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Last Updated: Friday, 30 January, 2004, 10:57 GMT
Why is the Ryanair case important?
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Photo of Bob Ross
Bob Ross needs a wheelchair to get to the aircraft
As soon as the judge ruled in Bob Ross's favour, Ryanair announced that it would appeal.

The low-cost airline said a 50p surcharge on all tickets would be levied to cover the cost of providing wheelchairs at Standsted.

The appeal was to determine whether it was the airline's or the airport's responsibility to get Mr Ross from the check-in to the departure gate.

The original case was a first strike on the part of the Disability Rights Commission, the first time it had taken action against an airline. What are the wider implications?

The UK's anti-discrimination legislation is relatively new and until a body of cases exists, campaigners, customers and service providers will be unclear about the exact meaning of the law.

The Ross case tested a part of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act that deals with the provision of what are called "auxiliary aids and services" - in this instance, a wheelchair.

Ryanair said the airport should provide this.

For its part, Stansted Airport which is owned by BAA plc, maintained that the accepted practice was that airlines were responsible for assisting disabled passengers from the moment they check in.

And, BAA added, with minor exceptions, all other airlines do this.

Ryanair desk
People have to walk about half a mile to the aeroplane
So, taking the example of a passenger who needs to use a wheelchair from the airport car park all the way to the aircraft, the airport would pay a handling agent to provide a wheelchair and someone to push it as far as the check-in.

The passenger would use the same wheelchair and the same 'pusher' to get from check-in to the gate, but the handling agent would invoice the airline separately for this part of the journey.

This was the cost that Ryanair was passing on to disabled passengers.

It argues that no-frills airlines give no-frills service - the wheelchair being an extra, like newspapers or food and drink.

The slightly puzzling thing was that Ryanair would provide a 'pusher' free of charge if the passenger brought their own wheelchair.

It's now a major airline and there are some responsibilities that it has to take on
Duncan Bonfield, BAA Director of Corporate Communications

One analysis of the charge for the service shown to BBC News Online at the time of the original ruling, showed the labour cost to be 17.64 which left only 36p for the wheelchair.

"Ryanair should take full responsibility for their disabled passengers and should offer the same service that other airlines do," said Duncan Bonfield, BAA's Director of Corporate Communications.

"It's now a major airline and there are some responsibilities that it has to take on."

Ryanair has always been aggressive in cutting costs, according to Independent Travel Editor, Simon Calder. who has written a book on low-cost airlines.

"The underlying assumption seems to be that if you really need the use of a wheelchair, you'll bring your own."

But he says Ryanair's customer service is improving.

"They used to be totally Stalinist about cost. Now, with the appointment of a customer service director, they're acknowledging that there's more to customer loyalty than just providing cheap flights."

Ryanair was swift and robust in its response to the judge's ruling in January.

It described the original judgement as "defective", and was confident of having the decision overturned on appeal.

Ryanair maintained any charges for the use of a wheelchair were purely a matter between the person travelling and the airport.

"Ryanair flies from the UK to 88 destinations throughout Europe, and at 82 of these airports wheelchair service is provided entirely free of charge.

"Currently there are only four airports in the UK that charge for this service and Ryanair believes that they should be providing free wheelchair services for passengers making their own way through these airports."

For Bob Ross, and at least 30 other disabled travellers who have contacted the DRC, who provides or pays for the wheelchair is immaterial - they just want to enjoy low-cost flights along with everyone else.


SEE ALSO:
Ryanair loses disability ruling
30 Jan 04 |  London


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