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House of Commons Hansard
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Civil Aviation (Accessibility)
24 July 2018
Volume 645

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the accessibility of air travel for people with disabilities; to establish requirements about parking at airports for people with disabilities; to require airports and airlines to report steps taken to improve accessibility; to require a named person to be responsible for air passengers with disabilities; to make provision about the design and adaptation of aircraft to meet the needs of passengers with disabilities; and for connected purposes.

Uncomfortable, unsafe and undignified: those words sum up the experience of air travel for many disabled people. Imagine being strapped into a chair and hoisted up on to a plane in front of dozens of other waiting and watching passengers. One wheelchair user told me that that made him feel like a circus act. Then there is the waiting, with disabled passengers sitting in the plane while their friends, family or colleagues are already well through arrivals. That hit the headlines earlier this year when Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, was left on an empty plane at Heathrow for an hour and a half while staff scrabbled about looking for his wheelchair. His angry tweet was liked over 10,000 times and retweeted nearly 5,000 times.

Some of us are looking forward to foreign holidays over the recess, but flying is not a luxury and it is not just for leisure. In a world that is becoming ever more connected, many jobs demand frequent air travel, as my colleagues from Scotland and Northern Ireland will know. It is unacceptable for those jobs to be unavailable to disabled people: that is discrimination. I first became aware of this problem when my constituent Dustine West, who has a spinal injury, came to my surgery and told me that he had driven to Gatwick last year only to find that all the disabled parking bays were full, despite having pre-booked one.

If that is how difficult it is just to arrive at the airport, imagine what the rest of the journey is like. Once the person gets to the airport, staff at the check-in desk may not be trained to recognise their disability and might not know how to help them, especially if it is a hidden disability such as autism or dementia. If the person is deaf, they will not hear an announcement of a last-minute change of gate and might end up missing their flight as a result. As a wheelchair user, they may be the last person to board, manhandled into their seat in front of a packed cabin—a mortifying experience. Once they are in their seat, they cannot get out, even to go to the toilet. I have heard that people avoid drinking water for hours before a flight so that they are not caught short, and also use incontinence pads. I was told about a disabled teenage boy being ordered to evacuate his bowels before boarding the plane—ordered to do so.

During the flight, the wheelchair may be stored in the hold and could be lost. It is annoying when the airline loses your suitcase, but if you lose your wheelchair, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is like you or me losing our legs. If it is not lost, it may be damaged. Airlines pay about £1,500 in compensation for damaged equipment, but that is only a fraction of the cost of a wheelchair, especially a modern power wheelchair. For instance, a young woman told me about her first business trip at a new company. It was a day trip to Frankfurt with the team manager, with a packed schedule of meetings but no leeway allowed for all the extra time that would be required because she was in a wheelchair. They were late to arrive and had to leave early. The culmination was several hours waiting at the end of the day at Heathrow because the airline broke her wheelchair. There was no insurance that would cover it, so she had to pay the bill herself, although fortunately she was able pass it on to her employer, but that is another unhelpful disincentive to employing people with disabilities.

These stories are common, but thankfully not every journey is like this. I have heard some good stories. One disabled traveller spoke highly of Virgin and how well prepared it was to support her. I am told that Spain has an excellent system at its airports called “sin barreras”, or “without barriers”, which means that people get a consistently good, standardised experience across airports. However, experiences vary between airports, between airlines, and between routes. That lack of consistency means that disabled people never know what to expect when booking a flight.

The Government have recognised this and have been working closely with the airlines and airports to make improvements. The Government’s latest document on their aviation strategy refers to the importance of training for airline and airport staff in helping people with disabilities, and the need to look at future aircraft design, including how to make sure that planes have disabled toilets. We are already seeing improvements. The Civil Aviation Authority’s report on accessibility, which was published two weeks ago, classified 16 airports as “very good”—that is up from six in the previous year—but there is more that can and should be done to make travelling by air with a disability easier every step of the way.

This Bill will help to make flying more accessible for all—it will make flying fairer. First, it will mandate a minimum proportion of disabled parking bays in airports and make the industry look at how to make dropping off disabled passengers easier. If a carer is needed in order to travel, let us see the cost of the carer’s ticket covered by the airline, because it should not cost a disabled person double to travel. Staff at airports and on planes must be better trained so that the whole journey—from car park, to check-in, to getting off the plane—can be painless and dignified. Wheelchairs should be kept safe during the flight, with as many as possible stored in the cabin rather than in the hold. If wheelchairs have to go in the hold and are damaged, there needs to be compensation that reflects the actual cost of the damage. There should be no more passing the buck; there should be a named person responsible for a disabled passenger for their whole journey. In the longer term, planes should be designed with disabled passengers in mind—for instance, with disabled toilets and enough space for all wheelchairs to be stored in the cabin. 

The CAA has a powerful role to play in making sure that the airline industry steps up and takes this seriously, so this Bill will place a legal requirement on airlines and airports to send reports about accessibility to the CAA, which can then name and shame the worst, not only giving disabled passengers more information when booking flights, but incentivising improvement in its own right. We have already seen how powerful this can be. Heathrow, for example, has made huge improvements since the CAA called out areas where it was letting passengers down. I would also urge the Government to consider how they can empower the CAA to enforce regulations.

But this is not just about regulating the airline industry; it is about equality for the 3 million disabled passengers who fly to and from the UK every year. This week, disability campaigners from around the world have travelled to London for the Global Disability Summit, but their journeys may well have been a nightmare. Disabled people should have the same opportunities and freedoms as able-bodied people. While most of the population have benefited from air travel becoming easier, cheaper and part of everyday life, the thought of getting on a plane fills many disabled people with dread. Let us end this discrimination and make flying fairer—that is the intention of this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Helen Whately, Heidi Allen, Dr Lisa Cameron, Alex Chalk, John Mc Nally, Alex Cunningham, Michael Fabricant, Kate Green, Lady Hermon, Jeremy Lefroy, Mrs Maria Miller and Dr Sarah Wollaston present the Bill.

Helen Whately accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November and to be printed (Bill 257).