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Airports: Disabled People

Volume 794: debated on Monday 3 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to encourage all United Kingdom airports to provide appropriate facilities for disabled people, particularly the provision of both self-propelled and non-self-propelled wheelchairs.

My Lords, regulations protect the rights of disabled people and all passengers with reduced mobility travelling by air. The regulations require that assistance to meet their particular needs should be provided at the airport, as well as on board aircraft, by employing the necessary staff and supplying equipment. Currently, the regulations do not specify the provision of particular equipment, but the aviation strategy Green Paper will consider how to improve the experience of disabled passengers throughout their journey.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that according to data from the Civil Aviation Authority’s own accessibility survey, out of 3 million requests for assistance made in UK airports last year, half a million people were unhappy with the assistance provided to them, and of those, one in 10 said that it was very poor? Examples include being left in a wheelchair, being left on an aeroplane, expensive wheelchairs being broken and, in my case, being left on an aeroplane for two hours because they refused to bring my chair to the plane door. In the light of this, can the Minister assure the House that the Government’s aviation strategy will contain more stringent ways to address this outrageous discrimination with more than just guidance and regulations that we know do not work? Will she also tell me how many disabled people were involved in developing the strategy?

My Lords, I assure the House that the aviation strategy Green Paper due to be published in the coming weeks will indeed address these issues. The noble Baroness is right that, in a recent CAA survey, one in 10 passengers who requested assistance were fairly or very dissatisfied with the service provided. That is obviously not good enough. The Green Paper will propose a passenger charter, which will clarify what can be expected from airlines, airports and airside services, including on wheelchair damage and waiting times, and will improve the standards of service for passengers with reduced mobility.

My Lords, why do the Government not focus on enforcing the regulations that the Minister referred to? Surely that is what they ought to be doing at the moment.

My Lords, it is important that we look carefully at the regulations. They include provisions, but, as I mentioned in my original Answer, some of them do not specify exactly what is needed. That is why we are looking to introduce a passenger charter, to more clearly set out what we think the standard should be. Through the strategy, we are also looking at strengthening the CAA’s range of enforcement powers to deal with instances where airlines or airports have not met their legal obligations. At the moment, we are not sure whether those are right, and so we are looking to strengthen those enforcement powers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for including me in the aviation round table earlier this year, where I had some hopes that both Heathrow Airport and some of the air companies were improving their practice. A fortnight ago, however, I travelled from Heathrow to Madrid and back. My experience included staff telling me that they could not lift my suitcase because they were not insured to lift suitcases on check in, and, despite a large orange label on my chair saying, “Bring to the plane at Madrid”, when I arrived I was told that I did not have a chair on the plane at all. I was then passed from pillar to post and was dumped in a corner facing a concrete wall by staff who were trying to sort out what was going on. I ended up in tears while they tried to find my wheelchair. If this were an unusual occurrence, it would be horrific, but it is not. What is even more horrific is that this happens every day to air passengers. Charters butter no parsnips: when will the regulations be enforced to stop air travel being a ghetto for disabled people?

My Lords, I am incredibly sorry to hear of the noble Baroness’s experience. She is absolutely right that these occurrences happen far too often, and that is what we need to change. Today is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and it is important that we as a country continue to work with international forums to promote greater accessibility to air travel for those with reduced mobility. One of the main reasons for some of these issues is the provision of information, particularly on inbound flights and when people travel internationally. That is absolutely something that we should get right, and we will work with our international partners to try to do so.

My Lords, it is clear that some passengers can travel only if they are in their own wheelchair, as they are able to do on buses and trains. Why can the aviation industry not catch up with the rest of the transport sector?

My Lords, we want to improve accessibility, not only at airports but in aircraft and we are working closely with industry to deliver changes in aircraft design. That will be for the slightly longer term. A number of issues are stopping people from travelling in their own chairs on planes—from ensuring that chairs can be tethered safely and safety issues around batteries to investigating flexibility in cabin seating to make it commercially viable for airlines. But I know that in order for some passengers to fly they of course need their own wheelchairs. I recently chaired a round table on that specific issue. We are working closely with the aviation industry, the CAA, wheelchair manufacturers and disability organisations to achieve the long-term goal of enabling wheelchair users to travel with their own airworthy wheelchair on a plane.

Is it not about time that the security rules were proportionate to the services? My stepson lost a leg some time ago and was forced to take off his prosthetic leg in Newquay airport in front of a lot of passengers and his family when he was flying on an international service to the Isles of Scilly. For goodness’ sake, surely there should be a rule to apply a little more common sense to such searches.

My Lords, as well as setting the right standards for service, we need to ensure that all staff are properly trained to address these issues. We are including a proposed measure for training programmes to improve disability awareness for all customer-facing staff, be that at the border or for ground handlers, but including security staff as well.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the Government are lacking in sincerity in their attitude towards transport and the disabled? Although they have said that it is their wish to get more disabled people into work, not only is it difficult on aeroplanes, it is difficult on trains and taxis where the Government have failed to insist that every local authority has cabs that are designated to carry disabled people—it is a matter of chance. I hope that the Minister will agree that the Government simply must make more of an effort to get disabled people and older people on the move.

My Lords, I absolutely agree that it is important to ensure that disabled people can access all modes of travel. In July this year, we published the Government’s inclusive transport strategy that sets out all our plans to make every mode of transport in the system more inclusive and better for disabled people. That includes the awareness and enforcement of passenger rights, staff training and improving information. I can reassure the noble Baroness that we are absolutely sincere in improving things. The department is working hard and I am personally committed to make flying by air better for disabled passengers.