Special assistance when flying: What are the rules and what can you expect?

‘In the interests of social inclusion, the persons concerned should receive this assistance without additional charge’ – EU principle

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 27 September 2023 16:59 BST
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<p>Whichever airport you are flying from in the UK or EU, you have the right to request special assitance free of charge</p>

Whichever airport you are flying from in the UK or EU, you have the right to request special assitance free of charge

A row has broken out between Ryanair and Bordeaux airport in southwest France after a passenger in a wheelchair was left behind at the gate when they should have been on a flight to Edinburgh.

Initially Ryanair blamed the airport for the mix-up. But the airport has now hit back saying that it is merely an infrastructure provider and that the airline was responsible.

Caught in the middle: the passenger. What does the law say about access to aviation and the care disabled travellers are entitled to expect – and how do you go about getting it? These are the key questions and answers.

Do disabled passengers have the right to fly – and to be looked after?

Yes, absolutely. Aviation confers freedom on travellers to explore the world, encounter other cultures and return with a wealth of life-enhancing experiences. Passengers with reduced mobility – or “PRMs”, in the jargon beloved by the aviation industry – are legally entitled to exercise the freedom to travel with dignity.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says: “We strongly believe that everyone should have access to air travel.”

The relevant legislation is known as Regulation 1107/2006 – a European Union law from 2006 that was transposed into UK legislation through the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007.

The EU legislation says: “Disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility, whether caused by disability, age or any other factor, should have opportunities for air travel comparable to those of other citizens.”

Such travellers, says the European law, “have the same right as all other citizens to free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination”.

The EU says: “This applies to air travel as to other areas of life.”

“Assistance to meet their particular needs should be provided at the airport as well as on board aircraft, by employing the necessary staff and equipment.

“In the interests of social inclusion, the persons concerned should receive this assistance without additional charge.”

Yet some disabled travellers feel they get a raw deal. Campaigners say that the growing number of people who need special assistance should be better recognised by the aviation community, and that improved accessibility is essential.

How is disability defined?

Under the rules that require the aviation industry to provide care, “disabled person” or “person with reduced mobility” means anyone whose mobility when using transport is reduced and whose situation needs appropriate attention and adaptation to their needs. These requirements may be due to:

  • any physical disability (sensory or locomotor, permanent or temporary)
  • intellectual disability or impairment
  • any other cause of disability
  • age

The CAA adds: “Special assistance is available to passengers who may need help to travel such as the elderly, those people with a physical disability, such as wheelchair users, and those who have difficulty with social interaction and communication, such as those with autism or dementia.”

How do I arrange special assistance?

Ideally you should request it at the time of booking your flight. When you book direct online, airlines generally offer a simple tick-box for requesting special assistance.

If you book through a human travel agent, they should provide the airline with the necessary details in good time.

The airline really needs to know at least 48 hours before the departure of your outbound flight, so that arrangements can be made. This notification is deemed to cover the inbound flight as well.

What do I have a right to expect from airport staff?

Assistance through every stage of the journey, including:

  • checking in baggage
  • going through security, passport control and customs
  • boarding and leaving the aircraft, “with the provision of lifts, wheelchairs or other assistance needed as appropriate”
  • proceeding from the aircraft door to the seat, and storing cabin baggage
  • reaching connecting gates when in transit
  • accessing the toilet facilities

What do I do when I get to the airport?

First, allow plenty of time: at least two hours is wise. There will normally be a clearly marked special assistance area close to the terminal door. You should register your arrival. At this stage you will be asked what sort of assistance you need – whether, for example, you are able to proceed through the airport in your own wheelchair, and whether you need to be lifted to the aircraft door (this is a particularly issue with budget airlines, that tend not to use airbridges for reasons of cost and efficiency).

You may then need to go to the airline check-in desk in order to get your wheelchair tagged (if you are using one) and/or check in baggage.

A member of special assistance staff, which is provided at the airport by a separate organisation, should then escort you through security – unless you have a companion who can do this. Normally you will be fast-tracked through. If you need to stay in a wheelchair you will be hand-searched discreetly.

Once “airside” (ie through security), you will need to register again at another special assistance – and may be left in a dedicated area. It is essential that staff are aware of your progress through the airport. If you are with a companion and have time to spare, you can go to a cafe, restaurant or duty-free shop.

Even though airlines often cite ridiculously early deadlines to be at the gate – typically 30 minutes before departure – it is essential to get there before the specified time. Notify the ground staff that you are there – they may ask whether you want to board ahead of other passengers or at the end. Or they may simply tell you what they want you to do.

Do staff have special training?

Yes. Any airport staff who provide “direct assistance to disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility” must have appropriate knowledge as well as disability-equality and disability-awareness training.

In addition, airport managers should “ensure that, upon recruitment, all new employees attend disability‐related training and that personnel receive refresher training courses when appropriate”.

Can I choose any seat on board the aircraft?

Not necessarily. Emergency exit rows, which offer extra legroom, are required to be filled by passengers who can operate the escape hatch if required. Airlines may deem such seats to be inappropriate for PRMs.

I need extra legroom. Can I be moved to business class because of my condition?

Only if you pay for a business class ticket. If, however, you are being medically transferred because of an accident, the travel insurer – if one is involved – may pay extra for the necessary space.

Am I entitled to a free seat for my companion/carer?

No.

Can airlines refuse to carry disabled passengers?

Only “for reasons which are justified on the grounds of safety and prescribed by law”. The standard exclusion is: “If the size of the aircraft or its doors makes the embarkation or carriage of that disabled person or person with reduced mobility physically impossible.”

Can I bring an assistance dog?

Yes. “Where use of a recognised assistance dog is required, this shall be accommodated,” the law says.

I was badly treated by the airport/airline. Can I claim?

Absurdly, while the law stipulates a payout of hundreds of pounds for all passengers whose flights are delayed by three hours or more, mishandling of special assistance does not qualify for compensation.

My wheelchair has been damaged. Can I claim?

Yes, but possibly not for the full amount. The law says: “Where wheelchairs or other mobility equipment or assistive devices are lost or damaged during handling at the airport or during transport on board aircraft, the passenger to whom the equipment belongs should be compensated.”

Unfortunately, this is simply under the standard Montreal Convention terms, which limits compensation to a total of around £1,150.

So what can I do if things go wrong?

Under the UK legislation, failure to deliver care as the law requires could be a criminal offence with the “managing body of an airport” fined for non-compliance.

In addition, travellers can seek recompense for damage caused through the civil courts.

Are the current rules sufficient?

Not according to Disability Rights UK. The charity has written to Rishi Sunak asking for the CAA to have powers to impose fines on airlines that:

  • damage wheelchairs or essential mobility devices
  • leave disabled passengers on flights for a prolonged period once the flight has landed
  • fail to provide adequate assistance despite prior knowledge of disabled passengers’ needs

The charity says: “The CAA’s current regime of oversight for accessible air travel is limited and ineffective.”

Campaigners say that aircraft should be redesigned to accommodate the needs of disabled passengers.

“Over the past year, the issue has been in the spotlight in the media with high-profile cases, such as those of Sophie Morgan, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Frank Gardner, where disabled passengers have had their mobility devices damaged, or been left stranded on an aircraft,” reads the letter.

“These publicised cases merely constitute the tip of the iceberg, and these issues are endemic within the aviation industry, with disabled passengers regularly suffering degrading substandard treatment at the hands of airlines or other actors.

“Such instances have a huge human impact on the dignity of disabled passengers and severely impact their confidence when travelling by air, meaning that many passengers with assistance needs will, in many cases, avoid travelling on airlines altogether.”

What about outside the UK?

Since British law is based on European Union legislation, travellers have the right to expect exactly the same treatment in France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Greece and the remaining 22 EU nations.

In the US: “The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability.”

In many other parts of the world, though, the CAA warns: “Assistance may require a fee or not be available at all.”

If you book a package holiday through a UK tour operator, you should be able to request assistance more easily.

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