Disabled travellers still face airline refusals, European Commission warns


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The Independent Online

Disabled air travellers are still facing "unjustified refusals" from airlines, the European Commission warned today.

Four years after EU laws made it illegal to discriminate against passengers on grounds of disability or "reduced mobility", the Commission published new guidelines to clarify their rights.

The move has been deliberately timed ahead of the anticipated arrival in London for the Olympic Games of thousands of disabled Paralympians and spectators.

It also comes less than a month after publicity about complaints by partially paralysed BBC journalist Frank Gardner that he was refused permission to board a Kenya Airways flight at Heathrow because of the size of his walking frame.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said today: "Dealing with disability in life is a tough enough challenge: things shouldn't get even tougher when you arrive at the airport."

The new guidelines cover travellers at all EU airports and the operations of EU carriers anywhere in the world. They also cover non-EU carriers within or leaving Europe.

The latest guidelines follow discussions with airlines and airports authorities, governments and consumer and disability groups and will "provide a real added value to the increased travel activity by disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility expected for the Paralympics", said a Commission statement.

The Commission said passengers have been facing "recurring problems with refusals and inconsistent requirements for medical certificates and for passengers to be accompanied."

The current rules do not require medical certificates for those in a "stable" condition, such as the blind or those in wheelchairs.

But the guidelines recommend that passengers advise airlines and airports of their disability at least 48 hours ahead to ensure any necessary help is available.

The guidelines clarify that if a disabled traveller is "self-reliant" they are under no obligation to be accompanied "except where there are specific safety requirements of which (they) should be advised".

The guidelines underline that disabled passengers are allowed to have two pieces of "mobility equipment" transported without charge - and users of electric wheelchairs are obliged to give airlines advanced warning.

Mr Kallas said: "My message to disabled passengers is: if you want an easier journey, tell them in advance that you are coming.

"And to the airlines and airport operators I would say, 'Disabled and reduced mobility passengers will usually need your assistance. These guidelines are there to help you, in helping them."'

The guidelines make clear that "if air carriers deny boarding to disabled persons or persons with reduced mobility this must be based on clearly justified safety reasons".

In Gardner's case, the wheelchair-using journalist said he was told on arrival for his flight in early May that his walking frame was "too wide" for the plane's aisle.

He explained afterwards that he was only allowed aboard the flight to Nairobi after his friends travelling with him "raised hell", adding: "I kind of expected to come across this sort of thing once I got to Africa, but I didn't expect it at Heathrow Terminal 4."

A Commission spokesman confirmed today that Kenya Airways, departing from an EU airport, would be covered by the EU requirement not to discriminate against disabled passengers.

Xavier Gonzalez, chief executive officer of the International Paralympic Committee, urged airports and airlines across Europe to "take note immediately" of the new guidelines:

"Our athletes regularly experience unnecessary problems travelling through airports and with airlines.

"This summer, 4,200 athletes will be travelling to London for the biggest ever Paralympic Games. The experience they have travelling on airlines and through airports could shape how they view the success of the Games, regardless of their athletic performance."