Disabled TV presenter abandoned for 45 minutes on British Airways flight forced to slide headsets down aisles to get cabin crew’s attention

Exclusive: Sophie Morgan demands change after being left with no way of moving ‘short of dragging herself along the floor’

Helen Coffey
Wednesday 12 June 2019 14:46 BST
Sophie Morgan advocates for airlines to start offering concessions for people with disabilities to bring someone aboard with them

Television presenter Sophie Morgan is calling on airlines to offer concessions for disabled travellers after she was left without means of moving “short of dragging herself along the floor” on a British Airways flight.

Ms Morgan, who was paralysed in a car crash when she was 18 and uses a wheelchair, was left unassisted for 45 minutes during a 12-hour flight from Buenos Aires to London Heathrow with no means of contacting a flight attendant.

The Channel 4 Paralympics presenter said she called repeatedly for help on the 9 June service, to no avail. “Two to three hours into the flight, I rang the call button as I needed a glass of water to take some medication,” she told The Independent.

“No one responded, so after half an hour I was left with little option. I started sliding headsets down the aisle to get someone’s attention – all in the hopes the cabin crew might see them from behind the curtain.

“I started to get really frustrated and upset. Eventually a flight attendant wandered out and after 45 minutes the cabin manager finally came over and asked what was wrong.

“I was in distress and she told me to calm down; she told me it wasn’t their fault. I know they weren’t deliberately ignoring me, but the fact is they knew I was sitting in that seat, they knew I was solely dependent on them for help, and they were aware of my needs and still didn’t meet them.”

Ms Morgan, who was travelling alone, said that when she subsequently went to make a complaint to BA once she returned home, she found it very difficult to get hold of anyone to speak to.

“I’ve had enough,” she said. “I’m frustrated. Disabled people have to deal with this kind of situation all the time. They have to give up their independence when travelling and rely on cabin crew. It’s not a system that’s trustworthy or foolproof: it’s a lottery.

“The customer experience is always being reported back to airlines and they’re always saying they’ll change – but they don’t.”

Sophie says airlines have to focus on solutions (Sophie Morgan)

Now Ms Morgan, a campaigner for inclusion and disability rights, is calling for airlines to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to accessible travel – particularly British Airways, which is the official Paralympic carrier.

“They have a responsibility to get this right,” she said. “They should be pioneers.

“Money doesn’t solve everything, but giving concessions for carers or companions of disabled passengers would at the very least send a message from the airline saying, ‘We aren’t getting it right, but in the meantime this is what we’re offering you’.

“If you are someone with a disability and you’re frightened to fly because of the constant travel horror stories you hear, something like this might actually help.”

She stressed that this measure should not be used to let airlines off the hook from doing their job properly, nor should airlines be able to insist disabled passengers travel with a carer. Rather, it should be modelled on existing schemes, such as train companies offering discounted fares for those accompanying disabled travellers.

Ms Morgan said she is interested in working with airlines towards constructive solutions rather than continuing to focus on the problems: “I want less talking, more doing. We need to work together to get this right.”

She said A BA representative told her that offering concessions was a tricky commercial issue.

“That attitude can be damaging,” she said. “We’re seen as a burden rather than a business opportunity. But surely finding ways to help us travel, opening up that market and becoming the airline that everyone trusts, is a huge marketing opportunity?”

She added: “They need to keep offering solutions and thinking outside the box. And they need to be braver and more innovative, prepared to stick their head above the parapet and try something new.”

A BA spokesperson told The Independent: “We’re sorry to hear about this experience and we’re investigating what happened as a matter of urgency. We’ve apologised to the customer and we’re in direct contact to try and resolve the situation.

“We carry hundreds of thousands of customers with disabilities each year and we work hard to provide help and assistance throughout the whole journey, from the point of booking to the final arrival.”

Ms Morgan’s experience follows a claim by Frank Gardner, BBC’s security correspondent, that disabled air travellers are still not getting the help they need.

Mr Gardner has been using a wheelchair since he was shot six times in an al-Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia in 2004, and continues to work worldwide.

But speaking in a private capacity at the British-Irish Airports Expo in London this week, he said assistance provided by leading airports and airlines can fall far short of acceptable standards.

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