By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent
Disabled air passengers will be able to travel around the European Union more easily under new regulations adopted by the European Parliament.
Assistance must be "seamless"
The rules mean airports are solely responsible for assisting disabled people. Before, the responsibility was split between airlines and airports.
The assistance must be free and "seamless", from arriving at one airport to leaving another.
It will be illegal to refuse booking or boarding to a disabled person.
The organisation that represents disabled groups in Europe - the European Disability Forum (EDF) - says the new measures will make a dramatic contribution to ending the daily discrimination faced by its members in Europe.
The EDF has been campaigning to improve air travel for some time because the assistance offered to disabled people has been unreliable.
The responsibility has been divided between airports and the airlines themselves.
Some passengers have also been charged, for example, when needing to use a wheelchair.
The regulations adopted by the European Parliament today will have to be approved by the Council of Ministers before being implemented.
This is the first piece of disability-specific legislation adopted at European level.
According to the EDF, it will mean a significant change for millions of people who, it says, face humiliation, are denied boarding and are left without proper assistance as they try to exercise their right to travel freely.
The new rules are based on three main principles:
- Disabled people will not be charged directly for assistance - the cost will be shared among all passengers
- No passengers should be refused a booking or denied boarding because of their disability
- Assistance must be uninterrupted from getting to the departure airport to leaving the airport at a passenger's destination
EDF president, Yannis Vardakastanis, said adopting the new measures demonstrated Europe's political will to end discrimination.
But he said improvements in air travel were "only the first step".
"Discrimination towards disabled people does not only happen in the air sector," he said.
"We still need more, better and comprehensive legislation to make sure that disabled people have access to all goods and services."
The regulations have been "enthusiastically welcomed" by the Airports Council International (ACI) whose members handle 90% of commercial air traffic in Europe.
ACI Europe says the regulations will remove the long standing uncertainty that disabled passengers currently encounter.
The present system means discriminatory treatment by some carriers and disjointed services from others, according to the association.
"This rule will guarantee people with reduced mobility the same access to air travel as any other passenger," said Roy Griffins, director general of ACI Europe.
However, although the EDF is broadly supportive of the measures, it still has concerns about the maximum number of disabled people allowed on a flight.
The details have yet to be worked out, but they should remove anomalies which have resulted in people being asked to leave flights because there are too many disabled passengers on board.
Earlier this year, a group of nine blind and partially sighted passengers from East Anglia was asked to leave a Ryanair flight bound for Italy because the carrier said the number of disabled people had been exceeded.
The chairman of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), Bert Massie, said he was pleased that the measures were approved during the UK presidency of the EU.
"The UK government and the DRC have been pressing for such a European law," he said.
"Airlines will no longer be able to charge disabled people for assistance which will be provided free by the airport."
The proposed rules also specify that a disabled person must give a minimum of 48 hours' notice if they require assistance.
The EDF had wanted the minimum period to be 24 hours, but did not want to delay implementation of the new measures.
It says that even when no notice is given, airports must do their best to accommodate disabled travellers.