Feature

By Richard Williams

Are travel companies doing enough to cater for passengers with special needs? Roger Williams investigates

Netflix thriller Bird Box, where the characters go around blindfolded to avoid a supernatural terror, created a social media storm with the ‘Bird Box challenge’ inspiring people to carry out daily activities blindfolded. And it has inadvertently made many people think about how difficult it is to travel with a disability.

At a time when society is demanding inclusive education, employment and leisure opportunities, it’s interesting to explore how well the travel industry is doing on this score.

Air Travel

it had some form of assistance available but, perversely, not all made it easy to find. Many give few details and require you to call instead, although some, including British Airways, provided lots of information on their websites.

This is the first indication of a disparity in the service levels offered by different airlines, as well as camouflaging extra costs that may apply.

British Airways welcomes 1,500-2,000 customers requiring additional assistance to Heathrow Terminal 5 every day and offers three levels of assistance depending on the degree of disability. Some passengers are required to travel with a carer, significantly increasing the cost of a trip.

Last year the airline launched a ‘Beyond Accessibility’ campaign – it’s biggest-ever staff training programme to support disabled travellers. The programme was developed in conjunction with specialist charity groups, including the National Autistic Society, and is said to have had a significant impact on customer satisfaction.

Using your own wheelchair (even just to the door) is mostly discouraged, as often only one can be stored on the plane on a first-come first-served basis. Unhelpfully, you have to contact staff at the boarding gate to do this, adding uncertainty and stress. Travelling with an assistance dog is mainly possible free of charge, but at least 14 days’ notice is required and it cannot be booked online.

Top marks

Feedback from travellers on specialist website ‘Disabled Travel Advice’ gives the highest ratings to Air Canada, Continental, EasyJet, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.

Key plus points include good all-round assistance, checking on passengers regularly, special seating arrangements onboard, welcoming service and psychiatric support animals, and additional assistance for the visually and hearing impaired. It describes Qantas as “possibly the best all-round disability service provider”, praising it for helping lift passengers in and out of seats and reduced costs for carers.

Virgin Atlantic is praised for offering a “thorough support service” for the visually and hearing impaired and those with mental disabilities travelling alone. The carrier helped develop, and then installed, Bluebox Aviation Services’ Bluebox aIFE system, which was created with input from Guide Dogs for the Blind. United Airlines also has an advanced IFE system on its Dreamliners, which offers the visually impaired a seat-back screen where users can adjust text size, turn on higher-contrast text, and invert screen colours, as well as access text-to-speech controls.

Flying failures

However, a number of high-profile incidents have highlighted poor service. A paraplegic athlete dragged himself through Luton Airport after his wheelchair was left on a flight; at Heathrow a man collapsed and was hospitalised after a booked wheelchair didn’t arrive; and the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner was stranded when staff lost his chair.

A recent survey by the UK Civil Aviation Authority revealed 57% of disabled passengers found flying unnecessarily difficult, with lost or damaged wheelchairs, struggles with access, and poor facilities onboard being the main issues.

Doing better

A charter to establish best practice has been proposed for airlines, removing limits on compensation for damaged wheelchairs and enforcing better training for crews and baggage handlers. It encourages the industry to seek ways to allow personal wheelchairs into cabins. 

Chris Wood, founder of pressure group Flying Disabled, said: “My aspiration is to have people flying in their own wheelchairs to a destination within two years. But for this to happen, the whole industry needs to change, and governments will have to improve the Montreal Convention – mostly unchanged since the 1990s.”

Rail accessibility

Unlike planes, every modern intercity train in Europe accommodates wheelchairs, and most new platforms and trains have level access. Customers can pre-book assistance and reserve dedicated seating at no additional cost. Wheelchair ramps are also widely available. All staff are trained on safe boarding and alighting procedures. Braille signage and push button access are featured on internal sliding doors, and there are audio instructions in toilets. Accessibility has been improving continuously over the last two decades, with new rolling stock having designated doorways, disabled toilets and securing systems. Virgin Trains has just added an Alexa booking option for its JourneyCare services, using voice commands.

Opening borders

Rail has helped open up international travel in Europe for many disabled passengers, especially between France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK, with Eurostar offering wheelchair spaces adjacent to a wheelchair-accessible toilet.

It also offers special fares for wheelchair users and one companion, who benefits from First comforts and services at discounted second-class fares. Similarly, SNCF, DB, RENFE, TrenItalia, SSB, and most of the Scandinavian and UK railways have intercity trains that allow wheelchair travel.

Train design

Operators have incorporated accessibility into trains. In the UK, GWR’s new Hitachi trains have adjustable tables with both wheelchair and normal seating layouts, so disabled customers are not separated from fellow travellers. Disabled travellers can also book normal seating and simply stow their wheelchairs, and smaller mobility scooters can be accommodated.

Tables include both fold-down and cut-out sections for flexibility. Full-size windows allow improved viewing, and screens display departure, arrival, safety and security announcements.
Open space between internal sliding doors and the first table is maximised, all grab rails are colour contrasted, and evacuation signage is also in graphic format to aid understanding. Toilets, meanwhile, have a full suite of accessible features.

Conclusion

While some airlines are clearly trying to improve, it seems most could do more to embrace the same mindset as rail and find new ways to improve accessibility for all. Interestingly, all UK rail operators have a Disabled Persons Protection Policy online, giving help and advice to those with special needs or mobility issues, including the elderly. A full explanation of services available on each train type is particularly helpful, and way beyond what is offered by any airline.