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Disabled Air Passengers

Volume 834: debated on Monday 4 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure disabled air passengers are able to travel safely and with their equipment, including wheelchairs.

My Lords, the Government are clear that everyone should be able to travel by air safely and with dignity, and they are committed to working with industry and the Civil Aviation Authority to achieve this. The department is committed to reforms that will help protect all passengers, including disabled passengers, and has ongoing engagement with industry and consumer stakeholders to identify ways to continue to improve aviation accessibility.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and I pointed out in a debate in Grand Committee last month, many disabled air travellers face repeated problems whenever they fly, including airline ground managers and pilots at airports making personal decisions about equipment, including wheelchairs, and refusing access to a plane, even if their decision does not follow IATA guidance. Will the Minister agree to a meeting with me, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, the Civil Aviation Authority and IATA to discuss how this can be remedied?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her Question and congratulate her on the debate that we had last week. I know that my predecessor hosted a round table on aviation accessibility on 28 June this year. The round table was well attended by disability experts and people with lived experiences, and of course staff training was one of the issues that came up. There was a clear indication of issues with the quality of disability awareness training for staff. So, yes, I would be very happy to meet the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the Government have previously referred to a range of legislative reforms when parliamentary time allows to support disabled air passengers. Will these be introduced before the next general election? If the Minister cannot give that assurance, does that represent the priority that the Government give to this issue?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, but I am afraid that I cannot give an answer to that as I stand here. It is above my pay grade to decide what the legislative business will be for the rest of this year.

My Lords, some airports have a much worse record than others. Unfortunately, Heathrow Airport has a poor record, going back over a long period. That is a matter of particular concern because it is our largest airport and it is likely to give the UK a poor reputation abroad. What are the Government doing to ensure that all UK airports come up to a much better standard? Some of them are already delivering—but far from all of them.

The Department for Transport has released a new training module on handling powered wheelchairs, for example; it forms part of the department’s training programme. The CAA is responsible for enforcing UK legislation on aviation accessibility and takes action where needed—but I take the noble Baroness’s point about Heathrow in particular.

My Lords, over many years I have been very involved with the disabled and cruise liners. Following on from what the noble Baroness just said, some airports are better than others. However, in practice, the real problem is people working together. The cruise operators with which I am involved have a special unit that works together with airports in every conceivable way to help passengers, including those who may board their ships as well. The key part is what the noble Baroness mentioned just now: somebody in the airport must have the final authority—that is, not needing to seek authority—on how to bring together the various items that people need. I do not think that that necessarily means government support but, in practice, I suggest that we are on the way there now.

At the round table hosted by my noble friend Lady Vere, there was a clear indication that there were issues with the quality of disability awareness training for staff. Anecdotal evidence suggested that staff were not aware of how to provide appropriate assistance to people with different needs, including non-visible disabilities. So there is much to do; I fully appreciate that.

My Lords, in view of the answer we just heard to my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, will the Minister, recognising that an answer to that question might be above his grade, give an undertaking to my noble friend to at least accommodate the question and go back to the person at whose grade it is, in order to see whether some kind of meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, could take place?

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, 42 years ago, when I introduced what became the Disabled Persons Act 1981, this issue arose and we were assured that there were other ways of sorting it out and that it did not need legislation? What is the problem that has taken 40 years and more to resolve? Surely successive Governments must take this issue more seriously and get it done.

With great respect to the noble Lord, I think this Government do take it seriously. The department certainly takes it seriously; I take it seriously. Within my ministerial role, I have responsibility for disabilities within the maritime sector, and I take that very seriously—and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Transport do.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for pointing out that not all disabilities are visible. The use of the sunflower lanyard can be useful, but some people feel that it is stigmatising to wear such a lanyard. Is there a date fixed for a follow-up to that round table discussion? Has there been a request to airport authorities to report, at such a meeting, an audit they have undertaken of the different aspects of disability, which might also include access to toileting for people in some of the larger airports?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I am not aware of a date as I stand here, but I will inquire into it and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in answer to previous questions, my noble friend the Minister referred to a meeting that our noble friend Lady Vere had with the industry and others. Can he tell us whether concrete steps were agreed at that meeting, and what they were? If he does not have the answer now, maybe he could write to me.

I can tell my noble friend that the discussions highlighted inconsistencies in the way passengers can provide the information to the industry that is needed to get appropriate assistance. It was also noted that the information the passenger has provided is not always accurately recorded and might not be shared with all operators—for example, the airlines, the airport and the assistance provider. Of course, this results in passengers having to provide the information several times during the journey, which can be intimidating or cause anxiety. I know that this, in particular, was an issue that was raised at that time.

My Lords, I have been following this subject for almost as long as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. All Governments have failed to bring the people responsible together, so that a person in a wheelchair cannot rely on a coherent transition through the process. Surely it is time that this House, and possibly the rest of Parliament, got together, banged together the heads of those running airports and airlines and told them that it is unacceptable?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord and suggest that that is under way as a result of the round table of the noble Baroness, Lady Vere.

My Lords, might it not be particularly helpful to draw the airframe manufacturers into this discussion as soon as possible? They surely could set a standard that should then be led by all their customers.

My noble friend makes a very good point. I know that that is under way with some aircraft manufacturers, particularly in terms of toilets on board aircraft and the ability of people in wheelchairs to access those toilets.