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Disabled flyers 'wait hours' for Heathrow help

10 August 2017 National News

Disabled passengers at Heathrow Airport are being forced to wait up to two hours for help disembarking planes, a report has found.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has labelled the UK’s busiest airport as “poor” for its disability services – with Manchester, East Midlands and Exeter airports receiving the same low rating.

The CAA’s Richard Moriarty told Sky News: “It is critical Heathrow raises its game in terms of the service it provides to disabled passengers.

“The good news is Heathrow recognises that, and Heathrow has put in place commitments and plans to do just that over the next year.”

More than a million passengers who need extra assistance pass through the west London hub every year, which is more than any other European airport.

But a survey of 1,200 disabled passengers at Heathrow found 62% rate it as “poor” or “very poor”.

Image: Heathrow has apologised to passengers and admitted it has ‘fallen short’

A spokesperson for the airport said they were “extremely disappointed” with the findings, admitting they “fall short” of the passenger experience they aim to provide.

“We apologise to those who have been affected and are taking action, including the amendment and re-tendering of our contract with new and higher standards of service to ensure passengers receive the service they rightly deserve,” they added.

The UK’s airports were graded based on a range of information – including how long passengers wait for assistance, how happy they are with the service, and how well the airport engages with disability organisations.

The report found six airports – Inverness, Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick, Humberside, Birmingham and Norwich – provide “very good” assistance.

Another 20 airports were described as “good” – and London Gatwick was among them, where passengers with hidden disabilities such as autism are given special lanyards so staff are aware they may need extra support.

The CAA said Manchester Airport had failed to consult with disability groups

Image: The CAA said Manchester Airport had failed to consult with disability groups

Sara Marchant, a manager at Gatwick, said the airport holds regular meetings with disability groups to identify what needs to be done.

Among the services is a family familiarisation day where children with autism can visit the airport before flying.

She said: “They can practise checking in, they can go for a ride in a buggy, they can practise going through security.

“All those things mean that when they come here to travel, children are more used to it, children understand what’s happening and they’ve got that bit of experience.”

Penny Wilkinson has two autistic children and says airports are often stressful and difficult.

“I would find it a lot easier if people were aware of their needs,” she said.

“I think sometimes to be with crowds – if it’s really busy or waiting a long time – they sometimes might have a little bit of a meltdown.

“So I feel a lot calmer in myself if staff are aware that they’ve got needs.”

Penny Wilkinson

Image: Penny Wilkinson has two autistic children and says airports are often stressful

Disability charities broadly welcomed the findings of the report but added it’s vital airports take action to improve.

Selina Mills, from Leonard Cheshire Disability, said: “You don’t have to be specialist care trained to treat someone as an individual and to think about what they need.

“Everyone has difficulties in airports, they’re complicated places but I think you just need to make sure your staff know what they’re doing.”

The CAA said it would continue to monitor standards.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: “It is encouraging to see the overwhelming majority of UK airports providing a good service for passengers with a disability, but I am determined to push the aviation industry to do more.”

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