by Elizabeth Wright
Returning from Rome after a holiday, my plane taxied to its stand and I waited for all the more ambulatory passengers to disembark. I had wheelchair assistance booked – a much-needed service for someone who, like me, struggles to walk long distances – and the drill was that the disabled had to be last off.
Once the other passengers disappeared, I made my way to the front of the plane to wait for the wheelchairs, along with three other people requiring assistance. We waited, and waited, and waited. The flight attendants were waiting with us. The pilots appeared, ready to head home, and were told that wheelchair passengers were still on the plane, their smiles sliding into frowns. After a few more minutes the pilot apologised to us all and said he would call the terminal to see what the hold-up was.
It had been an hour since the last of the able-bodied passengers had left. Apparently there was a group of employees with wheelchairs at the neighbouring gate, who were waiting for a plane that was over half an hour late, and so could not come to get us. An hour and a half after landing we finally got our wheelchair assistance – even then, there were only two employees for the four of us. Fortunately two of the people requiring assistance had a companion who could push them.
I am not the first to complain. Earlier this year the Guardian reported that the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner experienced extreme delays with special assistance. The amount of times that I have almost missed my flight (at Dubai, special assistance got me to my gate on the final boarding call) or had to wait for assistance off the flight is not acceptable.
I do not blame the people that have to push us from A to B; the man pushing me at one airport said they were extremely understaffed. When there are people trying to help you, stressed and managing passengers as best they can (in some cases I have been pushed along while the employee was pulling another passenger, apparently a big no-no, but unavoidable due to the lack of staff), you can’t help but feel sorry for them – especially as they are the face of the company, often having to deal with the anger and frustration of both passengers and airline staff.
I feel the management of the companies providing the special assistance is to blame, and it reveals the lack of recognition for those who need special assistance, despite the fact that more and more people with disabilities and impairments are travelling – up 66% since 2010.
I was not surprised to see the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures – 62% of people who had used the special assistance service found it poor or very poor. That is not good enough. This service is supposed to level the playing field for those of us that struggle in some way, so when it fails it means that people with disabilities fall by the wayside; we are seen as not important enough to warrant any care or support.
How do we solve this issue? The airports mentioned in the CAA report are now committed to improving the service, which is a start, but the simplest solution to ending huge waiting times for special assistance is to employ more people to assist passengers with disabilities.
A spokesperson from OmniServe (the provider for Heathrow) stated that they were investing in staff training. The hope is that this means they are hiring and training more staff, which is the most immediate and necessary solution. Another option is to allow the airlines themselves to provide special assistance, a suggestion made by the pilot of the Rome flight I was on, and from experience was wonderfully carried out by Qantas when I flew to Australia last year. The status quo cannot be allowed to continue.
• Elizabeth Wright is an Australian Paralympic medallist and co-founder of schools programme Resilience Wellbeing Success