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Disabled BBC journalist abandoned on Iberia plane after landing at Gatwick

‘Just WHY are UK airports so consistently crap at getting disabled people off planes?’ rages BBC’s security correspondent

<p>BBC journalist and wheelchair user Frank Gardner (PA)</p>

BBC journalist and wheelchair user Frank Gardner (PA)

A disabled BBC journalist has slammed airline Iberia and UK airports after saying he was left “stuck on the plane at Gatwick” following a flight home.

Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, posted a photo of an abandoned plane cabin to Twitter, saying: “FFS not again! Just back from exhausting week covering NATO summit in Madrid and quelle surprise, I’m still stuck on the plane at Gatwick.

“Iberia crew are gone and a new crew has come onboard.

“Just WHY are UK airports so consistently crap at getting disabled people off planes?”

In a follow-up message, Mr Gardner clarified that his producer had stayed with him on the aircraft “but the crew cleared off”.

In a later post, Mr Gardner said that he had waited for 20 minutes - but added that ground handlers had been unaware he was waiting to be assisted.

“Off the plane now - only a 20 minute delay which is mild - but ground handlers said ‘nobody told us there was a disabled passenger onboard’. Airline, Iberia, insist they did. All in all, so tedious and boring!” wrote Mr Gardner.

When a follower asked about comparative experiences at other airports in different countries, an exasperated Mr Gardner replied: “It never happens abroad, only in UK”.

Fellow wheelchair user Jan Crispin replied: “True, that’s my experience too.”

Mr Gardner is a seasoned Middle East correspondent and author of books including Crisis, Ultimatum, Blood & Sand and Far Horizons. In 2004 he was shot six times by al-Qaeda operatives while on assignment in Saudi Arabia, and paralysed, while his cameraman was killed in the attack.

He told the BBC in a 2020 article that he can stand using callipers and a frame, but it is usually more efficient to use a wheelchair.

In May 2022, Mr Gardner tweeted about being stuck on a plane having landed at Heathrow.

“It’s happened again. Stuck on an empty plane at Heathrow airport long after everyone else is off - ‘no staff to get my wheelchair off the plane’. I am SO disappointed with @HeathrowAirport as disabled passengers are once again apparently the lowest priority,” he wrote at the time.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, passengers with a disability or reduced mobility “are legally entitled to support, commonly known as ‘Special Assistance’, when travelling by air”.

“This means airports and airlines must provide help and assistance, which is free of charge, and helps ensure you have a less stressful journey.”

Wheelchair users must usually notify their airline 48 hours before the flight that they require special assistance, which is often provided by dedicated staff from the airport’s own assistance team.

Mr Gardner did not say whether he had pre-booked special assistance at Gatwick in this case.

Gatwick’s Special Assistance (SA) policy says the airport aims to have all pre-booked SA customers arriving on flights into the airport met within 20 minutes. However, its online targets state that it aims to have assistance staff ready at the gate five minutes after arrival in 80 per cent of cases.

A Gatwick spokesperson said: “We apologise for the delay Mr Gardner experienced on this occasion. We have been working closely with our assistance provider, Wilson James, to establish the reasons for this.

“At this stage, it appears there was no special assistance booking from the airline for Mr Gardner. However, as soon as we were made aware, the team responded and Mr Gardner received assistance within 20 minutes.

“We strive to provide the best possible service to all passengers so will continue to look into this with Wilson James and the airline concerned. We apologise again for any delay Mr Gardner experienced returning from the NATO summit in Madrid.”

Iberia denied that Mr Gardner was left alone after passengers had disembarked. A spokesperson for the carrier said: “At every moment, the established procedure was followed so that, on arrival at his destination, he was provided with the assistance service for our customers with reduced mobility.

“During the boarding in Madrid (MAD), the request for assistance at Gatwick (LGW) was registered through the notification system established with the airport. In addition, the crew notified the request by radio during the approach to the airport, and the handling coordinator who attended the flight also requested the service by phone when disembarkation began, and upon seeing that the assistance had not arrived when the aircraft landed.

“While the service was arriving, the Iberia Express flight crew took care of Frank and another customer, who had notified the service in advance and was also waiting for assistance, as both were picked up at the same time.”

Last week wheelchair user Suzanne Croft spoke out about feeling “traumatised and humiliated” after special assistance was slow or non-existent at two separate UK airports, with her husband and airline staff having to “carry her off” her flight at Heathrow.

Ms Croft, who has muscular dystrophy, was flying from Newcastle International to London Heathrow on 9 June when the problems with getting airport assistance occurred.

On arrival, her husband and airline staff “had to place me in a folding aisle chair that had no seat belt. My husband held my legs in while a kind crew member of the next flight pushed me to the arrival lounge,” she told reporters.

“It’s not the waiting, I’m used to that. It’s the indignity and humiliation,” she added.

James Taylor, director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, said: “Frank Gardner is being regularly let down at UK airports, and he’s a seasoned journalist and traveller with a significant profile and platform.

“But this isn’t a new phenomenon, disabled people in this country were being frequently failed before current staff shortages. For a long time, we’ve been extremely concerned that airports, airlines, and train operators are not complying with the regulations.

“This has been going on too long. The impact is often degrading, stressful and anxiety-inducing and stops some disabled people from travelling altogether. It’s time that the regulations had teeth and are backed up by fines and penalties.”

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