Page last updated at 02:23 GMT, Saturday, 26 July 2008 03:23 UK

Open skies for disabled travellers

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Photo of the departures area of T5
Terminal 5 was the first to start the new service

From Saturday disabled people travelling by air will be able to expect consistent levels of support throughout the EU. Will the new arrangements mean an end to the problems they encounter when they try to take to the skies?

EU regulation No. 1107/2006 is a Europe-wide attempt to bring some order to the varying standards of service that disabled people encounter when travelling by air.

Until now, airlines have been responsible for providing assistance. Not surprisingly, some have performed better than others.

The new rules mean that it will now be the airport operators' duty to do so.

For busy hubs like London's Heathrow, it means that just two assistance companies will now divide the five terminals between them.

Heathrow's problems

Heathrow's newest terminal - T5 - adopted the new way of working from the outset.

"We didn't think it made sense to change the arrangements post the opening of T5, so we took the opportunity on the opening of the new terminal to begin with the new arrangements," explained Heathrow's director of logistics, Shaun Cowlam.

He says that in a four-week period, more than 37,000 passengers were assisted and there was negative feedback about 96 separate incidents, which represents less than 0.3% of the total.

But in the first few days of T5's fraught opening in March, the problems were not just confined to lengthy queues and lost luggage.

One BBC colleague, Stefan King, arrived on a delayed flight from Aberdeen.

Mr King - a wheelchair user - had requested assistance but nobody turned up to help him off the aircraft.

His father, travelling with him, had to drag him from his seat to his wheelchair.

Once at the terminal, a staff member eventually arrived, but the lifts were not working and he appeared to be unfamiliar with the layout of the building.

Eventually, they were directed to international arrivals where immigration staff were unhappy about the fact that neither of them had their passport.

"Fortunately my father had his driving licence because we had hired a car in Aberdeen," said Mr King.

Photo of an airport assistance sign
Assistance will now be provided by airports not airlines

"But when it came to me, I had to say I had no identification - they consulted each other... and fortunately they let me through."

The team at Heathrow has since made a public apology for the incident.

"I'd be disappointed if the same thing happened again," said Mr Cowlam.

Heathrow has been using the airport operator assistance in all five terminals since June 17 in order to pre-empt the change.

The new regulation applies to anyone with "limited mobility", as the EU jargon would have it.

Complaints and courts

This includes people with temporary conditions - a broken leg, for example - and also includes people with learning disabilities and sensory impairments.

People also have a right to assistance on board an aircraft and airlines will be obliged to carry up to two pieces of mobility equipment free of charge.

In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will take complaints from members of the public, offer conciliation and advise about taking a case to court.

It will also be able to refer cases to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which can prosecute with the possibility of unlimited fines for any guilty party.

"This new regulation will bring real improvements for disabled people and those with reduced mobility," said the EHRC's Baroness Jane Campbell.

"People who previously daren't risk flying for fear of problems can now confidently give it a try."

BAA is advising passengers to book assistance with their airline and not directly with airports.


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