disability issues. Paralympic athletes such as the noble Baroness became our national heroes. My thought was: have we forgotten so soon? Has our society moved to ignoring these problems and issues again?

Of course, a change has occurred. Statistics show that requests for assistance for disabled passengers have doubled for airlines in the past two or three years. Those requests, as people decided to go on holiday and travel again after years of Covid restrictions, were being lodged at a time when the aviation industry had huge problems with recruitment, but some of the problems are not just transitory. They are endemic in the system.

When I was preparing for this debate, I was trying to analyse the source of the problems. Meeting these needs is a combination of provision by the airport and provision by the airline. One thing that is very useful indeed is the CAA’s annual survey and report on the record of individual airports. I am sure that the Minister will refer to this in this response. The CAA’s report shows that there have been improvements since what can be regarded only as the complete nadir in 2022—things have improved somewhat.

That report is important for two reasons. First, it incentivises the airports to improve their achievements and service, because they are named and shamed. Secondly, it is a source of information for people using wheelchairs who wish to travel, because you can pick out a better airport. It used to be that you avoided Luton at all costs but it has improved lately. What gives me real concern is that Heathrow seems to have a consistently poor record. That is our premier airport; it has the numbers to be able to provide a regular service and I cannot see why it does not consistently do well.

The other part of the jigsaw is the airlines. International lists of good airlines dealing with passengers with disabilities do not feature British-based airlines very much and that is a matter of concern to me.

My noble friend Lady Ludford talked about her Eurostar experience. I have never tried to board a plane in a wheelchair, but I needed a wheelchair last year, soon after my heart operation, when I got on the Eurostar. I have to say that I was treated brilliantly; the staff were absolutely lovely. The whole process was smooth—but I was not, of course, using my own wheelchair. I was using Eurostar’s and I could, with assistance, walk up a step, so it was not parallel to my noble friend’s experience with her husband. I hope the fact that I was treated so well suggests that, over the couple of years since the incident she recounted, things might have improved.

One problem is that this is partly an international issue, and we can control the British end better than we can control the further end of the journey. I also want to draw attention to the fact that airport services are remarkably fragmented: ground handling, luggage, catering, retail, security and passport control, bus transfers and the flight itself are all provided by different companies, and the co-ordination of those is a massive task. I am not trying today to reorganise the aviation industry but I wonder whether there might be a better way of co-ordinating it.

This debate has been overwhelmingly about aviation, but I suggest that a similar story could and should be told about railway services. On a weekly basis, on the trains that I travel on, I watch people in their wheelchairs—there are always people in wheelchairs on intercity services—who are worrying. You can see that they are not sure about the provision of services, and on a couple of occasions I have had to come to someone’s rescue by shouting at a member of staff further down the platform to make the point that there is someone waiting to get off. There is still a long way to ago.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, in his place fulfilling his duties as a Government Whip, having so recently been introduced to the House. We look forward to seeing much more of him.

What we are talking about here is a fundamental issue of equality and we clearly have to do something about it. I shall not speak for long on the issue; we have heard moving contributions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Ludford. The question is: what are the Government doing about it?

In the case of air travel, this is obviously primarily an international issue, so there is the difficult question of how one enforces standards across the EU, with the US and across the world as a whole, but there is no excuse for the poor treatment of people with disabilities on public transport in our own country. We have to do better than we are at present. The numerous reports of problems are really unanswerable.

What are the Government doing to monitor compliance with the relevant domestic legislation? In the case of airlines, is this something that they regard as the CAA’s responsibility and therefore the department does not have to do much, or is the department itself taking these questions seriously? If it is, what in the near future is it planning to do about it?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for asking this important question and all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Aviation passengers’ rights remain a priority and the Government are committed to ensuring that air travel is accessible for all. I am extremely sorry to hear of the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the other shocking experiences that have been unfolded in Grand Committee today. For what it is worth, in my role as a Minister I am responsible for maritime accessibility, so I take this very seriously.

My responses today relate to contributions made by all noble Lords. I will start by talking about the rights of disabled passengers and the Government’s position. We have been clear with industry that passengers should be provided with the best service possible, including providing services and support to disabled and less mobile passengers so that they can travel with ease and dignity. Failure in this area is totally unacceptable.

In the Civil Aviation Authority’s latest aviation consumer survey, 21% of respondents identified as having a disability or health condition. Out of these people, 58% stated that they had difficulty in accessing or using airports or flying, and 70% required assistance when flying. The Government are committed to tackling the barriers affecting disabled and less mobile passengers while flying. The department has consulted formally on accessibility and regularly engages with disability experts and people with lived experience to further understand the issues. The department is committed to continuing to work collaboratively to bring about positive changes in aviation accessibility. To help bolster understanding and drive improvements, the department works closely with the government-appointed Disability and Access Ambassador for Aviation, Ann Frye OBE, and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to ensure that disabled passengers’ voices are represented.

I recognise and take on board the notion that this is a global issue and must be addressed accordingly. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, is quite correct to point out that this is a matter of equality. The Government are working actively with other countries at a European level through the ECAC and internationally with the ICAO.

Following consultation, the Government have committed to a range of legislative reforms, when parliamentary time allows, and non-legislative measures to improve air passenger rights for all passengers, first to remove the compensation cap for damaged wheelchairs on domestic UK flights through legislation. The Government will also work with industry to encourage voluntary waiving of this cap on international flights. It is important that when industry is in breach of its obligations to consumers, there are means of addressing this. Therefore, the department will take forward legislation to give the CAA additional enforcement powers: for example, the power to issue fines. Additionally, alternative dispute resolution membership for all airlines operating to, from and within the United Kingdom will be mandatory, so that all passengers can escalate complaints no matter who they choose to fly with. The right training is vital for the sector to understand the needs of disabled and less-mobile passengers. That is why the department launched a new training module for industry on handling powered wheelchairs to help mitigate damage to these vitally important items.

On stakeholder engagement, my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton, the previous Aviation Minister, hosted a round table with accessibility experts in June 2023. This focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by disabled and less-mobile passengers and what more could be done to address these. The round table was invaluable in identifying key areas that could be reformed. The department is now taking forward discussions with industry to drive forward improvements in the sector focusing on these key issues, including, for example, training, data sharing, complaint handling and infrastructure. The department is committed to continuing its engagement with industry and stakeholders to make air travel enjoyable and comfortable for everyone. To help drive improvements, the Government work closely with the government-appointed Disability and Access Ambassador for Aviation whom I mentioned earlier, and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, to ensure that disabled passengers’ voices are represented.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, talked about the Civil Aviation Authority’s role. We have a regulatory framework that sets out the rights of disabled and less mobile passengers when flying, which is enforced by the CAA. The recent public body review of the CAA looked at the efficiency, effectiveness, governance and accountability of the CAA as a whole, including the use of its current consumer protection enforcement powers. The independent review reported that the CAA is a highly effective regulator. The CAA is committed to its role to consumers, which is evident from several key initiatives, including the release of a recent airport accessibility performance report, the ongoing consultation on introducing a similar airline performance framework, the assessment of airline website accessibility and the publication of a new consumer strategy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned staff training. Training is key to ensuring that staff across the aviation sector understand the needs of disabled passengers. The ministerial round table with disability experts in June 2023 raised staff training as one of the key barriers to disabled people’s confidence to fly. UK law obliges all staff to receive appropriate disability awareness training. The department will work with industry to understand what issues or gaps, if any, exist and will consider ways to address these. The department published a free online disability awareness and equality training package for all transport mode operators, including aviation, in November 2020. The REAL training programme was created to improve the sector’s confidence and skills in delivering inclusive journeys for disabled passengers. The department launched a new module as part of the REAL programme in June for handling powered wheelchairs; the training focuses on the importance of careful handling and the impact that any damage has on the passenger.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also talked about seating on board aircraft. We strongly believe that everyone should have equal access to air travel. Under UK law, airlines are required to make all reasonable efforts to arrange seating to meet a disabled passenger’s needs, including seating a travelling companion next to the passenger. While there is no legal requirement for airlines to offer free or discounted seats to an accompanying person, it is the CAA’s view that it is best practice for airlines to do so where they require a disabled or less mobile passenger to travel with an accompanying person. Airlines are allowed to request an accompanying person only due to safety concerns: for example, if a passenger could not evacuate the aircraft in an emergency.

On non-visible disabilities, providing accessible aviation to all passengers is a government priority. As I mentioned earlier, the CAA has published guidance for both airlines and airports on providing assistance to passengers with non-visible disabilities. In fact, the Government’s Disability and Access Ambassador ran an excellent session with industry and experts on a new UK standard for the built environment and neurodiversity, called “Design for the Mind”. The session considered how the airport environment can be better designed and managed to be an enjoyable environment for neurodiverse people. The Government are working with experts following this session to understand what practical steps can be taken.

On accessible toilets on board aircraft, there is already guidance on accessibility requirements under UK law that airlines are expected to follow, including guidance on accessible toilets on different aircraft types. The CAA has recently reinforced, in its consultation on an airline accessibility performance framework, that airlines must meet the requirements set out in the guidance, including providing assistance to and from the toilet via an on-board wheelchair in order to meet their legal obligations.

Airport security screening was mentioned. As I said, the Government are committed to ensuring that flying is enjoyable and accessible for everyone, and the department is engaging with industry to identify ways that this can be achieved for the entire passenger journey. All passengers must be screened effectively, and, as far as possible, disabled and less mobile passengers will be screened to the same standard and in the same way as other passengers. Where passengers are not able to be screened in the usual way, an alternative method will be used that may take slightly longer. Security officers are expected to make reasonable adjustments when screening or searching passengers with a disability.

The reports we have seen in recent years about the mistreatment of disabled and less mobile passengers travelling by air are, as I said earlier, completely unacceptable. The department is committed to making aviation accessible and enjoyable for everyone, and there are plans in place, both legislative and non-legislative, to drive this forward. There is legislation in place to protect the rights of passengers, and the CAA will take enforcement action, where necessary, to protect the rights of consumers. The industry has made some real changes over the last year to improve the service it provides to consumers, including disabled and less mobile passengers, and this is evident in the CAA’s most recent report on airport accessibility performance. However, there is more to do, and the department and the CAA will continue to work collaboratively with industry to focus on improving the accessibility of aviation and the service provided to passengers.

The Government are clear that all passengers must be treated with respect and dignity while travelling by air. It is vital that government, the CAA, industry and accessibility stakeholders continue to work together to making flying an enjoyable, safe and comfortable experience. I thank noble Lords for their input on this important issue.

Sitting suspended.